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The AFP is taking the pulse of its workplace health and a range of new programs are happening

Promoting a healthy AFP

The AFP is taking the pulse of its workplace health and a range of new programs are happening.

By Catherine Bennett

Workplace health is important in any organisation – but the AFP’s unique day-to-day role provides unique challenges.

AFP Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders says the intensity, demand and risk of law enforcement has its own challenges for holistic health of the organisation and members.

“There are lots of different components of health – physical, mental, community and organisational – and it is really those factors that we focus on through each of the major health projects we work on,” Katrina says.

Katrina’s team of clinical directors – Patricia Bowden, Belinda Colbert and Sarah Houston – manage a number of projects across the AFP to support the lives and health of the more than 6500 AFP officers across the globe. Katrina says agencies around the world are facing similar challenges.

“What I think is unique is the culture within the AFP, because the nature of the work is so different across so many areas,” Katrina says.

“You need to have something that fits for ACT Policing but that may not fit for the professional cohort in the national headquarters.

“Similarly, that may not fit in Melbourne Office, or in remote areas such as Exmouth, or overseas in the Pacific or Europe. It is really challenging to find a model that will be sustainable for many years to come and that is unique to the AFP.”

AFP Americas Commander Grant Edwards recently hosted a mental health symposium ‘At what cost? The burden of wearing the badge’.

The symposium included law enforcement officials, health experts and academics from the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to discuss health support and engage with each other about the issues being faced across the world.

Katrina says the symposium provided an opportunity to speak honestly about the issues being faced and a chance to speak with other law enforcement agencies about their programs or thoughts for the future.

“Certainly, when I speak to my counterparts in other agencies, we all agree that we are facing the same issues.

Katrina says she took away some key observations, including work by a Canadian group about reintegration of injured individuals (physical and mental injuries) much earlier than traditionally thought.

“Injury management is my true medical passion,” Katrina says. “I really want to enhance our return-to-work programs for both mental and physical injuries.”

Welfare Officer Network

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin launches the AFP Welfare Officer Network

The AFP team shared its own projects with international colleagues, including the recently established Welfare Officer Network (WON) initiative. This initiative has been well-received by peers who were eager to see if it could be implemented within their own agencies.

The network was announced in May 2017 and launched in late August. The initiative will roll out through a network of peers across all states and territories to provide front line, one-stop-shop support for all workers.

AFP members have embraced the initiative with more than 150 applications to join the network when it was advertised internally.

A three-day course was developed specifically for the AFP by an independent company specialising in organisation health. The training was delivered in May this year at AFP headquarters for 42 successful AFP candidates recruited to the network.

The course provided members with the understanding, skills and strategies to assist colleagues who may be affected by stress, work or personal pressures.

WON Clinical Director Sarah Houston provided professional guidance during training and will provide ongoing support to the network. She said the feedback from course participants established that the training was at the right level for the work the network will undertake.

“We are very fortunate, as we have a broad range of experience in this group and we will be able to provide welfare officer coverage to all AFP offices interstate and internationally, which is fantastic,” Sarah says.

AFP members in training for the AFP’s new Welfare Officer Network initiative

Both Katrina and Sarah have worked hard to establish a system that will not be limited to these successful applicants, but will continue to gain momentum as current welfare officers share their experience with new recruits.

“As the network grows, we are making sure that as the officers gain experience, it is then fed back into training concepts to essentially keep the momentum and training current,” Katrina says.

“To me, the brilliant thing about the Welfare Officer Network is, it really highlighted how many people are willing to put everyone else first. Essentially, they’ve said, ‘here, I am dedicated to this network and to looking after people who work in the AFP’.”

AFP Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders says the Welfare Officer Network highlights how AFP members are willing to help their colleagues

Mental health support

Katrina and her team are also working with internationally renowned Phoenix Australia to review mental health support in the AFP.

Katrina says it’s a really exciting piece of work, as the company will be providing a completely independent view of what the organisation is asking for and will provide honest feedback on what needs to change.

“The great thing about Phoenix coming on board is that they can say ‘let’s take some lessons from other organisations, but let’s hear from the people on the ground about how we can make them fit the AFP’,” Katrina said.

Phoenix Australia has just finished its consultancy phase within the AFP through one-on-one interviews and focus groups across the country and interviews with people deployed internationally. Currently an all-staff survey is open to test the health pulse of the AFP as an organisation. The intent is to find out if people feel they are supported in disclosing their health problems and seeking the support if needed.

“In a policing agency, the nature of the work that people undertake is risky, and that’s not going to change,” Katrina said. What can change is how the supporting mechanisms can be best managed and sustained in the longer term.

Culturally, Katrina believes there is a real push at the moment for workplaces to be providing with more support. Internationally published evidence highlights that if workplaces are more active, the benefits can be measured down to the dollar and result in huge productivity savings.

“I think individuals are expecting more from their workplace and I think workplaces have a responsibility to step up,” Katrina says.

In late 2016, the AFP completed a “Road to Ready” project that reviewed the physical health of the organisation. The feedback that the Organisational Health team received showed that AFP members wanted more options and variety around the wellness programs available.

The result is a number of new programs being introduced across the AFP, including lunch-time yoga classes, new beginner functional training programs and Initiatives that family and friends can be involved with such as the Step & Move Challenge.

Katrina says there is still a negative perception around the high fitness level required for group classes, so they’ve worked hard to provide alternatives for those looking to improve their fitness levels but have been intimidated previously.

Voluntary fitness classes are just one initiative to promote a healthy AFP

There is also a big push for more team challenges – like step competitions or functional conditioning relays – which Katrina says are all about providing options to maintain your health with an emphasis on team work and camaraderie.

Katrina says that ultimately, it’s the simple things that will help overall health the most.

“The biggest changes people can make in the physical health are easy things, like going for a walk around the block, having a walking meeting, taking the stairs. Things like that can make a big difference,” she says.

The AFP’s efforts are already making significant differences in the attention being given to health in the organisation, with the Welfare Officer Network only set to build on this. Katrina says there is still a lot of work to do within the AFP and as a broader society.

“I am thinking about where we’ll be in five to 10 years’ time and to me, the work we are doing at the moment, with the welfare officers and Phoenix, is critical in setting the scene for the future.”

To the future

Katrina says her next project is working on practices that will focus around returning to work from injury.

“At the moment, we’re good at saying ‘You’ve got a shoulder injury, go and get that fixed, then come and see us’,” Katrina says.

“Ideally, in five years’ time, we’ll have an enhanced injury management cell and that would assist people with whatever their injury may be – either workplace injuries or injuries sustained outside of work, we’ll be assisting them to return to work.”

“Organisations should be saying ‘How can we assist you better now?’ Having more internally focused rehabilitation from my perspective, is about shifting the balance from the individual to the organisation to help improve their recovery.”