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Fit civil servants can boost disaster management

Physical fitness levels in the SAPS have been a controversial issue lately. Even police commissioner Bheki Cele commented on the subject at last year’s graduation ceremony when he urged young recruits to work towards staying fit. He went as far as saying that government is considering agreements with gym groups to get police officers back into shape.

After all, police officers who can outrun criminals are an excellent reason why civil servants employed in disaster management should be in good physical shape! Several other reasons not only reiterate the point of them being able to do a good job, but also developing a police service that is physically and mentally healthy, and able to work productively.

Physical and mental health implies that people are aware of their current state of wellbeing and that they make active choices to reduce factors that can threaten it. For the average person, these choices extend as far as avoiding risk behaviour such as smoking, drugs or habits that contribute to disease. These factors are often not perceived to be risky, as most people are not able to play off current pleasures to potential long-term consequences.

A job environment that multiplies health risks

These risks are magnified for disaster teams or armed forces, as they are not only exposed to run-of-the-mill lifestyle risks, but also to extreme environmental stressors while doing their job. The government spends millions on recruiting and training people to maintain law and order. But we are all familiar with newspaper articles on police officers being killed on duty. Even more alarming are the suicide statistics.

It’s clear that stress is a major factor contributing to burnout and several psychological disorders, such as PTSS (post-traumatic stress syndrome). Even if they are not threatened physically, they witness violent and traumatic events. Naturally, debriefing has been an integral aspect of employee benefits since 1998, but comes at a cost. It can also not guarantee that people who were exposed to such events will be able to resume their duties as before.

Inactivity leads to illness and death

The bio-psycho-social aspects of health are all interrelated. Increased demands on the ability to maintain psychological balance lead to increased physical ill health. Sound physical health improves people’s ability to withstand mental stressors.

Every aspect of modern life, from long working hours to hectic schedules and under-serviced departments to constant stress, fosters inactivity. Approximately 25% to 35% of adults are inactive, thereby doubling their risk of developing numerous health conditions. This risk diminishes for people who are only moderately active and fit. In an ACLS (advanced cardiac life support) study it was found that poor fitness level accounted for 16% of all deaths. It was significantly higher than when other risk factors were considered, including obesity, smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Four healthy lifestyle factors – not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise and a healthy diet – in combination are associated with as much as an 80% reduction in the risk of developing the most common and deadly chronic diseases. Physical fitness contributes to minimising 4 of the 5 major known risk factors of chronic lifestyle diseases – obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

These factors drive an epidemic that is at the root of heart disease and stroke, which together contribute to 33% of South African men suffering one such event before the age of 60. These people will still be on the pay roll, but they’ll be more likely to be absent, with 15% of them likely to end up receiving disability grants. This situation is compounded with the estimation that up to 40% of the SAPS will be HIV positive by 2015. According to the MRC, the combination of HIV and chronic lifestyle diseases adds up to 76% of all deaths, leading to a life expectancy of 47 years.

Who protects them while they protect us?

Individuals in our emergency services, city police and fire brigades are constantly expected to be available to work extra shifts under extraordinary circumstances and manage every case, however minor, with the same precision, sound judgement and legal or medical responsibility.

Equipping them to actively participate in a lifestyle where they are held accountable to take care of themselves first, has so far not been part of their continuous professional development. And this is essential if we want to have civil servants who are willing and able to spend a lifetime serving their country. An emphasis on health maintenance is long overdue and warmly welcomed – we owe it to those in uniform, our tax payers and our country.

Study on Police muders