ESF Research

Impacts of Separation in the Emergency Services

Are you separated or divorced, or thinking about separating, and work in the emergency services?

61% of people report their separation impacts their ability to concentrate and make decisions at work.  However, how separation and divorce specifically affects volunteers and paid staff in the emergency service sector remains unknown.  The Emergency Services Foundation wants to understand this, and how people dealing with the stress of such a life transition can be better supported. We are working with The Separation Guide to conduct an anonymous survey over the coming weeks. If you work in the Victorian emergency services, and are separated or divorced, please consider sharing your thoughts.

The findings of this survey will be made public at the Emergency Management Conference in July 2024, and will inform ESFs Family Matters Strategy.

Survey closes 15 May.

Residential Wellbeing Pilot Program Research

Right Management was engaged by The Emergency Services Foundation (ESF) to co-design a qualitative study exploring the perspectives of emergency services workers and volunteers to inform the design of a Residential Wellbeing (RWP) pilot. The interview outline was co-designed by Right Management and ESF, with input from Dr Shannon Hood a clinician employed by ESF who has a strong interest in the RWP.

ESF sourced study participants through their network. Participant recruitment coincided with Tony’s Trek, a solo 1500 km walk by the ESF Chair to raise awareness about the toll emergency service work can take on employees and volunteers and to raise funds for the RWP pilot. Many participants were referred from events and conversations associated with Tony’s Trek. Thirty-eight interviews were conducted via phone and video conference in April and May 2023. They were provided an overview of the proposed RWP in advance of their interview.

The findings of this study will help to inform the RWP program design.

Support for the family of volunteers

Family members and partners play a vital role in supporting volunteers to be mentally fit in the 100,000 strong Victorian emergency services volunteer workforce. The Emergency Services Foundation (ESF) engaged Right Management to conduct a study to better understand the support needs of family members of emergency services volunteers. The findings of this qualitative work will be translated to inform the development of a suite of initiatives to support the families of emergency service volunteers.

Leading for Better Mental Health

With support from WorkSafe WorkWell between September 2019-September 2020, ESF gathered and generated evidence to co-design a pilot program that would develop leaders who were confident and capable of promoting psychologically safe workplaces. Some activities in this respect were:

ESF Leadership Scan and Gap Analysis – scan of agency leadership development activities compared with best practice evidence

Evidence matrix in support of ESF’s Leading for Better Health program – Summary of data that demonstrated how the pilot is aligned with recommendations, learnings and other data from reports, reviews, research, previous leadership development programs and capability frameworks.

Coffee Conversations – Learning Network members discussed expectations, understandings, barriers and aspirations of team leaders in their agencies.

Well Beyond - Transitions to Retirement

A study of over 21,000 police and emergency responders, undertaken by Beyond Blue (2018) found that 85% of retirees had experienced a distressing work-related event that had deeply affected them and 23% were identified as having probable PTSD, compared to an estimated 4.4% in adults in Australia. Despite their lower resilience, there was very little in the way of support found to be available at this point in the career.

With support from WorkSafe WorkWell between June 2021 and August 2022, the ESF Learning Network have designed, developed and implemented Well Beyond

This program of work was informed by the following five studies (the first three were supported by WorkSafe WorkWell) which shed light on the issues and needs of retired and retiring emergency service workers:

i. The practices and principles of peer coaching

Dr Eva Kyndt from Swinburne University of Technology conducted a literature review to identify scientific insights into the design and delivery of a peer coaching training program. It reviewed national and international research to investigate the characteristics of effective peer coaches; training principles associated with effectiveness; the learning needs of peer coaches; coaching techniques linked to coachees flourishing and what boundary conditions are needed for peer coaching program success and sustainability. This study was one task in Swinburne’s remit to help ESF co-design and evaluate a training program to train prospective and recent retirees as peer coaches.

Their final report can be accessed here

ii. Retiree experience: a qualitative study (2021)

A qualitative study to better understand the challenges people face when they retire from a career in the emergency services was conducted by Right Management. Based on their experience as the contracted Commonwealth Provider for transition support for the ADF, they undertook 30 semi-structured interviews in September and October 2021 emergency responders who have retired in the last two years to learn of the challenges they faced in their retirement journey.

Their final report can be accessed here

A webinar of their findings can be accessed here

iii. Literature review: Leaving service and retiring well

Dr Sarah Hewat (Learning Network project manager) conducted desk research on mental health and wellbeing challenges and programming solutions for retiring and retired emergency responders. This report provided key findings and insights about issues and challenges of retirement for emergency responders from Australian and international literature. It also provided a scan of best practices resources and programs for retirement and transitions and analysed the elements of best practice retirement and transition support.

This literature review can be accessed here:

iv. Volunteer retirement experience (2020)

A study undertaken for the ESF by students from Worcester Polytech Institute (WPI) explored how emergency service volunteers could be better supported as they transition to retirement. The students spoke with agency managers, experts, and older volunteers from across the sector and concluded that there is much room for improvement in how emergency service volunteers are supported in their transition to retirement. Five recommendations were made.

The final report can be accessed here

v. Retirement in the Victorian Emergency Services Sector (2019)

Four students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts (USA) assessed the current landscape of retirement support, identified the needs and concerns of retirees based on interviews with personnel from ten emergency management organisations, and formulated recommendations for a holistic transition to retirement program for Victorian emergency service workers.

The final report can be accessed here

Stigma and Helpseeking

In 2021, ESF contracted Phoenix Australia to develop an evidence-based understanding of stigma and its relationship to barriers or enablers to help-seeking for mental health with funds donated by the Melbourne Firefighters Stair Climb event.

Literature reveals that emergency services people who experience sub-clinical mental health concerns (e.g., anger, sleep, relationship difficulties) can be at increased risk of developing mental disorders if they do not recognise their symptoms, seek help early and get the help they need. Stigma including anticipated public stigma, self-stigma and service or agency concerns, are known to be barriers to help seeking, and there is a strong preference for wanting to self-manage mental health issues.

What we didn’t have was a deeper understanding of how we could better encourage early help seeking.

The project began in a Stigma Think Tank in 2020, which was facilitated by ESF and Phoenix Australia and included contributions from agency representatives across the sector, insurers, WorkSafe and Beyond Blue. The outcomes of the Think Tank informed the development of the scope, focus and methods of the study, which were further refined in a co-design workshop.

The study investigated:

  • what people identify as their experience of the earliest signs, symptoms or changes in their mental health and wellbeing
  • what kinds of workplace factors and interventions they would find most helpful
  • delivered through what forms or modalities, and with what kinds of communications messaging.

A qualitative methodology relying on long-form, semi-structured interviews was selected to generate deep insights into the experience and meanings of mental health stigma and barrier to help-seeking. Conversations were structured around our key areas of interest, while also allowing for open dialogue from respondents regarding their own experiences, and the meanings, attitudes and motivations underpinning these.

After attaining Melbourne University ethics clearance,  emergency management workers and volunteers from a cross-section of Victorian agencies and organisations were interviewed.  The interviewees were from operational and corporate roles, and including members who were transitioning to retirement. This allowed for a broad range of perspectives and experiences to be captured.

The findings of the study and recommendations to promote personal help seeking are presented in this report.

The report has been presented to ESFs Stakeholder Council and Learning Network and will be used to inform work across the sector to drive improved early intervention and help seeking. It has been immediately applied to ESFs Leading for Better Mental Health and Mental health Matters programs