Mental Health and Wellbeing Support in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
4. SFRS Culture and its impact upon Staff accessing Mental Health and Wellbeing Services
76. We asked in all our interviews if staff felt that they were valued and supported enough to be able to declare that they may need help and support with a mental health or wellbeing issue. This is an aspiration that is set out in the SFRS Mental Health Strategy, and it was pleasing to note that most interviewees responded positively to this line of questioning. We also enquired at this point if there was a perceived cultural change within the Service and whether the importance of the maintenance of positive mental health was now recognised as a topic which was openly talked about. Again, we received positive responses to this in most cases.
Good Practice 11: The staff groups of the SFRS feel supported by the Service in terms of the maintenance of a positive mental health. Staff recognise that a range of resources are available and accessible to them in support of their mental health. Staff acknowledge that a cultural change is underway regarding how mental health is viewed within the SFRS.
77. There was discussion on a number of occasions where the interviewees considered if this cultural change was being driven by the SFRS or was because of changes within society. From our responses, employees do consider a cultural change in relation to mental health is underway within the SFRS, although the journey is not yet complete, and this is viewed as positive. This perceived change in culture was often compared to the environment staff had worked within in the past. Again, the comparison was positive and points to real progress being achieved in perceptions regarding mental health and wellbeing, and the cultural normalisation of it within the SFRS. We did however test the perception of this cultural change during our OC interviews, based on interview responses we received at that time, and we set out our findings regarding this line of enquiry at a later point within this report.
The Value of the Watch Based System in Providing Peer Support
78. The SFRS has a total of 357 fire stations. Seventy-four of these stations are crewed by wholetime firefighters who work within and respond from these locations on a twenty- four-hour basis. Firefighters from these wholetime stations normally respond across the higher density urban areas of Scotland. The other 283 stations are crewed by On-Call firefighters. On-Call firefighter is a term that encompasses those conditioned to the Retained Duty System (RDS) and those on the Volunteer Duty System. On-Call firefighters will normally respond from stations in more rural areas of Scotland. Many of them will live and work within their communities and commit to responding to emergency incidents when required and available.
79. During this inspection, we interviewed a number of personnel on wholetime station Watches and their WCs. Through the responses that we received during interviews, the most clearly expressed added value issue that we discussed was the positive power of the Watch based system to support the maintenance of positive mental health for those who work within it.
80. In terms of the maintenance of positive mental health and the support systems that may be required for this, the Watch system, operating as a support group, came across as a very positive facilitator. As we explored this topic it was clear that the maintenance of an overall balanced and fair culture of the Watch was recognised as being important. During Watch interviews, and across a wide variety of other interviews we conducted, the use of “humour” was regularly cited as a way of dealing with stress, particularly after the close of operational incidents. Watch members and their officers were clear that humour, as a stress relieving coping mechanism, should always be managed within the expected values of the Services. On this the interviewees were clear and unequivocal. Hill et al (2023) state that “watch culture has been evidenced to be both beneficial to the social/peer support between colleagues, as well as being a negative impact when inappropriate behaviours are displayed and not managed”. From the range of positive group and individual responses and examples that we received regarding the value of the Watch, this is something that should be harnessed and managed to achieve the positive outcomes that the Service seeks.
Good Practice 12: The Watch based system within the SFRS produces very positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes via the peer support that it offers individuals. The Service should effectively harness this positive power to maximise the beneficial outcomes it can produce.
81. Another critical part of unlocking the intrinsic positive value of the Watch is through the role of the WC. During our interviews we came across many individuals who are commendable in their approach to mental health, their examples are a credit to themselves and to the Service. Amongst these were examples of WCs who have experienced their own mental health traumas and challenges, much of which was in their personal and not their working lives. Additionally, we encountered WCs who have dealt with a very wide range of mental health issues and serious psychological trauma that members of their Watches have experienced. The evidence is that issues were handled with great kindness, compassion, empathy and professionalism and we were inspired by the conduct of some of these individuals.
82. As we asked WCs in particular what approaches they had taken to support their Watch members, it was clear that much of the work was due to their diligence in finding and accessing support. Many of these WCs had not had formal training or preparation for their roles, and they often had limited input regarding mental health issues that they may need to deal with as a Watch officer. Most employees within the SFRS will serve in a Watch based environment, and those who did told us in unanimous terms that the WC would be the person who would be their first port of call to resolve any difficulties they had. This, added to the peer support that other Watch members regularly offer, is often the first point of contact with mental health and wellbeing issues within the Service. We consider that this makes the Watch and the role of the WC invaluable tools for the Service as it pursues positive mental health cultural changes. WCs could, with some level of training input, be raised to the level of ‘mental health advocate’. This approach could help to support the SFRS aim of having an individual with mental health training placed within every Watch.
