NSW Ambulance obviously has a lot of expertise in first aid, but it knew it needed to embrace more long-term treatment when it came to dealing with internal issues of conflict, bullying and harassment, which had troubled it for more than a decade.
HRM online talks to NSW Ambulance equity and development advisor Marlene Booth about how it needed a cultural shift. How it has gone about achieving that challenging task has set an example other organisations are interested in following.
The strategy NSW Ambulance adopted contributed to a 72 per cent reduction in workers’ compensation costs for psychological claims over the five-year period to 2012. That equated to a saving of $17 million.
In 2008, when a parliamentary inquiry into NSW Ambulance made recommendations relating to the health and wellbeing of its workforce, they were consistent with work already under way to rectify the organisation’s issues.
“Our health and wellbeing program started off as a needs-based, bespoke, CEO-led program that fitted well with our business model,” says Booth. “We looked at workers’ compensation claims, grievances and enhancing management skills, and held a staff forum about workplace culture, conflict and bullying.”
On the back of national workplace anti-bullying laws introduced into the Fair Work Act in January, industry peers are keen to know more about the program, including Fire and Rescue NSW.
“The reaction to what we’ve done is amazement,” says Booth, who can also point to NSW Ambulance winning the 2013 AHRI Martin Seligman Award, for outstanding initiatives and strategies promoting employees’ health and wellbeing, as evidence of the claim.
Openness was encouraged when the organisation held an anti-bullying forum in 2008. Staff were invited to suggest changes to policies, procedures and training, which could help reduce their occupational health risk.
It’s an issue that is very real for the organisation, given that 90 per cent of its employees are operational staff involved in frontline emergency care.
“The forum recognised that conflict will always happen, but our skills in handling it needed to be polished,” says Booth.
A forum case study was presented to promote self-awareness and responsibility. Three staff members acted out the handling of a conflict situation, at first inappropriately, then appropriately. This teaching technique ‘clicked’ because NSW Ambulance staff are practical by nature and clinical care is protocol-driven, says Booth. The skit touched on generational conflict, conflict with a senior manager, conflict in the interpretation of protocol, and conflict relating to workplace gossip.
After the main conflict areas expressed at the forum were prioritised for resolution, NSW Ambulance engaged an external company to independently review its program. It then hired another consultancy to give every staff member four hours of respectful workplace training, using the straight talk model of resolution.
Orchestrating sessions proved more than a little tricky, given the priority to maintain services to the community. “We led from the top down and our managers worked out how to take people off the road to do the training all over the state,” says Booth.
Normalising the use of confidential trauma support counselling by employees and their families was crucial to the success of the wellbeing program. It was facilitated by face-to-face training, morning teas, picnics and barbecues with NSW Ambulance peer support officers and chaplains, as well as a pocket-sized card with support services contact details.
Offering a range of support options has also helped take-up rates. NSW Ambulance now has 140 peer support officers (almost double the number in 2008), 30 chaplains and 15 grievance contact officers.
Peer support self-referral to professional counseling (up 33 per cent in 2011) and manager referral (up 22 per cent in 2011) are both continuing to increase, indicating that staff are more willing to take action when stress and anxiety rises.
Along with counselling, staff also have access to an in-house health coach to help them improve their fitness levels or lifestyle habits.
In order to preserve program momentum, NSW Ambulance has an R U OK? Day planning committee, and an ongoing campaign to remind staff of the internal wellbeing resources that are on tap to help them navigate their roles when stress levels rise.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the November 2014 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Responding to conflict’s call’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.