Workforce ageing: prevent injuries with health checks, dietary coaching

By Harley Dennett

Thursday October 13, 2016

Australia’s ageing population is already a risk factor for injuries in some front-line public workforces. For emergency service organisations, this is particularly acute.

New South Wales’ auditor-general Margaret Crawford weighed into the emerging issue of managing an ageing workforce as part of her look at injury prevention in the state’s police, fire and rescue services. There were, she found, many positive initiatives going on in the NSW Police Force to deal with its officers getting older and the corresponding increase in risk of injury.

Five years ago, the average age of officers was 37 — now it’s 39. Within 10 years, NSWPF estimates 12% of officers will be aged 55-64. To address this, it has had to make some additions to its approach to promoting physical fitness and health:

  • a screening test to identify risks of musculoskeletal injuries
  • three physical reconditioning programs for injured or at-risk officers
  • health checks to identify risks of serious illness
  • dietary advice and coaching

Officers also have access to physical training instructors who are the conduit to other health program such as quitting smoking.

Crawford said the health checks, innovative physical reconditioning and psychological resilience training received good feedback. She cautioned, as any good auditor-general would, that formal evaluations should inform decisions about further roll-out.

“An ageing workforce is a future risk area for injury management, as workers’ compensation leave tends to increase with age and is currently highest for officers between 50 and 60 years,” Crawford said.

What to check for older workers’ health?

NSW Police Force health checks include blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol. These alone raise health awareness among staff, according to the officers who spoke with the auditors.

“Following the check, participants receive a report card with an action plan, or are referred to a medical practitioner if a problem is identified. Initial results identified 30% of participants as having high cholesterol, and 35% as being at risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the next five years. This knowledge has encouraged participants to change their diet and behaviour, and follow-up tests have shown better results.”

Don’t forget fatigue, resilience and mental health

NSW Police Force is combatting fatigue with its Workforce Readiness project, which promotes healthy lifestyles and rest before work. It involves compulsory online training for commanders to help them identify signs of fatigue in their officers:

“Shift workers, such as police, are six times more likely to experience burnout and be involved in a fatigue-related vehicle accident than other workers.”

Behavioural scientists were invited into the organisation to talk to officers about how to strengthen resilience and be proactive in managing health.

A poor leadership culture can undermine those efforts, however. Crawford warned of managers who treat these welfare and well-being conversations as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. In these cases officers can turn to the Peer Support Officer network, where officers can talk to a welfare trained peer about concerns and anxieties instead of their manager.

A further online tool is being trialled for anyone who slips through the net. The e-WellCheck is being developed to give officers an indication of how they are managing their well-being.

One further benefit to taking a proactive approach is that, in the case of NSW Police Force, a lid has been kept on compensation premiums.

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