Recommendation 12: The WC role is critical within the Watch based system. They are often the first point of contact for mental health and/or wellbeing issues that may be affecting their Watch personnel. WCs are a trusted role within the Watch system, and they cover the majority of operational firefighters at work. The SFRS should consider how best to utilise the WC role and make them ‘mental health advocates’ to support the needs of operational firefighters on the Watch. Additionally, the Service should consider the training that would be required to ensure any advocates approach is robust. The mental health advocate role for WCs should be mandatory.
83. We examined another aspect of Watch dynamics – the demographics and makeup of the group – to consider how these impact upon mental health and wellbeing. Through our questions and answers during interviews, and our observations of the interactions of the Watches, several factors may be having a positive effect upon the Watch and its openness to the cultural normalisation of mental health and wellbeing. Primarily amongst these was the gender split on the Watch where the influence of female watch members was confirmed as being positive, and the age range across the Watch, where younger members can have a positive impact. We asked questions regarding gender split and age demographics in all our Watch based interviews and the responses from interviewees to their impact and/or presence was positive when it had been observed.
84. There is evidence to suggest that firefighters who have lengthy service may have served in a ‘hyper masculine environment’ (Hill et al, 2023) in previous years and that this may in some instances influence their attitudes to contemporary mental health approaches. We consider this issue further within this report in relation to FDOs.
Case Study: The Value of the Watch in Providing Peer Support
During this inspection we came across many examples of the value of the Watch based system providing peer support for its members. This support adds value in that it supports the maintenance of positive mental health for those who work within a Watch.
Additionally, we sought to understand how the gender and age balance within a Watch could contribute to a positive mental health culture within it. Many interviewees agreed that there was a positive benefit to be achieved through a more balanced Watch, rather than the traditional all male make up that many within the SFRS may have served within. The Service is working hard to attract firefighters from a wide range of diverse backgrounds.
There was one very clear example where a WC who had recently transferred from a ‘well- balanced’ Watch, in terms of gender and age, to one which was male only with most members having a long length of time in Service. He informed us that the dynamic on the gender and age balanced Watch was much more open, that members would talk about issues that were causing them concern and that there was a perception of open caring for colleagues. This example demonstrates the positive mental health benefits that can be derived through balanced demographics on a Watch.
On Call staff and access to Mental Health Services
85. An important feature of the On Call firefighter group is that they have a training night, one evening every week for two to three hours. During these sessions they will perform a range of station maintenance duties, appliance and equipment checks, take part in their operational training and perform any necessary administration tasks associated with all of these work elements. For this inspection we interviewed a number of On Call station personnel and WCs. Much of the comments we have made within this report relating to wholetime Watches and their WCs can be directly mapped over to the On Call group. However, there are some distinct issues that impact this group when compared to their Wholetime colleagues.
86. On Call firefighters were unanimous that they did not have enough time to get fully immersed in the details of the mental health and wellbeing services that the SFRS provided and that they rely on their WC in this regard. The group overall agreed that they have equal access to services when they are needed, and they did not feel that there were any restrictions when compared to Wholetime colleagues.
87. The positive value of the Watch in an on-call setting was again discussed, although they commented that they had less time to have a more immediate group discussion and reflection about operational incidents that they may have attended. At the conclusion of incidents, they would carry out essential maintenance and then return home and this results in a lower level of peer group interaction and support. This group returning home to families at the conclusion of incidents lends further weight to the need for the involvement of this critical social support group. As we have mentioned in this report, peer and social support are key coping mechanisms for firefighters. One other aspect to this that should be considered is that On Call firefighters may often return to their workplace at the conclusion of operational incidents. If this is the case without peer or social support, then there is potential for impacts upon their employers and their workplace.
88. A key aspect of working within the On Call system is the pressure to maintain crewing levels to maximise appliance availability. We received comments that this constant vigilance to maintain appropriate levels of personnel can lead to a feeling of “always being switched on” and being unable to have extended periods of time where you are not thinking about Fire Service work. This also leads to another stressor that was identified during interviews, which is maintaining an appropriate balance between work and family demands. Many interviewees told us about stress around any family or social event as these had to be planned far in advance to ensure appliance availability was not compromised unnecessarily.
Recommendation 13: The Service should consider the most appropriate use of On Call drill night hours to ensure that appropriate access to essential information, including mental health and wellbeing resources, can be achieved.