Take the pressure down – reduce workplace stress

by 04 Aug 2009

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 Ambulance Service.

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 the state.

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.

Measurable benefits

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 previous year.

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.