How is mental illness managed in the workplace?
Tuesday, May 9, 2017 - 20:30

Navigating the workplace with a mental illness can be challenging.

Do you tell your boss about an illness? If you do, how will they react? And, what happens if your mental illness might affect your ability to do the job?

Dave Westgate was hesitant to tell his boss out of concern his corporate career would be killed with kindness.

His feared reaction: “We won’t put Dave on the next big pitch or whatever because it might be too much pressure for him.”

For Carol Scherret, choosing to disclose her mental illness hasn’t always helped her in the workplace. 

“I’m either asked to leave, I leave because I’m sick … and some places have taken the opportunity when I’m off sick to restructure and then sort of say … 'there’s no job for you anymore'.”

John McCormack, a NSW paramedic, says he worried about his decision-making at work when he was struggling with a mental illness: “When I was at my worst, I would get complaints that I was rude and abrupt.”

Mental illness can be difficult territory for employers too.

For small business owners like Alex Colls, the adjustments required to support people with a mental illness can negatively impact the bottom line.

“Absenteeism … crept up to about 50 per cent which hurt such a small team on such a regular basis.”

And for others, like Andrew Campbell, it’s about ensuring that employees in the construction industry are well enough to stay safe on the job.

“Because our industry is so high risk, you know, the last thing we want is someone that’s not doing well that day and going to a high risk job and die because of it.”

The prevalence of Australians living with a mental illness means that this is an issue that both employees and employers are increasingly dealing with.

An employee’s mental health impacts business profit too. It’s estimated that mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces $10.9 billion dollars each year. And for approximately every $1 a workplace spends on mental health, they’ll see a $2.30 return on the investment.

This week Insight hears from employees and employers about how mental illness is being managed in the workplace. And asks, how can it be better managed?





JENNY BROCKIE:  And welcome to you all. Carol, you're 54, tell us what sort of jobs you've had? 

CAROL:  I'm a community educator, I mostly have worked in human services, some NGOs, some public sector jobs, basically doing adult education type things.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What sort of mental health issues are you dealing with? 

CAROL:  I have, I've struggled with depression and certainly with anxiety and in particular I do have panic attacks. I…

JENNY BROCKIE: Now this was bought on by a stroke that you had? 

CAROL:  I think the stroke really made me face up to.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tell me how all of that affects you at work? 

CAROL:  The combination is really quite severe, acute. I have episodes where I get very upset and very frustrated and because of the brain injury which is particularly in the area of speech, I then really get panicked that I'm not being clear, that I'm not able to find my words. I stutter and it fuels and I then end up bursting into tears and sometimes I can't, I can't breathe properly. I can't, I certainly can't speak, I can't explain what's going on and I can just kind of just collapse to the ground and just sort of have to sort of sit. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Literally collapse to the ground? 

CAROL:  Collapse onto ground and have to sort of sit there.  My legs go from underneath me and I have to sit down and have a cry and I…

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what sorts of things trigger that? 

CAROL:  Um, when, certainly conflict, I, I don't cope at all when things are very conflictual. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  That happens a lot at work? 

CAROL:  It does and so and that, then it becomes a thing that I don't behave professionally because a professional thing is to take that on the chin and, and just kind of go on.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So, when those sort of things happen how do your co-workers react to you? 

CAROL:  That's been, that's been a really difficult, again it's about my behaviours and they are, it's bad behaviour. I spent time with a psychologist and we talked about the best thing like in meetings and particularly doing the Public Service, you spend a lot of time in meetings which I really hate, so we do these…

JENNY BROCKIE:  I think most people in the Public Service hate that!

CAROL:  We do meetings. If I'm getting tongue tied, if I'm starting to have an anxiety attack, if I'm going to panic, to just put my hand up and leave and I've had the feedback that Carol, you know, Carol flounces out and, you know, but if I sit there and then just howl, that's not very professional either.

JENNY BROCKIE:  How have most of your jobs ended? 

