The Future Frontline: Shared Solutions to Shared Problems

From Sydney to Sweden, green uniforms to blue, classroom to custody – the first lesson of last week’s Frontline Fulfilment event was clear: the challenges facing emergency services, education and critical occupations are not just shared, they are shared globally.

This event came about because of this simple fact – and our belief that by bringing together the right people, driven by a genuine desire to solve these issues and create the systems and support that those society depends on deserve, we can embed and sustain positive change that benefits everyone. We were clear that this wouldn’t be about giving a platform to the same tired presentations and platitudes from those who have a demonstrable record of achieving nothing beyond more conference appearances for each other and hefty salaries and pension top-ups for themselves. An “anti-conference” then, as it was called on several occasions. However, we wanted to focus strongly on positive solutions rather than moaning or bashing the established services.

Can we put people at the centre of frontline services? If we do, what will we gain?

It seems blindingly obvious, but all these services – policing, health, education and beyond – are people centred. Not just the people performing those roles and wearing the uniform, but those impacted by them: students, communities, the fabric of society. The prize here is huge for all groups: better functioning services that save money and allow their people to flourish and achieve the fulfilment they entered that vocation for; safer communities; maximising potential of our young people to name but a few.

The aim of the day was to draw out the key themes that we believed posed challenges, opportunities and thorny, complex questions for us to explore.

Within a few minutes of our first session on “Coaching the Whole Person”, we’d heard from experts in education, policing, health and academia and hit on a key, shared pain point: scarcity of time and space.

Demand constantly outstripping supply and people who are service and purpose driven. Finding the opportunity for police officers or teachers or paramedics to stop and say to themselves “why am I here?” – as well as having the tools to respond effectively to that reflection – may seem light years away for most, but we heard from Adele Testa that small steps in pilot schemes in her acute mental healthcare had led to powerful performance benefits that could indeed be measured in numerical KPI terms. The lesson here for supervisors and team leaders: even if it’s one hour per week at first, giving people the space to decompress is not only a wellbeing necessity to keep the wheels turning but crucial to future-proofing the organisational culture.

Inclusion and vulnerability quickly became key points that would crop up all day. Embedding a culture where everyone has the power to speak leads to better decision-making and true innovation. These meetings are already taking place – can we rethink hierarchical structures and allow voices that may not carry “rank” to be heard?

The second session of the day generated some of the most powerful and emotive content. Taking on the subject of Mental Fitness, with perspectives from around the World and across emergency services as well as the Coronavirus response, we quickly heard that understanding at senior levels is not where it could be. Louise Murphy of the Australian First Responder Foundation summed up the challenging and often traumatic environment we ask frontline personnel to operate in eloquently:

“You can’t walk through water and expect not to get wet”.

Toby Cowern drawing on military and emergency service experiences in the UK and Sweden, argued that many organisations had either missed or deliberately ignored the overwhelming business case for investing in “developing our mental muscles”.

Unsurprisingly, stigma was quickly identified as a common concern by the audience. Being removed from specialist roles, denied promotion or “debadged” is a real concern and it was felt that a lack of consistency across forces meant that individual line managers could be a “make or break” factor.

Dr Carla Stanton identified a cultural contributor to this reticence: police officers, doctors, paramedics operate in a position of authority and feel that the public turn to them to fix problems – making it harder to ask for help themselves.

Our panellists agreed that creating a culture of Mental Fitness needed to be both “top-down” and “bottom-up”: leadership built on a foundation of understanding in which everyone has a part to play. Adding accessibility to this and giving all levels the ability to openly offer feedback on resources provided was seen as a crucial part of a healthy system. Leaders were encouraged to create clarity and structure through communication that reduces cognitive overload and allows individuals to perform their core roles without becoming overwhelmed.

Connecting back to the first session of the day, the panel reaffirmed the importance of leaders understanding the strengths of their people and making a genuine commitment to invest in them. Wellbeing programmes that only go as far as fruit baskets are no match for tackling complex issues such as shift patterns, workloads, accumulated fatigue and unprocessed trauma.

