The heads of agencies at the Ministry of Justice and Community Services (MoJCS) have joined forces to explore fresh approaches to supporting staff mental health and wellbeing.

This comes amid growing concerns about the impact of work-related stress on justice sector legal professionals in Vanuatu.

Launching new research on wellbeing, the MoJCS agency leaders highlighted how increasingly heavy workloads, high-pressure work environments (particularly during cyclones and other humanitarian emergencies), and exposure to distressing material and contexts place a burden on the wellbeing of professionals working across the justice sector. To tackle these issues, the justice agencies expressed their commitment to exploring new, culturally and contextually grounded approaches that support MoJCS professionals to deliver their work for communities.

Leaders from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), the Department of Corrections, the Supreme Court, the Public Solicitor’s Office, the Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs, the Vanuatu Law Reform Commission, the Ombudsman’s Office and the Office of the Public Prosecutor, united to endorse this research, jointly acknowledging the threats to wellbeing faced by justice professionals (particularly in the provinces) which include stress, fatigue, and burnout, and are known to influence decision-making and productivity.

The research was commissioned as part of Vanuatu’s partnership with Australia and has been ongoing since 2022. Titled “Supporting the Wellbeing of Legal Professionals in Vanuatu,” this research initiative drew on sector-wide surveys, interviews and focus groups – from staff at all levels of the agencies. In the context of Vanuatu and the broader Pacific region where there are limited existing resources to address mental health needs, the locally led research and co-design was supported by specialist Australian research expertise. The research drew on Indigenist research and community development principles to promoted outcomes that are appropriate to Vanuatu and ensure that future wellbeing measures are designed to be locally led at all stages.

Recognising that Vanuatu is a uniquely diverse and challenging environment – linguistically, geographically, culturally, and legally – and one where the destructive impacts of cyclones and related climate crises place additional burdens on institutions, the report findings also highlighted how excess work-related stress can lead to lower job satisfaction in the short term, and more serious mental health problems in the longer term. The research indicates that workforce wellbeing is important for maintaining the integrity, efficiency, resilience, and effectiveness of the entire justice sector.

According to the agency leaders, this important work is linked to the MoJCS’ draft Capacity Development strategy 2023 – 2026 and will help drive sustained good practice and wellness approaches across the sector. The next step for the research team and co-design team is to support participating agencies in the rollout of the actions identified in the research.

The MoJCS’ focus on staff wellbeing complements other initiatives already underway within the Government of Vanuatu, such as the upcoming launch of the Vanuatu Police Force’s wellbeing strategy, and it is hoped that Ministry’s framework and learnings will act as a template for other ministries and agencies to explore staff wellbeing activities.