The Blue Light Programme: Support for emergency services
27 Sep 2016
Kate Spiegelhalter, IES Research Officer
Emergency workers are more likely to experience mental health problems than the wider workforce, with almost 9 out of 10 (88%) staff and volunteers in England experiencing stress, low mood or poor mental health at some point. IES was asked by Mind to evaluate measures to improve workplace wellbeing for these workers.
Emergency workers are less likely than other workers to seek out or receive good mental health support, or to take time off work if they have a mental health problem. More than half are not aware of any mental health support offered by their employer, and 71 per cent think that their organisation does not encourage them to talk about their mental health – a much more negative result than for the wider workforce. Mind was awarded £4 million of Government funding to develop the Blue Light programme, which was launched in March 2015 with the aim of addressing the issues above via a number of different mechanisms.
This article presents the findings of IES’s evaluation of the ‘Workplace Wellbeing’ training interventions, which constituted Strand 2 of the Blue Light programme. Strand 2 consisted of two types of training intervention: a package of webinars tailored to professionals working in the four services and face-to-face training sessions for line managers. IES adopted a mixed-methods approach to the evaluation, comprising a number of paper and web-based surveys, in-depth qualitative interviews, and case studies. The aim was to represent views and experiences in relation to the webinar and the face-to-face training across all Blue Light services.
Content of the training and webinars
The bespoke half-day face-to-face training for line managers was delivered by 20 local Mind branches, and offered guidance on how to manage staff who may be dealing with mental health issues and how to support their recovery, including initiating potentially difficult conversations with people finding it hard to cope. The training also signposted specialist sources of support for situations requiring expert clinical input, and how to promote wellbeing within a team. More than 5,000 managers participated in this training. The webinars were a series of short online films specifically designed for emergency services staff and volunteers, and were available on the Mind website. They were aimed at educating and informing Blue Light professionals about the nature of mental health conditions and how they can develop, addressing common myths and misapprehensions. Information was also provided to help individuals develop better self-care techniques and enable them to recognise warning signs in colleagues who may be struggling. 364 people viewed the webinars, with a good spread across the four services.
Increase in understanding of mental health problems
The results of this evaluation suggested that line managers’ self-reported understanding of mental health problems and relevant work factors improved significantly as a consequence of the face-to-face training. There was also evidence of important attitudinal changes and self-confidence to support others as well as their own mental health, with particular confidence around starting a conversation with people who may be showing signs and symptoms of a mental health problem, and an understanding of the elements of their own service’s work that put people’s mental health at risk. Follow-up survey findings indicated that this learning was sustained over subsequent months.
Low webinar viewing figures
By contrast, viewing numbers for the webinars were disappointing. Findings suggest that access to the webinars was hindered by IT access issues, apparently often resulting from employees not having authorisation to download the correct software. The low number of responses to the webinar surveys meant that no reliable conclusions could be drawn regarding their impact. However, the inclusion of Blue Light professionals’ own stories in the webinars were felt to bring issues to life and underline the importance of taking action to support affected workers. There was a strong feeling that the webinars would be beneficial to colleagues who had not seen them, particularly those with relatively low levels of awareness of mental health issues. Other evidence however suggested that the webinars appeared to be useful as ‘refreshers’ for those with pre-existing knowledge; this finding possibly arises from the fact that many research participants who watched the webinars appeared to have relatively advanced existing knowledge about the management of mental health issues. For this population, they appeared to be successful as a good reference source complementary to other Blue Light support. Overall there was appreciation of the bespoke approach that had been taken to ensure a ‘fit’ with each of the four Blue Light services and this was viewed as a very important aspect of the programme.
Stress rarely has a singular cause
It was clear from the evaluation that both job-specific and personal circumstances need to be taken into account when understanding pressures on individuals at work. This highlights the importance of employers providing a flexible and supportive working environment. Further, while it can be helpful to ‘compartmentalise’ domestic and work stresses from the perspective of specialist agencies who fund initiatives and pilots, researchers and practitioners need to keep the bigger picture in mind and remember that stress rarely has a singular cause. Organisational context is also an important factor in determining attendance at face-to-face training sessions and the impact of new learning. The easier an organisation makes it to ‘opt-out’ of training, the more likely it will be that those who are arguably most in need of it will not attend. This is an important consideration when promoting training and working with organisations to encourage uptake.
The way forward
Even with sufficient consideration of IT-related access issues, it is clear that web-based materials need to be tailored to meet the working patterns of Blue Light staff. On the basis of this evaluation, this could mean making the webinars shorter, providing an overview of contents at the beginning, segmenting them into sections that can be viewed separately, and making registration faster or dispensing with it all together. In considering these findings, the potentially confounding ‘background’ effect of the Blue Light Programme as a whole should also be considered, as other strands may have contributed to these positive changes. In tackling stigma, it is clear that the Blue Light Programme can have significant benefits for both the individuals who are exposed to it, the personnel they manage, and the public they serve. However, effecting cultural change on a larger scale may be a longer process. Mind has pledged to take the findings of the evaluation forward in 2016 and 2017, including redeveloping the training course. Efforts to raise the profile of mental health will need to be sustained, and supported by organisational investment as well as visible endorsement by senior management, if scepticism is to be overcome and attitudes are to be shifted across the Blue Light workforce as a whole.
 Mind (2016), Our Blue Light – Mental health support for our emergency services staff and volunteers – one year on, Mind
 Wilson S, Sinclair A, Huxley A, Spiegelhalter K (2016), Evaluation of Mind’s Blue Light Programme: Strand 2: Workplace Wellbeing, Mind
 Mind (2016), Blue Light Programme Research Summary, Mind
This article was amended on 2 November 2016 to remove any implication that increased risk of mental health problems arises principally from the nature of incidents attended by emergency service professionals.