Action beats reaction. I learnt that phrase years ago on my initial firearms training. During a roleplay I had my weapon drawn and aimed at my instructor, playing the part of an armed suspect. I was determined to de-escalate and resolve the situation. After all, I was in control, wasn’t I? My weapon was aimed firmly at his chest and his was hanging down to his side. A second later it was raised. The control I thought I had was gone and we were at a standoff. Another second and two paint splats in the centre of my chest told me it was all over. Action beats reaction.
How much of your wellbeing provision is reaction? How much money is it costing you to service the ever-growing number of your people who need support because they have reached breaking point? Costly Occupational Health and Employee Assistance programmes are so oversubscribed that waiting times are up to nearly a year in some forces. The Mental Health First Aid or suicide awareness training is a nice to have, but still exists to service those who are already struggling. Nothing is going to get better if most resources are being used to react to the wellbeing crisis across our emergency services.
Upon leaving the police, I co-founded a consultancy that I am grateful now counts some of the world’s largest organisations as clients. I believe there are lessons to be learnt from the private sector that can be game-changing for the wellbeing, happiness and productivity of those on the front line. And it starts with culture.
In 2017, Google wanted to better understand what sets the highest performing teams apart and embarked upon Project Aristotle. The study identified five ‘pillars’, which were present in every high performing team they encountered, and the single-most important of these pillars was psychological safety – the willingness of individuals to share openly and authentically without the fear of being shamed, blamed or judged by their colleagues.
I have personally interviewed suicide survivors and the families of those who have sadly taken their own lives. The lack of psychological safety within emergency services is an ever-present theme. We must recognise that 20 police officers will die at their own hands before we see another Christmas and while I don’t have the data for the ambulance and fire and rescue services, I am certain the picture is equally bleak considering we have already lost colleagues from both disciplines this year. It is why, as a leader, no matter how many times you may tell people your door’s always open, people rarely walk through it. And it is why a novelty van in the car park giving out tea and biscuits once a year will have little value beyond a Twitter post. Telling people it’s good to talk is entirely different to providing the safety and tools with which to have those intensely difficult conversations every day.
As a consultancy, we are currently delivering a cultural change programme across Europe for Microsoft. Our work has centred around concepts including psychological safety, vulnerability, courage and resilience. We have introduced new frameworks to deliver feedback and have brave conversations, including asking for help.
By investing in similar cultural transformation and addressing this wellbeing crisis at source rather than fighting against the torrent downstream, emergency services have the potential to save both money and, more importantly, lives. It is a choice that requires a commitment to proactivity over reactivity, and as we already know, action beats reaction every time.