Public safety wellness programs: Helping employees thrive

Do those in public safety do a good job of taking advantage of what’s available to help them in their times of need?


For additional resources on officer wellness, download Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness

The public safety sector possesses a unique category of human beings who put the needs of others before their own every day. It doesn’t matter whether you staff a radio console, walk a beat, work in a correctional facility or operate a fire apparatus – personal sacrifice is the name of the game. Anyone working in these professions accepts the challenges commensurate with the position.

Sadly, some of those challenges take a toll. Higher-than-average divorce rates, reduced career longevity and a litany of health problems are all too common in public safety. Although we routinely take care of others, there are many times when we are our own worst enemies. Both law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than other members of the public. And just because you don’t work out in the field doesn’t mean you’re out of harm’s way. Studies have found that between 17% and 24% of public safety telecommunicators have symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Another 24% have symptoms of depression. [1]

This is a tough business. Seeing the negative side of humanity, death and destruction can produce physiological and psychological consequences, including:

  • Mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression
  • Physical health impacts, such as hypertension and diabetes
  • Sleep issues
  • Increased risk of physical injury
  • Substance abuse
  • Relationship issues and interpersonal conflict

I always like to compare those who work in public safety with other professions. Take the mechanic who works on other people’s vehicles all day, but often drives a vehicle in need of repair. Or the plumber who has a leaky faucet at home. We are no different. We spend countless hours helping others or fixing a mess we didn’t create, but then neglect ourselves after the shift ends. Maybe it means missing a workout because we are too tired after a long day on the job. Or perhaps we think we can fix ourselves after dealing with some traumatic event. After all, we signed on for this job, so it comes with the territory, right? Wrong!

The truth is we are no different than any other human being. We all have wants and wishes that need to be fulfilled. We also have secondary noise that haunts us long after a troubling call for service ends. During my 32-year public safety career, the events that stand out the most in my mind involved the death of young children. No academy curriculum can prepare a person for that. We all have traumatic experiences and memories that take their toll on our physical and emotional well-being. The big question: What are we going to do about it?

When I started in law enforcement, wellness programs, employee assistance programs, peer support efforts and counseling were uncommon. Employees were expected to maintain themselves – for most, that simply meant going to the gym and getting an annual physical. The same problems were evident back then; we just didn’t do a good job of managing the fallout after the fact.

Fast forward to the here and now, and many agencies do a much better job of looking after their people and providing support. But do those in public safety do a good job of taking advantage of what’s available to help them in their times of need? I think it’s safe to say sometimes. Although public safety agencies often offer assistance to troubled employees, both the agency and the supervisor can improve the level of outreach and education that should accompany these programs. Let’s explore some contemporary employee support initiatives.

Wellness programs

Traditional wellness programs focus primarily on proactive employee health measures. Routine physicals, examinations, vaccinations and guidance about smoking cessation or diet and exercise are just some of the ways healthcare providers, insurance companies and employers assist employees with feeling better.

Although this is certainly a perk for the employee, there are many benefits to the employer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 50% of adults in this country have at least one chronic health problem. [2] Interestingly, this number does not include mental health, drug use or obesity, all of which are common issues within public safety. One meta-analysis found that each dollar spent on wellness programs saves an average of $3.27 in healthcare costs and $2.73 in absenteeism. [2]

The research also suggests that healthier employees aren’t only less expensive and less absent, they are more productive. We generally focus on the cost of absenteeism when it comes to measuring productivity in the workplace. However, it’s estimated that lost productivity itself is responsible for over $150 billion annually across all industries, almost three times the cost of absenteeism alone. [2]

Over the years, I’ve found it interesting how many employees were unaware of certain employer-sponsored or insurance benefits related to wellness. Be sure to check with your human resources component or insurance provider to see what benefits are available to you and your family. And be sure to take advantage of those benefits. Your life or the lives of your loved ones may depend on it.

Employee Assistance Programs

EAPs are typically employer-sponsored and are geared toward identifying and assisting employees with resolving personal problems that could affect their performance at work. Many plans also extend coverage to spouses and other dependents. EAPs vary in how they are managed, but many cover counseling for marital/family, financial or emotional problems, as well as substance abuse. EAPs can be managed by a centralized entity within the local government or through an insurance or contracted provider. What’s most important is that the services covered under these plans are available to employees at little to no cost. Additionally, EAPs are inexpensive for employers to offer, costing roughly .75 to $2.00 per month per employee on average. [3]

EAPs are also effective. One study of nearly 24,300 employees collected from 30 different EAPs found that absenteeism dropped 27%, work engagement grew 8% and overall life satisfaction went up by 22%. [3] However, while 71% to 86% of state and local governments offer EAPs to their employees, participation rates are generally well below 10%. [4] In fact, one study involving 44 organizations that provide EAP services found that almost “47% reported employee utilization rates between 2.1% and 8%, with only 19% reporting utilization rates exceeding 8%.” [4]

So why don’t employees use this free service in times of need?

