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Peer Supporter at work. Courtesy Surf Life Saving New Zealand

Member wellbeing

People are the most valuable and important resource in the SAR sector. There has been considerable effort in the last few years to develop better systems to support the wellbeing of our members, resulting in some excellent programmes and growing cross-sector collaboration.


Andy Greig, Principal Adviser in the NZSAR Secretariat coordinates the NZSAR Strategic Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee. The Committee encourages structured discussion and collaboration across our sector, and most recently held their biannual workshop in Wellington in March 2023.

A variety of presentations from across the sector provided programme updates and formed the basis of workshop discussions. From outside the core SAR sector, Adele Saunders from Hato Hone St John presented on welfare issues after high trauma events, with specific experience regarding their staff members who responded to the Christchurch terror attack.

The workshop highlighted opportunities to collaborate more, including sharing research findings, and potentially standardising member self-assessment tools. Several agencies identified similar challenges with their member wellbeing support programs. Members often misunderstood how to use the systems, and more work is planned to address this situation. Collectively, the workshop agreed no one size fits all. “Each person deals with health and wellbeing issues differently, requiring a range of tools and support mechanisms to cater for everyone,” says Andy. A specific example is ensuring the counsellor fits the personality and wellbeing needs of the SAR member being supported. Collaborative work is ongoing in these areas.

Carl McOnie, CEO of Land Search and Rescue reflects on how the sector came together to address one of the key operational wellbeing risks. “The collective willingness in the sector to better manage fatigue and driving is worthy of praise,” he says. The NZSAR Secretariat commissioned a Fatigue Guidance Note for Search and Rescue in 2019 and from that general advice, Land Search and Rescue created operational guidelines. “It is not uncommon for a volunteer to turn up after a hard day at work for a task that continues long into a stormy night,” says Carl. “After consulting with volunteers and across the sector, we were able to create a fatigue management and driving standard to put lines in the sand to assist searchers and management teams during operations.”

Nicky Hansen is the National Health, Safety & Wellbeing Advisor for Land Search and Rescue. “There’s a variety of tools and wellbeing support processes for our members, which we’re working hard to refine and improve,” she says. Following a critical incident, groups can contact a Group Support Officer (a paid staff member) to initiate Wellbeing Safety Checks. These are provided by a professional counselling service, and form a safety net to detect changes in wellbeing which might indicate the need for further action such as dedicated counselling sessions. 

As well as post-incident services, Land Search and Rescue has proactive tools to keep volunteers on top of things on a routine basis. The Land Search and Rescue Self Wellbeing Check-in Tool provides word pictures for a person’s sleep, physical wellbeing, moods, plus physical and mental performance on operations, to help them realise whether they are thriving, surviving, distressed or unwell. “We know that people react over time to the cumulative effects of stress. This tool is aimed at helping people be more self-aware, and encouraging them to seek support early,” says Nicky. If needed, members can get access to proactive counselling services for free.

Ari Peach is the National Wellbeing Lead for Surf Life Saving NZ (SLSNZ), a role which began in September 2021. The initial key aim of this role was to establish a nationwide Peer Support programme and ensure that counselling services met the needs of the membership. The recent evolution of wellbeing support for lifeguards has had a strong proactive focus to ensure that lifeguards are prepared to deal with the challenges that they may face.

“We have tried to make it really clear that counselling support is something we want our people to use proactively,” says Ari. “It could be for anything; whether it is personal issues, challenges within Surf Clubs or after exposure to critical incidents.” Immediate families of members are also eligible for the free service. “Many of our members are younger, so it is critical that we involve whānau to ensure everyone is properly supported.”

Because surf lifeguards can encounter significant traumatic incidents, particularly within the SAR space, the support systems that are available need to be robust. SLSNZ use their peer supporters to provide initial support after a traumatic incident, and then everyone involved gets a follow up check from a counsellor two days after the incident, then again at two weeks. “Some people prefer to talk to someone they know, whilst others want it to be totally anonymous. By using a combination of peer support and counsellors, we cover both bases so our members can get the support that suits them best,” says Ari.

SLSNZ has selected and trained 178 volunteers as peer supporters. Peer supporters also receive annual training, plus ongoing supervision from peer support facilitators across the network. At present, Land Search and Rescue is developing its own peer supporter system.

The NZSAR Secretariat continues to work on international connections in the wellbeing space, to ensure we remain aware of global developments. Andy Greig is a member of the International Marine Rescue Federation #SARyouOK? wellbeing working group. “A particular area of interest has been ‘psychological first aid',” says Andy. SOS Mediterannaee, a non-government maritime rescue service in Europe, provides psychological first aid training to all its members so they can provide initial support to one another during and after stressful events. The aim is reducing the immediate mental health impacts to individuals, so that any peer support or professional counselling followup can start from a better place.

Within many organisations, wellbeing systems have come a long way in a short time. Across the sector, the benefits of collaboration are clear. “Particularly when it comes to mental wellbeing, the agencies can learn a lot from each other,” says Andy. “NZSAR welcomes the opportunity to facilitate that collaboration. Our aim is to support the sector experts so they can better contribute to supporting our members.”


Header image: Peer supporter at work. Courtesy Surf Life Saving New Zealand.

This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of Link magazine

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