WorkWell Learning Network

The Emergency Services Foundation has received a WorkSafe WorkWell grant to support agencies improve mental health and wellbeing by chairing a WorkWell Learning Network (WWLN) for the emergency services sector.

The WWLN brings organisations and experts together to share ideas and knowledge to collaboratively design and implement workplace initiatives that create long term, sustainable and organisational-wide change for safe and mentally healthy work environments.

By using an integrated approach to tackle the work-related factors for mental health, the purpose of the WWLN is to:

Improve Mental Health and Wellbeing

Victoria’s first responders – police officers, paramedics, firefighters, SES and life savers – respond to around 7000 calls every day made to 000. Our 100,000 emergency service men and women must see and do things that are often hard to cope with emotionally – situations such as road trauma, bush and house fires, workplace accidents and suicides.

This work can take a toll and the Beyond Blue (2019) Answering the Call research reveals “a workforce that is deeply impacted, both by the nature of the work they do and the pressures of the environments in which they work”. Compared to the general adult population in Australia, this research found that first responders have higher rates of psychological distress, suicidal thinking, and diagnosis of mental health conditions (p. 10, 17).

“These results compel action. They require a dedicated and collective effort to ensure that  we strengthen our approach to protecting those who protect us – to make a real difference in people’s lives.’’ (Beyond Blue 2019, p.). The Emergency Services Foundation’s WWLN works to connect agencies  to share knowledge and apply best practice evidence to ensure our people and our workplaces are mentally healthy.

WorkWell Learning Network (WWLN)

Our WWLN is a coalition of agencies, subject matter experts and other stakeholders that meet to share ideas about promoting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. The underlying principle of the WWLN is that a collaborative approach will enable agencies to be stronger, and more consistent and creative in their response to the mental health needs of volunteers and staff.

In addition to knowledge sharing and translation, ESF’s WWLN aims to co-design and pilot a prevention-focused initiative to lift leadership for the mental health and wellbeing of frontline workers.

By working together, we can build the evidence-base, and drive consistent and sustainable improvements for sector-wide benefit in mental health and wellbeing.

Siusan MacKenzie (CEO of ESF) is the Chair of the WWLN and Sarah Hewat is the project manager.


Integrated approach

ESF will use the ‘integrated model’ in their approach to improving mental health outcomes for frontline workers. Developed by Anthony LaMontagne (2014) and colleagues this model is used by Worksafe Victoria and other industry stakeholders to frame its policy and practice to promote the positive aspects of work and positive mental health.

The integrated model encompasses three main areas of activity:

  • protecting mental health by reducing work-related and other risk factors for mental health problems
  • promoting mental health by developing the positive aspects of work as well as worker strengths and positive capacities
  • responding to mental health problems as they manifest at work regardless of cause (work-related or otherwise).

This three-pronged approach represents an effort to distill complex requirements (for a complex need) so that workplaces can begin from varying starting points and develop, over time, mature multi-component workplace mental health programs.

Ref: LaMontagne, Anthony D., Martin, A., Kathryn M. Page, N., Reavley, A., Noblet, J., Milner, A., Keegel, T., Smith, P. 2014, ‘Workplace mental health: developing an integrated intervention approach’, BMC Psychiatry, vol. 14, no. 1, 131.


Work-Related factors

Work-related factors are anything in the management or design of work that increases the risk of work-related stress, which can lead to physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time.

Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of work-related factors. Some of these may always be present, while others occur occasionally.

Common work-related factors are:

  • low job control
  • high and low job demands
  • poor support
  • poor organisational change management
  • poor organisational justice
  • low recognition and reward
  • low role clarity
  • poor workplace relationships
  • poor environmental conditions, such as:
    • hazardous manual tasks
    • poor air quality
    • high noise levels
    • extreme temperatures
    • working near unsafe machinery
    • remote and isolated work
    • violent or traumatic events

In the context of the emergency services sector, they are significant because repeated exposure to violence and traumatic events was only one of several factors linked to mental illness and injury. As with the working population in general, workplace design and environments also have a strong influence on sickness and injury, stress, burnout and general quality of life (Beyond Blue 2019).  

WorkSafe WorkWell grant

Learning Networks are a WorkSafe initiative with the purpose of bringing together groups of employers to build their capacity to create mentally healthy workplaces. In January 2020 The Emergency Services Foundation was appointed the WorkWell Learning Network Chair for Victoria’s emergency services sector.

The aim of funding is to tacklework-related factors and is contingent on initiatives that are:

  • Prevention-focused
  • Collaborative
  • Outcomes-driven
  • Sustainable
  • Create and disseminate knowledge
  • Use an integrated approach to create organisational-level change.

Co-designing interventions

Learning Network meetings discuss barriers and enablers to positive leadership in the sector with an eye to identifying how to lift leadership to improve the mental health and wellbeing of frontline workers at different stages of their career. By sharing experiences, knowledge and evidence the Learning Network aims to collaboratively co-design and pilot initiatives to build cross-agency consistency and provide sector-wide benefit.

At the first meeting the Network determined a necessary first step was a gap analysis of agency activity and best practice in leadership.

In the second meeting, discussions led to the decision to take a closer look at the challenges of leading in two dramatically different work settings: the control and command environment in emergencies, and the general day to day of business as usual.

Knowledge Sharing and Translation

The WWLN shares and translates knowledge through:

  • Network Meetings
  • Mental Health and Wellbeing for Emergency Services Conference 2021
  • Literature Digest – a monthly digest that summarises information and research to build the evidence-base for improving mental health and wellbeing in Victoria’s emergency services.
  • Knowledge Hub – provides information about programs, products, practices, and policies that currently exist to improve mental health and wellbeing in the emergency service sector.

Bringing together organisations

Through ESF’s WWLN, workplaces and experts come together to share ideas and knowledge, and to provide advice and support to implement workplace initiatives that create safe and mentally healthy environments for frontline workers in the Victorian emergency service sector.The ESF WorkWell Learning Network brings together the following organisations:

          • Country Fire Authority (CFA)
          • Melbourne Fire Brigades (MFB)
          • Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA)
          • Red Cross
          • Ambulance Victoria (AV)
          • Life Saving Victoria (LSV)
          • State Emergency Service (SES)
          • Victoria Police (VicPol)
          • The Department of the Environment, Water, Land and Planning (DEWLP)
          • Emergency Management Victoria (EMV)
          • The Inspector General of Emergency Management (IGEM)
          • Subject matter experts from Beyond Blue and Phoenix.