There appear to be two primary reasons. First, employers are not doing a good job informing their employees about these programs. If these services are not aggressively promoted, many personnel won’t know they exist. This burden also falls on supervisors. One of the primary tenants of effective supervision requires us to know our people. If you know one of your employees is struggling, provide them with good information about your agency’s EAP. I always kept the toll-free number for our program in my phone for quick reference in case there was a need.

The second reason employees fail to use these programs involves skepticism and lack of trust. This is especially true with public safety personnel since it’s easy to question confidentiality about a program that’s administered on behalf of the agency. And even though there is strict confidentiality within these programs, some employees worry about a work-related stigma from coworkers or supervisors.

The bottom line: EAPs are invaluable to both employers and employees. If you are a manager or supervisor, encourage your personnel to use these programs. Former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams points out how “employees who are in good physical, mental, and emotional health are more likely to deliver optimal performance in the workplace.”[5] My family members and I have all benefited from the EAP offered by my previous employer.

Peer support and counseling programs

According to the CDC, job-related stress is our country’s leading workplace health problem, with productivity losses from absenteeism related to stress estimated at $225.8 billion each year. [3]

It’s no mystery that stress comes with the territory in public safety work. It’s important to consider the impact mental health has not only on productivity, but on many of those working in public safety. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, almost 53 million people in this country (1 in 5 adults) experienced some type of mental illness in 2020, yet less than half of those (46.2%) sought treatment. [6] These numbers clearly represent a need for extensive treatment options for a multitude of mental health issues.

You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental health issue to seek treatment. Working in public safety exposes employees to a variety of “shock the conscious” situations, many of which create long-term mental health and wellness problems. Post-traumatic stress is very common in this profession, and for obvious reasons.

There are benefits to seeking treatment from mental health professionals, but we’ve already seen how many employees underutilize programs such as the EAP, which is free and offers a variety of counseling options. Another option involves the use of peer support programs, which have gained momentum in the past two decades. These programs provide emotional, social and practical support to public safety personnel during periods of personal or professional crisis through the use of peer counselors. These personnel are typically not “counselors” in the traditional sense, but trained personnel who work for the agency and can directly relate to the issues faced by its public safety members.

Benefits of the peer support approach include: [7]

  • Provision of instant credibility and ability to empathize while gaining trust of fellow coworkers
  • Assisting fellow employees who are reluctant to talk with mental health professionals
  • Recommending the program to other employees by attesting credibly to their confidentiality and concern
  • Providing immediate assistance due to accessibility
  • Detecting incipient problems because of their daily contact with coworkers
  • Delivering benefits at a cost lower than professional mental health providers

Contemporary research also reflects positive results from peer support and counseling. Beth Milliard of the York Regional Police in Ontario, Canada, notes how peer support provides “health professionals with positive validation, a sense of shared experience, knowledge and opportunity for reflective practice, stress and coping strategies, and enhanced self-confidence.” She concludes peer support is “the true reciprocity and exploration of hope between individuals.” [8]

Simply put, these programs are an effective way to help employees through myriad situations that evolve through working in public safety.

Making progress

Public safety agencies have greatly improved the employee wellness resources they provide. Flexible healthcare and wellness options, employer-sponsored EAPs and peer support programs are just some of the benefits extended to public safety personnel by many agencies. If your agency lacks some or all these resources, reach out to other agencies that have these programs in place for guidance. It’s also important to explore options through grants or through your employee benefit providers.

Technology is also an important component in wellness. Many progressive agencies have found success with Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution, which delivers completely anonymous, 24/7 wellness support through a mobile app. Cordico resources are specially developed for public safety and the app can integrate your agency’s existing wellness resources, such as peer support, local therapists and more.

Finally, if you work in public safety and are struggling, please seek help. You are not alone, and it only takes a few minutes to reach out to a supervisor, peer or your healthcare/EAP provider. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Your community and employer depend on you to make it to the next shift. Your family depends on you to make it home long after the calls for service end. Above all, stay safe and be well!

References

1. Tiesman H, Elkins K, Brown M, et al. (2021.) Suicides Among First Responders: A Call to Action. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – NIOSH Science Blog.

2. Gubler T, Larkin I and Piece L. (2018.) Doing Well by Making Well: The Impact of Corporate Wellness Programs on Employee Productivity. Management Science, 64(11).

3. Agovino T. (2019.) Companies Seek to Boost Low Usage of Employee Assistance Programs. HR Magazine.

4. Brooks C, Ling J. (2020.) Are We Doing Enough: An Evaluation of the Utilization of Employee Assistance Programs to Support the Mental Health Needs of Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Insurance Regulation, 39(8).

5. Adams JM. (2019.) The Value of Worker Well-Being. Public Health Reports. 134(6).

6. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2022.) Mental Health by the Numbers.

7. Sewell J. (2021.) Developing a Critical Incident Peer Support Program: Model Policy. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

8. Milliard B. (2020.) Utilization and Impact of Peer-Support Programs on Police Officers’ Mental Health. Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 11.

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