CAROL:  Very, very badly. Very, very badly. At a point where things start to become quite tense and I become very anxious, then, and then people are looking at and wanting me to behave better and I know that I can't and I'm either asked to leave, I leave because I'm sick, I get so sick that I can't continue.  I've had a couple of times where I've ended up in hospital suicidal, that's how bad it gets for me. And some places have taken the opportunity when I'm off sick to restructure, change and then sort of say well actually no, there's no job for you anymore.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Are you working at the moment? 

CAROL:  I'm not. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Would you like to be?

CAROL:  I would love to work. I think that I have to accept, I've had to accept the limitations of myself and that I would do better if I was part-time so that I could manage my, my health. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  John, you're a paramedic with the NSW Ambulance Service. A couple of years ago you needed time off, why? 

JOHN:   Um, so we, me and my colleague I was working with that day, we attended a scene, just a what we call a concern for welfare case that we got a dispatch to. On arrival at that address that we went to, the person's friend was on the driveway and he told us a story about how his friend hadn't been seen for a couple of days and he hadn't seen him and was worried about him basically. And the police were basically with us there as well, just in case, and we accessed the property, we basically went through the property, went down to the hallway, I switched the light on, and I could just see these, just faintly down the end of the corridor hallway this bedroom and I could just see a couple of, just legs basically hanging off the bed. So I went down, went to the bedroom door and switched the light on and basically me and my partner were horrified to what we saw. The gentleman had suicided with a large bore weapon and basically, yeah, shot himself in the head. As you can imagine with that kind of scene, that was, I was profounded by, you know, the shock I suppose, just stood there and I could still remember it like it was, you know, yesterday, I suppose, those details. I can still remember the details. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What were you like at work before that incident, before that happened? 

JOHN:   Um, I'd always been told that I was a moody person, but the moods used to go, fluctuate from extreme to very low to very kind of I suppose depressive mood and I used to have extreme bouts of aggression, verbally, physically, that was a concern.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What happened after that incident you just described? 

JOHN:   Afterwards I went home, on-call and went to bed and, yeah, and had the most horrific nightmares during that night, didn't have a wink of sleep. Went into work the next day and my, my manager said oh, did you have a busy night? And I said yeah, it was pretty busy, yeah, it was, a few jobs and as I was explaining it I just burst into tears and couldn't speak after that and at that stage he was like okay, righto, was this, did anyone speak to you last night when this? I was like no, not at all. He said okay, sign off that vehicle, bring your, bring everything in and we're going to have a chat. At that stage it was mentioned about the services that were available such as that the Employee Assistance Program, peer support, the Chaplain and things like that. But at the time I didn't understand the feelings, the emotions that I was feeling, and yeah, it was a very confusing time for me, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how long after that were you diagnosed with PTSD? 

JOHN:  It was probably about two weeks after that incident that the psychologist was concerned that I was still at work and he basically mentioned to me that I was suffering from severe symptoms of PTSD that we need to address. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how long were you off work as a result? 

JOHN:   Approximately six months.

JENNY BROCKIE:  You talk about the mood swings and so on. Was that prior to that incident, prior to that happening? 

JOHN:   I did have a few incidents where people would say that I was rude.  I would probably have like, you know, and even with a couple of patients unfortunately, it was at the time when I was probably at my worst that I would get complaints saying that I was rude and I was abrupt with certain people.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What about family and friends, did they say anything to you? 

JOHN:   Yeah, they noticed a huge difference. My, my wife and things was very worried, I would have instances where I would just, just flip, to say the least. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What, violence in the home? 

JOHN:   Yeah, yeah, and I would basically punch a wall. I remember I head-butted a door once and I put my head through this wooden door.

JENNY BROCKIE:  As a paramedic you work under a lot of pressure. Do you think you were putting yourself or other people at risk by working in that job when you were in that state? 

JOHN:   I was definitely putting probably myself in positions, because I had issues major issues with my sleep, I had just horrific nightmares and just couldn't sleep and I would go out on a job during  the middle of a night and I just had no idea what I was feeling, what I was thinking and I was having thoughts of driving the ambulance off the side of the road, you know, and just thought well, maybe someone will listen, maybe someone will actually take notice, and yeah, I had incidents like that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Were you asking for help? 

