Stress in the workplace is a problem for a significant number of organisations. Craig Donaldson looks at the unique case of the South Australian Ambulance Service and how it goes about managing and reducing stress among its workforce
The South Australian Ambulance Service provides emergency, non-emergency, rescue and retrieval services
across an area of almost 1 million square kilometres.
With more than 2600 career and volunteer staff, it responds
to in excess of 200,000 incidents a year.
Ambulance officers are often placed in difficult, traumatic and stressful situations. To help mitigate stress and
psychological trauma that can come about on the job, the
ambulance service has a peer support program in place.
The program consists of 48 internal peer support officers as well as five external psychologists to provide
confidential psychological assistance and support to
career and volunteer staff, according to Cliff Pinkard, manager of staff wellness and assistance for the SA
All peer support officers volunteer their time to look
after the psychological wellbeing other staff, and the ambulance service has also retained one of the psychologists in
the role of co-ordinator psychological services.
Peer support in practice
“The peer support program provides a structured sys
tem to assist staff in dealing with traumatic and stress
ful events both in the workplace and at home,” Pinkard
says. Staff are either self-referred or peer-referred for
support to deal with stress and psychological issues rang
ing from critical incidents, loss and grief, other work-
related issues, drug and alcohol issues, financial or
familial issues. The peer support program is also extended
to immediate family members.
As part of the program, Pinkard says psychological
debriefs are also provided in response to traumatic inci
dents, utilising one or more of the five clinical psychologists
with the help of peer support officers.
To help officers and other staff prepare for stressful sit
uations, the ambulance service provides pre-incident edu
cation, or “psychological immunisation”, Pinkard says.
This is done via dedicated “manage personal stressors in
the work environment” sessions, and over the past 12
months 26 have been conducted in various locations across
In addition to the above, the ambulance service runs
professional development programs which assist in the
management of stress, including people skills and conflict
resolution, and Pinkard says these programs are available
to both operational and corporate staff.
Last year, a concerted effort was made to increase the
amount and accuracy of reporting by the ambulance ser
vice’s peer support officers, and a new reporting tool was
introduced to assist with this process. This led to the num
ber of contacts reported increasing to 1659 (or 138 con
tacts reported per month) – 878 more contacts than were
reported in the previous year.
Of these cases, 67 per cent of staff members were con
tacted as a result of attending psychologically traumatic
ambulance incidents. The remaining 33 per cent were either
self-referred or peer-referred to the program.
Pinkard says this early intervention contributed to the
low incidence of WorkCover stress claims, with only one
claim reported in 2007–08, down from five claims in the
The SA Ambulance Service’s position as a leader in the
field of psychological support for its staff has also been
reinforced, with a number of interstate ambulance serv
ices and local health services approaching it for advice on
the establishment of their own programs.
An evolving model
Pinkard says the peer support model has been modified
extensively since it was developed in 1991, and the current
established model designates specific responsibilities for
peer support officers and the external personnel provid
ing psychological services.
Ongoing training and development is also provided to
peer support officers to ensure they are fully equipped to
provide specialised support, or “psychological first aid”,
to staff in need, Pinkard says. “Peer support officers are
trained in conducting demobilisations, defusing, debrief
ings and one-on-one interventions (critical incident stress
management), in addition to recognising troubled employ
ees and, where appropriate, motivating these individuals
to take necessary action with either South Australian
Ambulance Service psychologists or community
resources,” he says.