Emergency Service Workers: The Role of Policy and Management in (Re)shaping Wellbeing for Emergency Service Workers

Published date01 December 2023
AuthorBen Farr-Wharton,Yvonne Brunetto,Aglae Hernandez-Grande,Kerry Brown,Stephen Teo
Date01 December 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2023, Vol. 43(4) 774 –793
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X221130977
Emergency Service Workers:
The Role of Policy and
Management in (Re)shaping
Wellbeing for Emergency
Service Workers
Ben Farr-Wharton1, Yvonne Brunetto1,2 ,
Aglae Hernandez-Grande3, Kerry Brown1,
and Stephen Teo1
This article examines the impact of psychosocial safety climate (PSC) levels and
strength on the job stress and psychological distress of emergency services workers
within street level bureaucracies (SLBs). The reason for the research is because the
nature of their work and organizational context pre-disposes them to elevated level
of psychological distress, and places them at a higher risk of subsequent debilitating
physical and mental diseases, which is a cost borne by employees, their families,
friends, SLBs, and taxpayers. Survey data was obtained from 274 emergency services
workers (including police, and paramedics), nested within 43 workgroups, in
Australia. Multilevel regression indicated that lower levels of PSC were associated
with higher levels of job stress and psychological distress. Also, PSC strength had a
partial moderating effect. The findings justify governments intervening legislatively to
ensure SLBs’ take responsibility for ensuring a supportive PSC to mitigates the impact
of exposure to workplace trauma.
cutback management and human resource administration, employee attitudes,
behavior, and motivation, health issues and personnel, job stress, methodological issues
1Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, WA, Australia
2Southern Cross University, Faculty of Business, Law & Arts, Gold Coast Campus, Bilinga, Queensland
3University of Technology Sydney, NSW, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Yvonne Brunetto, Adjunct Professor of Management, Faculty of Business and Law, Edith Cowan
University, Joondalup, WA, Australia.
Email: yvonne.brunetto@scu.edu.au
1130977ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X221130977Review of Public Personnel AdministrationFarr-Wharton et al.
Farr-Wharton et al. 775
Emergency workers (such as police, firefighters, and paramedics) work in street level
bureaucracies (SLBs) and are tasked with rescuing and supporting victims of violence
(such as from domestic violence of a home invasion) or trauma (such as from a fire,
car accident, cyclone, or terrorism). This means that these workers are regularly
exposed to traumatic incidents, and some of them will experience acute and/or longer
lasting negative impacts depending on the quality and quantity of personal and organi-
zational support in place to promote personal coping measures (Tuckey & Scott,
According to Conservation of Resources Theory (CORT) stress is a natural human
response whenever one’s wellbeing is threatened (Hobfoll, 2011). Over time, continual
exposure to stress without any intervention to mitigate its impact can lead to psychologi-
cal distress, which is characterized by anxiety, depression, and increasing levels of emo-
tional turmoil, as well as an inability to cope (Horwitz, 2007). Occupational psychosocial
risk refers to the harm that could potentially result from poor management behaviors
and/or work design characteristics within organizations, such as excessive emotional or
physical job demands. Psychological distress is known to affect approximately a fifth of
European and US workers, and a further fifth of the population later experiences repeat
episodes (Drapeau et al., 2012). Additionally, the incidence of psychological distress is
significantly higher amongst emergency services workers (Tuckey & Scott, 2014).
During non-COVID times, high work intensity and harassment is the norm in SLBs
(Farr-Wharton et al., 2016); however, the situation has been exacerbated during the
COVID period (Jiang, 2021). Similarly, in Australia, emergency service workers are
exposed to higher levels of workplace trauma, and present with higher levels of psycho-
logical distress (Beyond Blue Ltd, 2018). Thus, while the work of the emergency ser-
vices is characterized by increased exposure to traumatic events, there are systematic
issues present within emergency services organizations and SLBs more broadly, which,
rather than assist employees in managing their exposure to harm, can actually make the
issues far, far worse. This means that workers face stress from both the nature of their
work as well as red tape and bureaucratic hurdles.
The high incidence of psychological distress amongst emergency service workers
is of concern to governments, SLBs, workers, their families and friends, and taxpayers
(who pay for stress-related workers compensation claims) (Beyond Blue Ltd, 2018;
Heyman et al., 2018; Safe Work Australia, 2021). One way of assessing psychosocial
risk is by examining Psychosocial Safety Climate (PSC) (Dollard & Bakker, 2010),
which predicts psychosocial risks, and consequently it is considered the lynchpin
between workplace stress and employee wellbeing. PSC refers to the extent to which
a work context is psychologically safe for employees, and is measured by the extent to
which employees perceive that their psychological health is an organizational priority,
evident by their bi-directional communication practices and support-driven manage-
ment behaviors (Dollard & Bakker, 2010).
The importance of the PSC within organizations is more pronounced as a result of
the increasing number of work-related mental disorders and the subsequent costs

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