JOHN:   I think so. Deep down, yeah, but I think help, in the position that we're in, like I, I love being a paramedic, I love helping people and we want to help people and that includes your colleagues, you don't want to let your colleagues down.  You don't just want to say I've got a problem, you don't want to put your hands up to a problem, so yeah, I didn't ever flag that up, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Dave, tell me what you do for a living? 

DAVE:  I'm in advertising. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What sort of job in advertising? 

DAVE: I'm in creative, I'm a copy writer by trade, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You gave a big presentation in 2013.  Tell us how that went and what happened afterwards? 

DAVE:  I was as nervous and anxious as possible, I went in, did a fantastic job, got the business, had lots of laughs and all that, and left immediately after and just sat down and burst into tears, but for two hours I'd been fantastic, I'd worn the mask and done the job brilliantly. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And had anything like that happened before? 

DAVE:  Um, yeah, probably not that that degree, but certainly, yeah, many times. I find that you, when you go to work you put on a mask, we all wear masks, but when you're mentally ill I think if you struggle out of bed and you get to work you put on a mask. You do your day's work and then you go home and you become the real you again.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tell me what it's like in the job?

DAVE:  I think working in the creative department of an advertising agency allows you a lot more flexibility in your behaviour and I suffer from bipolar one, I think my extremes back before I was diagnosed like have been manic was probably an aid to me. I think it probably helped me, it gave me more energy, probably give me a bit more creativity so it was probably an advantage to me.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Did anyone at work know that you were bipolar? 

DAVE:  The entire time that I worked for big advertising agencies I'd never told anybody.  When I was diagnosed and working for myself but working in different agencies and that sort of thing, I probably had about five people that knew me very well and who I confided in and they were, to me, like office angels.  They could sometimes pick me if I wasn't well, if I was going a bit manic or whatever and they took great care of me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How did it affect you in the workplace, bipolar one? 

DAVE:  I did have a few outbursts over my career, especially sort of later years where I exploded at people and I would have the most amazing let go of temper. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How severe? 

DAVE:  Oh, well not physically but I remember talking to a very dear friend, like a guy that I still speak to now, and I'd let loose so badly at him that all he could say to me was going "I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand where all this hatred's coming from", and when it had passed, I hate to say that about it but when it had passed fifteen minutes later I was in there profusely apologising to him. I reckon I've apologised to that guy twenty times over the course of the years because I'm so embarrassed about it. He's fantastic because he goes well, that's part of the game.  But yeah, and I did that to a number of people, I'm not proud of it, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Nick, you worked with Dave at Leo Burnett when you were chairman of the company and he was one of your senior writers. What was he like? 

NICK:  Um, he was very, very good at his job and very dependable and Dave is one of the people that I really did depend on to make sure we were producing good work and so I was astonished. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  When you found out? 

NICK:  Yeah, I was completely, even now I find it slightly odd to…


NICK:  Because I, I've never thought of Dave as wearing a mask and I suppose I've never sort of seen beyond that mask.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Would it have made a difference do you think if you'd known, to you and to the way that you treated him? 

NICK:  Um, it would have made a difference inasmuch as I'd have gone and had a conversation with him about it because I would have felt concern for him. But having had issues of myself in the past, I'm sure I would have felt a great deal of compassion for him if I'd known that he was suffering so much. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And you'd had issues yourself? 

NICK:  Yeah, I had suffered from, what now seems to be called generalised anxiety disorder but I went through a period in my life where I suffered there panic attacks so I know when Dave says it's a very alienating experience some form of…

JENNY BROCKIE:  And did anyone you worked with know that? 

NICK:  No, no. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And why didn't you tell anyone you worked with about that? 

NICK:  Um, for a number of reasons. I think I found something shameful in it. I didn't want to admit that I was suffering from anxiety attacks. I didn't think people would understand, I think I would have felt even more uncomfortable if I'd had that discussion and someone had not been able to empathise with me or understand it so I feared having a discussion. And also I think any form of mental illness is stigmatised and I didn't want people to call into question my competence or ability or resilience or ability to just survive in that sort of corporate environment because I was suffering this particular problem. 

