How federal departments have supported their staff during bushfires

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday January 14, 2020

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The federal public servants tasked with delivering crucial services to bushfire affected communities have also been receiving much-needed support from their departments.

A range of initiatives has been put in place to ensure the wellbeing of Department of Human Services staff and their communities, according to DHS general manager Hank Jongen.

Some staff have been released from their work responsibilities to support their volunteer community firefighting teams on the frontlines, Jongen noted, while flexible work and leave options have been made available for staff impacted by fires, “so they can take the necessary precautions to protect themselves, their family and property during emergency events”.

“We have a national footprint and as a result, some of our staff live and work in fire-affected regions. Like others in their communities, some have lost their own homes while others have been evacuated,” he told The Mandarin.

Staff performing emergency volunteer or Defence Reservist activities can also access special leave provisions.

Health and safety advice for staff and their managers has been developed, such as information on high risk health conditions, air quality, personal protective equipment, travel, emergency deployment, leave provisions, overtime and rest relief. HR support teams have been supporting local zone emergency response committees to provide immediate advice, and to monitor staff wellbeing and safety.

As parts of Australia have been blanketed in smoke, the air quality of departmental buildings has regularly been monitored, and “air scrubbers” have been used in a number of sites. The department has also provided P2 masks and other protective equipment for staff in fire zone areas where the air quality is poor.

Similarly, buildings used by the Department of Home Affairs have undergone regular air quality checks, a departmental spokesperson said. The department recently closed its Canberra offices due to the poor air quality.

On Christmas eve, the Prime Minister announced that all volunteer firefighters in the Australian Public Service would be offered at least 20 working days of paid leave. Home Affairs has backed this provision and is “fully committed to supporting the efforts of Australia’s emergency service organisations”, the spokesperson said.

They said Miscellaneous Leave with pay has been made available to support staff who have been directly affected by emergencies.  The department would also provide Defence Reserve Leave to employees who require time to support the Australian Defence Force Reserves.

Both DHS and Home Affairs noted that their staff can access the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which provides free counselling, psychological and wellbeing support to staff and their families.

The EAP gives a “positive and sensitive way for people to deal with work-related or personal difficulties”, the Home Affairs spokesperson said.

While Home Affairs has been coordinating the national response to the bushfire emergency, DHS has been delivering support to the individuals and communities directly impacted by the disaster.

Some staff have supported communities through service centres, Mobile Service Teams or Mobile Service Centres. Social workers have been working alongside these teams to connect traumatised residents to government counselling and mental health support services, Jongen noted. As at January 12, DHS staff across the country have taken more than 65,000 calls on the emergency assistance line, and have processed more than 33,000 claims for disaster recovery payments and allowances, worth almost $40 million.

“We are very proud of the contribution of our staff during this current bushfire emergency, many of whom are going above and beyond to support people living in some of the worst-affected bushfire areas,” he said.

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