Emergency service workers around the globe are faced with the challenges of being exposed to, either directly or indirectly, critical incidents and traumatic events as well as having a significant portion of their work being under high stress. These traumatic events and high-stress situations can significantly affect their emotional and mental health and cognitive function.
Recently Australia was experiencing one of its busiest and most destructive summers it has ever encountered during the 2020–21 bushfire season, involving the response of thousands of emergency services personnel. The devastation not only included the destruction of vast amounts of property, flora and fauna but also a number of deaths including both civilians and emergency service personnel.
Shortly following these traumatic events, the world was faced with a pandemic that upended day-to-day lives across the globe, changing the way we work and interact with others, adding further stress and the risk of triggering a wave of mental-health issues. It is not hard to imagine the substantial impact the combination of events such as these will have on people within the emergency management sector, when added to the already sustained level of stressors.
This exposure to higher stress not only can increase negative effects of emotional and mental health of individuals but can also inhibit information gathering, decision making and levels of attention. These elements are needed most during time-critical and ever-changing emergency situations and affect many individuals working in a range of roles from out in the field to senior leadership.
Recent results of the Beyond Blue National Survey into the Mental Health and Wellbeing Study of Police and Emergency Services (2018), have highlighted the importance of developing long-term interventions to increase mindfulness and other wellbeing programmes among first responders, to assist them to manage both chronic and acute stressors.
Along with managing stress for those within the emergency management sector, many roles such as those within an Incident Management Team require a mind that is focused on the task at hand and one that is not wandering, worrying about the past or catastrophising about the future, even if only for a short period of time, as this could have detrimental consequences. Mind wandering could impact the course of capturing and processing information, and making enhanced decision making, and may lead to disastrous consequences.
Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that teaches participants to focus entirely on the present moment, with an awareness of what is going on internally as well as externally. One of the most widely used definitions is ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally’ which comes from Dr John Kabat-Zinn who has received significant global recognition for his work on mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Mindfulness programmes are increasingly being adopted by private and public organisations, including areas such as education, IT, health sectors and the sports industry. These organisations recognise the importance of reducing stress, cultivating resilience, as well as improving a person’s attention and performance.
There is a range of mindfulness programmes designed for organisations where the workforce is in high-demand, high-stress lines of work, such as emergency first responders. These programmes have been designed to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals by decreasing stress, anxiety, depression and burnout for first responders. Evidence has also shown improvements in cognitive and academic performance for individuals during emergencies.
Many of these organisations were able to see qualitative and quantitative data of the success and benefits associated with mindfulness programmes by partnering with universities which assisted with collating evidence and data relating to these programmes. The results have added to the increasing amount of research in this area.
Mindfulness Based Attention Training (MBAT)
The University of Miami has developed a mindfulness programme that is known as Mindfulness Based Attention Training (MBAT). This programme is well researched and headed by neuroscientist Dr Amishi Jha, focusing on researching the benefits of mindfulness and how to best implement this training with time-constrained organisations.
MBAT is designed to increase attention, focus and calm under pressure and has a strong focus on cognitive performance over high-demand periods. Examples of high demand periods may include emergency deployments, campaign fires, large scale flood events, police and military operations where stress and fatigue are often an issue. The fact that prolonged periods of stress can only increase the frequency of mind wandering, cannot be ignored. Research has found MBAT style programmes can mitigate the issues of attention lapses and mind wandering.
MBAT was studied with both military and firefighters as participants using a number of primary and secondary outcome measures such as sustained attention, working memory, quality of sleep, emotional regulation and other mental health related scores. The 4-week course consists of 2-hour sessions delivered weekly and also includes out-of-class mindfulness practice, that follows on after the course has been completed.
Results from this research has also identified that out-of-class mindfulness practice has an important place as individuals see even greater and ongoing benefits of mindfulness when the practice is completed in addition to face-to-face training sessions. This allows for the individual to incorporate mindfulness into their weekly or daily schedule. This means that simply participating in a programme is likely to show some key benefits of mindfulness, but these benefits will greatly increase when the individual has incorporated mindfulness into their routine.
Mindfulness Based Resilience Training (MBRT)
Another type of mindfulness programme that has emerged for emergency service organisations is Mindfulness Based Resilience Training (MBRT). Research has been collated and published relating to the training of both police officers and firefighters in the north-west of the US by the Pacific University in Oregon.
MBRT has been tailored for first-responder organisations, designed to increase the fitness of both the body and mind of its participants. During this eight-week programme firefighters and police officers learnt skills enhancing mental clarity, personal health and mindful exercises covering a range of motion and injury prevention.
Part of the ethos of this training is to build resilience of the participants by teaching them practical skills to assist mitigation of stressors they may face in their day-to-day work, and even at home. Self-awareness and compassion is the focus of this mindfulness programme which has been of interest to police, correction and law enforcement agencies as the often-required approach to handle threats in a responsive manner without unnecessary aggression. This type of mindfulness training has showed a significant improvement within participants in areas such as fatigue, burnout, anger, anxiety, sleep disturbances and increases resiliency to stress.
Homeland security in the US is coordinating a version of the MBRT for personnel within US Customs Boarder Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Secret Service and the US Coast Guard, reporting on benefits for its people
On the east coast of Canada, the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is responsible for law enforcement services in the province of Ontario, has implemented Mindfulness Based Wellness and Resilience (MBWR) programmes where staff from a range of correctional facilities and law enforcement have undertaken the training.
So far, the results captured by this organisation have shown a statistically significant decrease in the amount of stress staff take home with them, an increase in participants’ emotional resilience, a significant reduction in compassion burnout and an extremely high percentage of participants finding the programme valuable and strongly agreeing that MBWR is a positive step towards improving work culture.
The data available and research undertaken clearly show that agencies within the emergency management sector would benefit from implementing a programme that has evidence of increasing resilience, as well as cognitive performance, for its people. Mindfulness training is likely to be seen more and more within organisations due to the current and ongoing research and studies that have identified the benefits of programmes such as this.
It must be noted, however, that mindfulness is not a silver bullet in resolving all the issues of mental health and cognitive performance, and results depend largely on the type and length of training, and the commitment level of the participants. Mindfulness programmes see best results when they sit alongside other wellbeing, performance and leadership programmes.
To date, teacher-led mindfulness programmes have not yet been widely trialled or implemented in Australian emergency service organisations. Many agencies and departments have been introduced to the concept of mindfulness and educated about some of the benefits through other programmes they offer but not as a stand-alone programme. Now that Covid-19 has changed the way we train and do business, the teacher-led, face-to-face training options will need to consider how the use of technology can assist in reaching their audiences, and further research is needed to capture the results of this compared to the traditional face-to-face option. Overall there is an appetite for Australian emergency service organisations to implement a tailored mindfulness programme in their wellbeing, performance and leadership strategies.
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