JENNY BROCKIE: Alex, you're an employment lawyer, you represent employees. Are people required to disclose a mental illness to an employer? 

ALEX:  No, no, they're not.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So it's up to the individual.  I mean if you're asked questions about your health, to disclose any kind of illness, it's really up to you to decide legally whether you want to or not? 

ALEX:  That's right, there isn't a requirement to do so but there can be consequences if people are dishonest about it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Is an employer entitled to sack someone on the basis of them having not been honest? 

ALEX:  That would be a very extreme example. That has happened.

JENNY BROCKIE:  All of you have been in situations where you haven't disclosed that you've got mental illnesses that you're dealing with. But how do you feel about the idea of disclosing, would you do it now? Would you tell people or not? 

DAVE:  I'd do it now because I'm at the tail end of my career but like, and people how brave of you. But I wouldn't have done it when I was 35. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you worry about how you'd be perceived? 

DAVE:  Oh, look absolutely, and not necessarily, because I always sort of thought well, you can get your career killed by kindness too because in the sort of business I was doing, you know, people go well, we don't put Dave on the next big pitch or whatever because it might be too much pressure for him and we'll leave him off this project because maybe that will, you know, sort of, we'll just give him a bit of an easy run and then… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you think that's a realistic fear, Nick? I mean can you imagine you might have done that? 

NICK:  Yeah.  I think if we'd been really concerned that stress or pressure was going to affect Dave in a very personal way we might have said let's give that job to someone who's perhaps more up for it. I'm not sure. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What about you?  If you'd known that you had PTSD, I mean first of all would you have taken on a job as a paramedic, and secondly would have you disclosed it? 

JOHN:   No, I would disclose it and then take it from there.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Carol, what about you, I mean you say that sometimes you've chosen to tell and sometimes you haven't. Why? 

CAROL:  I haven't, I haven't disclosed because I think that it would discriminate against me. I think that it works against me for various reasons. That hasn't worked for me because when it has come out, that has usually been pretty difficult. I now, like Dave, I think I would only go into a job where I am able to say that up-front at the beginning and say this is what I, what I am dealing with. I'm pretty good at managing my illness. If this is a workplace where I will be supported to be able to manage that, then that will be great. There are great things that I can offer you. If that is too much for you, then in actual fact I don't even want to start because I've seen myself get so sick trying to pretend to be something that I'm not or cover it up, and it really isn't worth it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What do people think about the pros and cons of disclosing that you have a mental illness in the workplace?  I mean from both an employer's perspective and also from an employee's perspective. Yes, Dominic? 

DOMINIC:  Yeah, I absolutely think that people make a mistake that mental health generically excludes people from their work.  We have a number of people that have different mental health issues that absolutely do their job day in, day out and no one would know. There are some other conditions that make it a bit more problematic, particularly in the acute phase, but it's a big mistake for employers to put a big blanket over the top and just say mental health rules you out of doing.

JENNY BROCKIE:  This is ambulance? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  You run the Ambulance Service of New South Wales? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you prefer to know as an employer that someone has a mental illness? 

DOMINIC:  So the way our recruitment works is that people are encouraged to declare. There is not a requirement to declare and then if they do then, there's a discussion with their own treating physician with an occupational physician, and so it relates then to a clinical decision about the appropriateness of the work, rather than an employer saying about an employment contract. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What do other people think about this, the pros and cons of disclosing you've got a mental illness?   Yes, up the back. 

ANDREW:  Yeah, we realised in, I come out of the construction industry, we realised we had an issue with suicide rates in about 2008, they were three times the average.  Since then some organisations have come together and really driven home the positivity with managing mental health in the construction industry and you know, we think it's been a lot more beneficial.  I believe the suicide rate has come down a lot, we find that, you know, if you're open and honest and talk to the employees and let though them know there is, like if you're the best person for the job, if you let me know of your condition I can help you with it and that doesn't mean that person has to come to work every day at the same time and finish at the same time, but you know, you're allowed to take time off work. 