Resilience was a contentious term of the day. Leading into the discussion on “Practical and Proactive Suicide Prevention”, we were keen to establish the meaning of resilience in this context. There had been various comments that resilience risked becoming a stick to beat people with – putting the onus on already struggling people to somehow “become more resilient”. Professor Jo Clarke told us her view on resilience – an oak tree may sneer at the reeds around it as they bend and sway in the wind, but when a hurricane comes the tree may snap and the reeds have the flexibility to cope. Sam Smith told us that in his campaigning for a national minimum standard of mental health provision for police officers, he consistently heard that stigma was a real barrier to seeking help. Self-care was highlighted – Dr Jess Miller encouraged us to “befriend your brain”.

Reaching out, or reaching in?

Prevention was in the title of the panel and was a key point all panellists stressed. Al McGregor drew on his positive psychology work with military and police to highlight the importance of simple peer support structures, saying: “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care”. Kindness and positivity work – Al cited the example of US law enforcement barbecues in police station car parks creating an openness and naturally preventative measure. Syd Gravel reinforced this view from his work in Canadian policing – and underlined the importance of peer support networks being allowed to flourish even if they cross existing organisational boundaries. For example, sometimes a paramedic who had experienced a specific incident alongside a police officer may well be the right support outlet. Occupational Health departments were encouraged to empower people to choose the support systems that worked for them as an individual – going back to the “whole person” concept the day began with.

Many of these deeper themes of personal values and purpose were explored in detail in subsequent panels led by Kathryn Grice from the Teacher Empowerment Project focusing on Flexible Working and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Visible leadership quickly become a theme – leaders were encouraged to live their commitment to flexibility loudly and proudly. We heard that “saying yes” was a powerful tool and something simple leaders could do – being open to ideas and the needs their teams were expressing.

“I had to go through it – why shouldn’t you?”

This was mentioned several times as a barrier – leaders or peers feeling that the barriers they had faced were some kind of badge of honour that others needed to pass through to earn their stripes. In a passionate and powerful discussion on Inclusion, we heard from leaders in education and policing who felt they had needed to over-deliver to achieve their positions – as well as taking on extra workloads and responsibilities as advocates that their peers were not burdened by.

Retention and the process of leaving – simple steps to a lasting impression

In our panel on retention, we established that many of our panellists and presenters were no longer serving these institutions – but in fact far from feeling bitterness or anger, they (we) are using our own experiences to now help others see their options. We agreed that a series of interactions (positive or negative) with the systems and structures of policing/education had led us to a feeling that the only option was to leave. Some of us had been supported in that and equipped for it, others less so. The key here is to make people aware that there are positive options – inside or outside the organisation – and whatever the correct route is for that person should be supported. By doing this, police services or schools or hospitals not only keep hard-won talent for longer – they gain leavers who are advocates for recruitment and (whisper it) may even come back one day with new skills and experiences.

The day culminated in a lively discussion on Values Based Leadership. With an incredible panel of leaders and leadership experts from policing, military, education and beyond, this was challenging and thought-provoking and reinforced many of the themes of the day. Values based leadership was described as an aspiration for policing by MPS C/Supt Raj Kohli – moving from a command and control led ethos where decisions are made based on legislation and policy, to heart-led decisions. Raj described this as often “hitting the target but missing the point”. Areas such as policing protest were identified as moral quandaries for policing to work around – how can an organisation enforce laws that may conflict with political or ethical views of individual officers, for example?

Roger Steare highlighted this juxtaposition between following rules and doing the right thing morally or ethically. Leading into a conversation about selection of leaders, Roger advocated the need for “moral character” to be a key selection criterion.

A culture of challenge and openness was seen as crucial – just as it had been throughout the day. We know that there are values-based leaders in operation throughout emergency services and beyond – the next step is to empower them and make them heard.

This event aimed to build momentum behind the concept that we can empower the exceptional people in frontline roles to thrive, to the benefit of society as a whole. We invite you to join us on that journey and play your part.

This is only a small snapshot of the day – which is available to watch in full via the following link:

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