Work-related suicides in another militarily-structured organisation

Australia’s emergency services have had several reviews into accusations of workplace bullying, harassment, mental health or suicides. Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) is the latest to undergo this type of review but the United Firefighters Union (UFU) is not happy about the release of the final report, which was due out today.  If the final report is consistent, a dysfunctional safety culture will be found.

According to a report in the ABC news website, the review was

“…headed by clinical psychologist Dr Peter Cotton, who wrote a similar report for Victoria Police.” [link added]

SafetyAtWorkBlog readers may recall that an earlier article on psychologically healthy workplaces included this mention of Dr Cotton

“[Dr Chris] Stevens is not blind to the shortcomings of some of the trends in the area of psychologically healthy workplaces. He agreed that the modern workplaces and workers are subject to over-diagnosis of mental health issues and paraphrased some of the work of Dr Peter Cotton who estimated around 30% of workers compensation claims for psychological injury relate to low morale and not psychiatric diagnosis.”

cover-of-vic-pol-mental-health-reviewPeter Cotton’s report into the Victoria Police flagged these broad issues in the report’s Overview:

  • Mental health and suicide risk profile and contributing factors
  • Mental health stigma
  • Why … leadership culture needs to change
  • Mental health and wellbeing services
  • Employee lifecycle health management.

The UFU, MFB and Victorian Government have been wrangling over industrial relations and workplace agreements for several years.  This has caused divisions within the firefighting sector and cost the positions of senior executives and politicians.  Workplace stress always increases in periods of organisational restructuring and firefighters’ mental health has surely been tested in the current climate.

One newspaper report prior to the establishment of Dr Peter Cotton’s inquiry into the firefighting services summarised the suicide risk like this:

“….the Victorian fire service is experiencing a mental health crisis, with a dramatic spike in the number of firefighters taking their own lives. Between 2000 and 2012, five firefighters suicided. In the past 14 months, four Metropolitan Fire Brigade officers have died by their own hand: two men from the same station died within a day of one another.

On an annualised basis these deaths represent an 800 per cent increase. (The CFA does not record members’ suicides so the increase is likely higher.)”

On the matter of suicides , Dr Cotton’s Victoria Police report said:

“The Review Team concluded that Victoria Police suicide rates potentially can be significantly reduced (irrespective of the actual primary causes). This can be expected to occur in response to:

(a) the implementation of the recommended comprehensive organisation wide mental health literacy program; and

(b) implementing leadership development initiatives that will increase organisational people-focused leadership capability.

These initiatives will assist in increasing early recognition of mental health issues and validating early help seeking behaviour. ” (page 8)

No matter how long the UFU delays the final report, it will be released and more causal factors of work-related suicides will be identified. Reading that report in conjunction with the earlier Victoria Police report, and those reports from other Australian States over the last couple of years, is sure to confirm that there are cultural, mental health and safety problems with civilian organisations that are structured on a military-style hierarchy.

Kevin Jones

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