Does Your Agency Wellness Program Measure Up?

by | July 8, 2024

In the high-stress world of public safety, employee well-being is paramount. Whether we’re talking about firefighters, law enforcement officers, EMTs or corrections officers, the demanding nature of first responder jobs requires carefully considered support systems to help employees maintain their physical, mental and emotional health.

A comprehensive wellness program is essential not only for the well-being of your team members but also the effectiveness of the agency as a whole. An agency wellness program is one of the most effective tools for both attracting and retaining good personnel. It can reduce absenteeism and help prevent or mitigate issues such as substance abuse and mental health challenges that tend to be common in people serving in first responder roles. With careful planning and administrative support, an agency wellness program can save careers, marriages and even lives.

So, does your agency’s current wellness program measure up? Here’s a rundown of key elements to make your wellness activities as effective and impactful as possible.

By ensuring leadership support, robust policies, accessible resources and specialized training, your department can cultivate a culture of wellness that benefits your employees as well as the community you serve.

1. Leadership Support for a Culture of Wellness

In any organization, leadership sets the tone and steers the culture. Whether you’re in a police department, fire department, corrections institution or other public safety agency, it’s crucial that you as a leader actively demonstrate a commitment to wellness. This means prioritizing wellness initiatives, communicating their importance to the rank and file and integrating wellness resources throughout your agency. Leaders must recognize that a healthy work culture leads to healthier employees, which in turn benefits the communities you all serve.

2. Wellness Policy and Operating Plan

A solid wellness program begins with a clear policy and a plan to implement it. This plan must align with your agency’s overall public safety mandate and annual wellness goals. It should incorporate wellness into standard training procedures — academy training, FTO training, in-service training and also shift briefings. Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of internal stakeholders (like wellness coordinators and peer support teams) and external stakeholders (such as therapists and wellness providers) is another crucial element. Selecting the right wellness coordinator is quite possibly the most important decision you’ll make that contributes to the overall success of these initiatives.

3. Self-Help Resources

The well-known stigma in public safety against seeking help for personal problems is a very real phenomenon. Because of this, accessible self-help resources should be a feature of any wellness program. These should include confidential self-assessments and a variety of wellness tools available 24 hours a day, seven days a week — optimally through an anonymous website, app or service. The resources should help guide employees through the process of improving their mental and physical condition, addressing such topics as mental health, physical fitness and even financial wellness. Tools such as these empower employees to take proactive steps towards their personal well-being.

4. Peer Support Resources

Peer support is invaluable in times of crisis, whether the situation stems from a critical incident, compounding personal problems or some other source. A well-structured peer support program should include a team of competent, caring employees or volunteers, preferably those who have gone through formal training and certification for this purpose. This team, which ideally should comprise at least 10% of your department’s workforce, is tasked with providing emotional and practical support to agency personnel anytime they’re needed. Training in stress management, crisis intervention and follow-up care is essential, as is ongoing education to keep support skills current.

5. Family Support Resources

Supporting the families of your employees is just as important as supporting the employees themselves. The mantle of public safety is heavy, and families tend to bear the brunt of the cumulative trauma that comes with the job. Because of this, your agency wellness program should include family support tools such as confidential counseling services, crisis support lines and educational resources to help your employees’ family members understand and cope with the unique pressures of their loved ones’ jobs. Social events that build community and support networks can also be helpful. These resources help reduce stress and improve family relationships, which in turn takes some of the pressure off the members of your team.

6. Professional Wellness Support Resources

Access to professional wellness support is a must. An effective agency wellness program should include a roster of health and wellness professionals who understand first responder culture and are experienced in working with public safety personnel. Whether they are clinicians, strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapists or dietitians, these professionals need to be available to your employees for both in-person and virtual consultations. In addition to the members of your team, these resources should also be accessible to your employees’ families as well as retirees.

7. Crisis Support Resources

Flying a plane has been described as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” The same can be said for public safety work, when crisis can strike at any time. On-the-job critical incidents make it necessary for agencies to provide access to proficient crisis support services at a moment’s notice. These services should be available to both sworn and non-sworn employees of all ranks, plus their families and retired personnel. Immediate access to crisis intervention after a traumatic incident can have a profound impact on the long-term recovery of everyone involved.

8. Confidentiality to Support Trust and Wellness

One of the biggest concerns for first responders experiencing a personal crisis is the fear of being perceived as weak for seeking help. Another worry is that they’ll lose their job if they access resources to help with substance abuse, thoughts of self-harm or other issues. Because of this, confidentiality is critical to fostering a culture of trust and wellness — especially when it comes to mental health services. When they seek therapeutic services or wellness education resources, employees must be confident their privacy is being protected. This encourages them to access the support they need without fear of judgment or employment action.

9. Physical Wellness Guidance and Support

Physical wellness is a key component of your employees’ overall health. Your agency wellness program should include occupation-specific fitness programs that enhance health, increase job readiness and reduce the risk of injury. Nutritional guidance and support for maintaining a healthy body and optimizing sleep — especially for shift workers — are also vital. These programs should be practical, science-based and tailored to the unique demands of your employees’ specific roles.

10. Financial Fitness Training

Financial stability contributes significantly to overall wellness, as worries about money can cause your employees undue anxiety. Offering financial guidance from experts familiar with your agency and its workers is essential. This support should be available from the start of employment through retirement, covering investing, budgeting, insurance needs and retirement planning. Financial fitness training helps employees manage their lives more effectively, reducing stress and promoting long-term well-being.

Get the 10-Point Wellness Program Checklist: DOWNLOAD NOW

Final Analysis

A comprehensive wellness program is not just a luxury — it’s an absolute necessity for any public safety agency. By ensuring leadership support, robust policies, accessible resources and specialized training, your department can cultivate a culture of wellness that benefits your employees as well as the community you serve. Regularly evaluating and updating your wellness program based on the 10 categories above can help ensure you’re meeting the evolving needs of your personnel, ultimately leading to a healthier, more resilient workforce. Does your agency wellness program measure up? If not, now is the time to take action.

Download your copy of Lexipol’s 10-Point Wellness Program Checklist and use it to evaluate your own agency’s program.

Lexipol provides public safety and local government with solutions that combine the impact of information with the power of technology. We serve more than 2 million first responders and local government officials with policies, training, wellness resources, grant assistance, and news and analysis.

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