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Wellness national manager Anna Nelson: "We've always been part of the fabric of policing in terms of being deployed and providing advice around major operations."

From welfare to wellness

As the Police Wellness team prepares to celebrate 60 years of service, they reflect on a slow but successful revolution in the care of Police staff.

When wellness adviser Julie Matthews started working for Police in 2003, one of the first referrals she got was to mow the lawns of a member who had broken his leg. “I panicked because I thought, I’m really bad at mowing lawns and it’s not in my job description.”

The request was probably taking the idea of pastoral care a bit too literally, but, using her initiative, Julie found someone to do it.

Nearly 20 years on, Julie’s job title has changed from welfare officer to Wellness team leader for the upper North Island, leading a team of nine advisers. Her colleague, lower North Island and South Island team leader Kirsten Toms, who also leads nine advisers, joined Police in 2019. Three weeks after she started, Kirsten found herself on a Hercules flying to Christchurch to provide a Wellness response to Op Deans.

The changes are a clear example of the evolving ethos of the service, now called the Wellness team, with a national manager, two team leaders and 18 advisers. They work under the Safer People banner, which has a suite of services including the Wellness Hub, Return to Work, Physical Education and Health & Safety functions.

The major shift in the Wellness service, says national manager Anna Nelson, has been from a “benevolent” focus to a “strength-based” focus – from “welfare to wellness”.

“Rather than doing things for people or to them, we do things alongside them, with their consent, to focus on the strength that they bring to their own wellness and the choices they make about their health.”

Such terminology would have been a foreign language to the first five welfare officers appointed in 1963. All that was required of them was to have had 20 years’ service, be at the rank of NCO or constable and to be a “family man with patience and understanding” and “a man with a good personality having the confidence of his fellow police officers”.

The establishment of the welfare officer function is thought to have had its origins earlier in the decade when Police became concerned about the number of officers who were leaving the job because of personal problems connected to their work.

A Police report from the early 90s on the role of welfare officers noted that the scheme was a significant departure for the organisation, from “the strict authoritarian management approach where relatively little attention or concern was shown to individual problems or human factors”.

It appeared that, for the first time, Police was officially recognising that police officers were “human beings, subject to the same frustration and stress of private life as other people, as well as having to cope with the unique pressures inherent in their occupation”.

In her 2005 book, More Than Law and Order, Policing a changing society 1945-92, historian Susan Butterworth said she suspected the catalyst was, in fact, a series of “terrible events” in 1963 – four officers shot dead, two at Waitākere and two in Lower Hutt, and on June 23, the Kaimai air crash, which “required a gruesome and arduous operation to recover bodies”.

She said recognition of the need for compassion and care of officers who had been exposed to horror and trauma was long overdue. “In the macho culture of the police, too many went around full of stony-faced, dry-eyed anguish over events they had been involved in.”

Butterworth said the welfare scheme was a step in the right direction, but she also identified some of its drawbacks.

“First, the welfare officers, however willing, had only sketchy training and were more likely to approach their clients as sergeants than counsellors. Second, whether fairly or not, there was a perception that they were agents of the administration who could not be trusted…”

The service and its structure continued in much the same way until the turn of the century when a smattering of non-sworn staff began to be employed in welfare officer roles. It was the start of recognition about what sort of skill set, experience and professional training was required to deliver the best wellness outcomes for staff.

A review of the service in 2001 concluded that Police needed to move away from predominantly constabulary staff and employ appropriately qualified practitioners.

Anna, who joined the team in 2020, has a background in the addiction sector, while Julie and Kirsten came from DHB backgrounds – Kirsten was a senior mental health nurse specialist and Julie was a social work senior practitioner.

Within the national team there is a mix of social workers, nurses, counsellors and occupational therapists. The service prides itself on offering privacy and confidentiality of the information shared.

The name-change from welfare officer to wellness adviser did not happen till 2019. Meanwhile, the environment in which police were working had already changed a lot – a rise in firearms incidents and major operations such as the Christchurch earthquakes and, in 2019, the mosque shootings. And, an increase in cases of post-traumatic stress.

The result has been referrals to the Wellness team that require expert advice and good case management. The advisers work closely with the clinical psychologists of which there are about 170 contracted to Police.

“We’ve always been part of the fabric of
policing in terms of being deployed and providing advice around major operations,” Anna says. Most recently, it was Operation Convoy. “What Wellness does to support such operations is very much ‘behind the scenes’, and very often unseen.”

From helping individuals to providing education, it’s been a long journey to build the professionalism and breadth of the service. “Accessing Wellness services is now seen by most within the organisation as an important sign of resilience, and no longer as a sign of weakness,” Anna says. “That’s an important cultural shift.”

There is a lot more to be done in the wellness space, but on the cusp of the 60th anniversary, Anna says it’s important to not lose sight of those who came before, “because without them, we wouldn't be where we are today”.

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