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AFP mental health audit confirms managerial, cultural and financial barriers

Managing employee mental health is a particularly “complex and sensitive challenge” for emergency services, the Commonwealth auditor-general’s office has observed in an audit report.

This truism stands before a long list of shortcomings in how the Australian Federal Police protects its officers from the “range of unique demands and stressors” they face at work, and tries to screen out people from tough jobs they are not suited to.

The psychological side of occupational health and safety is always complex and sensitive. When a person’s mental health deteriorates, it’s often unclear how much responsibility lies with their employer and the extent to which specific mental health issues are caused by incidents at work versus other external factors can often be debated.

However, as the audit report acknowledges, “first responders” are subject to abnormal mental health pressures, which is proven by the fact they claim a lot more compensation for work-related mental health problems than other kinds of workers.

The AFP has a range of supports in place and has been trying to improve them, but the audit recommends a major systemic overhaul covering all the bureaucratic bases: governance, risk management, co-ordination, evaluation, prevention, training, cultural change, record-keeping as well as better data integration and analysis, to name a few.

The audit found quite a few gaps in the current framework and a lot of inconsistency in how it works at different levels and in different parts of the AFP. There is the practical problem of stretching already scarce resources to maximum effect, and another big challenge is convincing officers that the top brass genuinely cares about the issue. Officers need to believe that it really is a good idea to come forward if they have an issue.

“Feedback … indicated that cultural barriers to accessing support and assistance reduces the potential impact of these services,” according to the report.

In his response, commissioner Andrew Colvin also notes the AFP’s work carries an “inherent risk of psychological harm and/or injury” and accepts the organisation has “some way to go” in terms of mitigating it more effectively.

He also hints that resourcing pressures play a role in how much support is provided, an argument made more forcefully by an AFP Association representative in a television interview last week.

“We acknowledge that the AFP needs to change in order to meet the growing demand and complexity of the environment in which the AFP operates,” Colvin told auditor-general Grant Hehir. “Even within current staffing levels, the AFP is working under immense pressure and ongoing activity at current operational tempo will increase health risks for its staff.”

The commissioner, who provides a detailed and considered response to each recommendation, felt it was important to mention “external factors that impact on psychological health” because they are not discussed in the audit report.

“For example, many AFP employees have highlighted that the commonwealth workers’ compensation system can be adversarial, lengthy and arguably contributes to stigma as police must essentially ‘prove’ the relationship between work and diagnosis,” Colvin wrote.

“As your report touches on, limited options for external health support continue to be a challenge. One option to address this could be a model of non-liability healthcare for mental health related conditions, similar to our military veterans.”

He also points out that in 2016, the AFP commissioned an external mental health review from Phoenix Australia, as one key example of his efforts to begin addressing this issue before the auditors came through. Major reforms are soon to follow.

The results were shared internally last month and, based on a Canberra Times report, appear to strongly parallel the audit office’s findings – including a lack of co-ordination, scepticism that commitments from senior leaders like Colvin are genuine, and a reluctance to seek help lest it be a career-ending move.

The auditors noted that a lot of relevant cultural issues — including a “trust deficit” between the rank-and-file and senior management — were covered in the AFP’s 2016 report on gender diversity and inclusion. ANAO reports eight of that review’s 24 recommendations had been implemented as of July last year

A survey done as part of the Phoenix review reportedly found about a quarter of AFP members suffer “psychological distress” and there was “general dissatisfaction” with the employee assistance provider, Davidson Trahaire Corpsych.

The company defends its reputation in a response that is also published in the Australian National Audit Office report, providing various details to rebut specific criticisms and offering a small degree of contrition.

“DTC acknowledges that from time to time a clinician may not deliver ‘best-practice’ service,” the firm states. “This can occur for a multiple of reasons. DTC welcomes feedback from clients and customer representatives so that we can continue to improve.”

Interestingly, the company seems to agree with the auditor-general’s finding that the AFP is “not effectively managing the EAP provider from the quality or contractual compliance perspective” – DTC “acknowledges this is case” according to the letter from CEO Michele Grow.

Annus horribilis

Two suicides inside AFP offices at the start and end of last year brought the issue of AFP mental health into the mainstream media. Mainly through news.com.au reporter Megan Palin, a large group of anonymous insiders said this was only the tip of an iceberg, and expressed some extremely cynical views about senior management.

This raw emotional commentary was fuelled by grief that is no doubt felt just as keenly by the senior officers. But it also revealed views that are common in command-and-control organisations with dangerous jobs and a culture that strongly values bravery and camaraderie.

These include the idea that being seen as weak or a whinger leads to bullying, that whistleblowers are silenced and suffer reprisals, that wellbeing of individual frontline members is of less concern than a shining public image, and that those who are traumatised are left by the wayside with little support. The parallels with military veterans are striking.

Colvin was then questioned in a Senate estimates hearing last October about a professional standards investigation into one of Palin’s sources that was swiftly abandoned soon after it became public.

“Officers, both current and former, who have gone to the media to disclose their experiences with the organisation on mental health, I have no intention or desire to have any adverse reaction to them,” the commissioner promised the committee, while explaining that such internal inquiries were a “necessary evil” and part of maintaining integrity.

The AFP chief medical officer Dr Katrina Sanders made an interesting comment about suicide in the aforementioned Canberra Times article a few weeks ago. She said the AFP had a lower suicide rate than the general population, “and that is in large part due to the number of supports available to the members already” in her view.

Around 10% of survey respondents admitted to having suicidal thoughts, 14% had symptoms of clinical depression and 9% had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The recommendations: contract management is key

The auditor-general’s report prescribes an array of fixes across six detailed recommendations and the AFP has agreed to them all.

It needs a new organisational health and wellbeing strategy that is comprehensive and consistent across the organisation, with more effective governance arrangements, according to the report, and this should be based on improved risk management and evaluation of existing programs.

The third prescription is for mandatory training that encourages a more open and caring culture, through help with “identifying signs and symptoms of mental health injury (in self and others) as well as guidance on how to conduct meaningful conversations with staff and colleagues about their mental health”.

Better screening is required for officers in the most harrowing specialist roles, and “mandatory mental health assessments and psychological debriefs” need to be done more consistently and in a “timely” fashion.

The learning for all agencies are threefold, according to the auditors, covering governance and risk management, contract management, and records management.

Where organisational risks are managed in a devolved way by separate business areas, “systems should be put in place” to not only communicate the executive’s organisational priorities, but also provide assurance that they are being carried out.

The auditor-general also uses the opportunity to remind all federal public sector agencies of the value in linking up separate databases to cross-reference more information and provide more detailed business intelligence, and draws a very important lesson on contract management from the AFP’s situation:

“In cases where contract managers are not end-users of a contracted service, there is an increased risk that shortcomings in service provision will not be identified promptly. Assurance mechanisms should be put in place to regularly review contract performance and seek feedback from users.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.