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Helping the helpers: what we can do to better support our frontline staff

Edition: 6

Mental health has been a focus for HR professionals this year, as the pandemic impacts all of us in various ways.

But the challenges of some roles have proven to be more taxing than others, placing some people at greater risk of mental health struggles. Whether it’s a law enforcement officer, a health care worker, or a call centre operator, there is evidence to suggest those exposed to traumatic or tragic circumstances are at greater risk of developing mental health issues.

A report produced by research charity Australia21 has found that those experiencing the greatest impacts to their mental health may also be the ones who are least prepared to manage it. This can be for various reasons – from not recognising the severity of their experiences, to not feeling the psychological safety required to seek help.

With the emergence of COVID-19, even more of our workforce are being exposed to high-stress situations. So how can we learn from areas that are more familiar with these challenges, and apply some of the techniques they use to protect the mental health of staff?

When helping hurts, the report from Australia21, takes a comprehensive look at what workplaces and HR professionals can do to help protect frontline workers. We have picked out a few of the more salient points here, and included the expert opinion of Carfi psychologist Mark Belanti who specialises in providing psychological support and training in workplaces.

  1. Improve mental health literacy

To tell your story, you need the language to express it. But research shows that many operational workers don’t have the capability to identify that they need support. Without the language and knowledge of symptoms, as well as an understanding of how their role may be affecting their wellbeing, they may be unable to seek the help they need.

Mark emphasises that mental wellbeing is more complex than just being ‘healthy’ or ‘well’. ‘I encourage people to see mental health as a continuum, with “thriving” down one end through to “ill or injured” at the other. Getting people to think about where they are on the continuum at any point in time can be an effective way of building their awareness of their mental health. Are they coping with life’s ups and downs, for example, do they have healthy relationships, or are they becoming socially withdrawn? Being able to identify a problem is the first step in learning to manage it.’

  1. Create a culture that normalises discussion about mental health

Once staff have the knowledge to identify their own mental health struggles, they need an environment where they’re comfortable to raise it. This means making discussion about mental health a normal part of the workplace culture, and making sure managers know what they need to do to identify and support staff that need help.

An element of that culture involves an understanding that mental health may be impacted by certain demands and constraints in our work, and it’s not about eliminating the risk but managing and mitigating it. Mental health impacts also need to be seen as a normal response to stressors at work, and not something shameful or embarrassing.

Introspection and debriefing are also important tools to be deployed for staff exposed to challenging situations. ‘It can be hard to do these things on your own, so providing a forum for teams to do it together can be helpful,’ Mark says. ‘Helping the team to work through questions like how they are feeling, how they are coping with challenges, and even discussing what they are anticipating, can all be powerful ways to help staff set boundaries and help to foster a supportive work environment.’

  1. Make it a mantra: it’s okay to seek help

The research showed that there is a reluctance among operational staff to seek help for mental health issues due to fear of being labelled difficult by management. Workplaces need to actively discourage this perception and create an atmosphere of psychological safety. Getting leaders and influential staff members to share their own personal experience of seeking help can be a powerful acknowledgement that this behaviour is not only acceptable, but applauded. ‘Leaders need to model the behaviour they want to see in their staff. It’s not enough to just tell people to do something – they need to walk the talk too,’ Mark said.

  1. Create positive meaning in work

When staff understand the benefit of their role for the greater community it can help raise their sense of purpose and perspective. For people working as police and paramedics this can be relatively straight-forward. For others on the frontline though, like call centre operators, this may not seem so obvious. Mark explained, ‘Supporting managers and others to explore and identify the meaning and value of their work can have a powerful impact on the wellbeing of staff. It’s important for people to recognise they are making a difference; receiving recognition for the work they do can have a positive impact and help create positive meaning in their work.’

In a year that has changed us all in a myriad of ways, helping those that help others is an important area of work for the HR profession. These people play vital roles and are relied on more than ever by so many in the community. Supporting them so they can continue to support others remains of vital importance going forward.

You can also check out the new Safe Work Australia information on how to prevent psychological injuries at work during COVID-19.

Last reviewed: 
17 November 2020