Improving responsiveness to Queensland workers in distress

Mental Health First Aid, ASIST training and Warm Transfer process – Office of Industrial Relations

With a busy call centre and direct contact with Queensland workers, we spoke to Nicole Hughes, Principal Advisor at Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, Office of Industrial Relations (OIR) about the strategies put in place to look after the mental health of their customers and agency staff.

What was the need you were addressing and how did this emerge as an issue?

From time to time, the Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) call centre staff receive calls from very distressed workers with workplace, personal or family-related stress affecting their mental health. For some callers, they may discuss suicidal thoughts or other self-harm behaviours they have been experiencing. Preparing and equipping staff with the skills to respond sensitively and effectively to the caller is key.

In addition to the call centre, Workplace Health and Safety Inspectors working throughout the Queensland community might have direct face-to-face contact with workers in psychological distress and experiencing suicidality.

HR advisors were also aware of similar risks for internal staff.

With the need identified across a number of areas it was critical to develop a mental health strategy and workable approaches to support the Queensland community and OIR staff.  

What are the key elements of the mental health strategy?

There are three key elements:

A Mental Health First Aid program was developed and provided across the state aimed at all staff. Currently 80 staff have been trained and increasing to over 100 staff in the current roll-out of the training. The program builds the confidence in all staff to respond to people experiencing a range of mental health issues. This includes content, knowledge and skills-building around responding to a person at risk of suicide. The program is an accredited course with accreditation needing to be refreshed every 3 years.

A further training element of the strategy is Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), run by an external agency, Lifeline. The two-day ‘gatekeeper’ program is more intensive and focuses on building skills in suicide prevention and intervention (primarily a safe plan that connects an at-risk individual with a variety of community resources). This skills development program is aimed at staff who are more likely to be contacted by, and need to support, a person at risk of suicide. So far, 25 staff statewide have been through the ASIST training.

The third element is what OIR describe as the Warm Transfer process. A WHSQ call centre employee or field worker may be contacted by a highly stressed worker and start to talk about suicide. At this point there is an opportunity to link the person into professional support with suitably trained mental health professionals who can then talk to the person and put a safety plan in place. This Warm Transfer process can be over the phone or face-to-face and is a service contracted out to one of the Employee Assistance Program agencies.

How is the OIR leadership team involved?

Ongoing support from the leadership team in the Office of Industrial Relations is an essential part of the program, with approval for the strategies at a senior level and the provision of funding and resourcing.

Leading by example, members of the senior leadership team have participated in the program. They have experienced first-hand the value of the program, both for customers and for WHSQ employees, and are ongoing champions for the different elements of the mental health strategy.

How were the linkages and relationships with other external agencies managed?

Strong links have been developed and maintained with both Lifeline and the EAP provider. Regular meetings have been set up to review feedback and evaluations, informing the ongoing improvements to the programs.

Managing positive relationships with these agencies keeps the programs relevant and effective, while ensuring OIR customers and staff benefit from the overall mental health strategy.

What do your people think about the training and procedure?

Rachel Hawkins the Director – Engagement, Insurer and Tribunal Services at OIR believes:

Rachel Hawkins, OIR

The Mental Health First Aid program provided an invaluable learning and development opportunity for OIR’s Engagement, Insurer and Tribunal Services. This accredited course provided knowledge and skills to equip people in our business area with the confidence they needed to respond to people experiencing a range of mental health issues.

The skills gained were practical and highly relevant to our work at the Medical Assessment Tribunals. Immediately following the training, a team member confidently used the strategies learned to support a person with a work-related mental health condition attending the tribunal. The worker acknowledged the assistance and follow up contact provided by the team member ensured a positive tribunal hearing experience and helped with their mental health journey.

With an evaluation undertaken of the Mental Health First Aid and ASIST training programs, OIR staff report a high level of satisfaction, with positive feedback about the content, access to resources and follow-up as necessary.

A Mental Health First Aid network has been developed and maintained in OIR to keep staff informed of new developments and procedures put in place.

For the Warm Transfer process, staff have reported they feel comfortable and supported where they are able to refer and link people from the Queensland community into professional support. While contact with people experiencing psychological distress and thoughts of suicide or self-harm is not a frequent occurrence, staff have a well-developed process and procedures to follow should the need arise.

Post-training feedback is an important component and helps to shape and improve the training and services to staff. In addition, follow-up contact with staff at 6 months following training provides great information of how staff have used the knowledge and skills. Research and feedback show there are benefits at a personal level for staff in taking up the training.

A challenge for OIR is to keep staff updated on current developments with the Warm Transfer process. Regular communications with staff, input and discussions through the Mental Health First Aid program and ASSIT training reinforces the availability of the process. Staff working at the call centre and in the field can feel out of their depth and/or comfort zone and while the need for the Warm Transfer process is not a regular occurrence, the ability to link a distressed person to trained mental health professionals is an essential part of responding to those in need.

More information

If you would like to find out more about this Workplace Health and Safety Queensland program, you can email to: culture@oir.qld.gov.au