You imagine a work place, which my industry now is hard as nails, is now I can talk and ask a bloke on site, ‘are you feeling okay today?’ And he can answer me honestly and that’s the sort of environment this Mates in Construction that has been running since 2008 has done, it has changed our workforce that a bloke can finally ask another bloke, “Are you alright to come to work today, if you’re not, I will help you to go and get help.’ And that’s all it is about and I don’t think it is that difficult to start talking about it more and more in the workplace.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Carol, how do you expect to be managed in the workplace? What are your expectations? 

CAROL:  For me, I need to have some flexibility around my time. If the time is very fixed, it has to be 9 to 5, well I might not be able to manage that. I, I might need to start a bit later. I'm quite happy maybe to stay a bit later. I have, in quite a number of jobs, I up-front have said can I sacrifice some of my pray and take more leave so that I can take days off?  

JENNY BROCKIE: Can you understand though how that might be difficult for an employer to, to read, to manage, you know? 

CAROL:  I think, I do, and I think, this is maybe an opportunity to talk about the Ulysses agreement that I did.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What is the Ulysses agreement? 

CAROL:  The Ulysses agreement is, the idea is a plan where you understand that things are going to go really badly. Before we even start we know we're going to, like Ulysses be dashed against the rocks and it's going to be a catastrophe so we'll put this in place before we get to that. And for the manager there I said look, these are the sorts of things that will trigger my condition.

JENNY BROCKIE: I've got a copy of that. I was really interested in this agreement and I had a look at the detail of it and just so that everybody has a sort of sense of what's in it, there are a list of triggers in it for your mental health issues at work and they're things like difficult meetings, criticism or blaming, unresolved conflict, setbacks, negative decisions, long periods working on problems. They were some of the things that are triggers for you. A lot of those things happen…

CAROL:  They do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  In any workplace with regularity? 

CAROL:  They do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So how does that, how does that work?   How do you manage that? 

CAROL:  And I'm not asking, and I have never asked and that's not asking that I never want those things to happen. It's to say those things happen, they do happen, so if I'm asked, if I'm pulled off a project or a project, I'm passed over for it, that will exacerbate my anxiety levels. But if you say okay, what extra resources do you need to be able to manage that? That would work for me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what kind of resources would you need to manage some of those things? 

CAROL:  Sometimes that might mean an extra administrative assistant.  And I need to know that at the end of that I'm going to have three weeks off and not see anyone and talk to anyone.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how would you react then if an employer came back to you and said that's just not feasible with the resources that we have? 

CAROL:  And certainly that was the, the issue in the Health Department, with one manager we did that for three years, and we did that and, I was given a different manager and he just went oh, well if you need that much help then you're unfit to work. And so we went through this process which I found it punitive, to go to a doctor and to see if I was fit for work and go to a psychiatrist and to be, to just, and I felt it was justifying myself.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Gaye, you're employer, the Department of Human Services, knew that you had a pre-existing mental illness.  You took them to Court over the way that you were treated. What happened? 

GAYE:  I was, um, I had a team leader who was not treating me properly and I went to management about this and I simply asked to be moved to another team within our team, so usually four or five people. But they decided no, they wanted to work this out within the team. They said it would be too disruptive for other staff members to move me, which they moved other staff members all the time so I don't know why it would have been too disruptive this time.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Just tell us a little bit about what was going on for you? 

GAYE:  I started off just fine but over a long period of time when your team leader's constantly criticising you, it begins to slowly but surely erode your self-confidence and so I began to have anxiety attacks and just more and more.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What happened when you took it to Court? What was the result? 

GAYE:  We won, I won, I won the case. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what did you win, what was the, what was the decision? 

GAYE:  It was over 600, around $640,000 but I want people to understand I don't receive anything near that. First of all I was on WorkCover for eight years and so I have to pay back the money received on WorkCover which was around 350,000 and I'm currently waiting on finding out what I owe my solicitor. So currently I received 130,000, which would be within the vicinity of what I would receive, a little bit less than if I was working full time up to my retirement age. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what was the Court finding? 

GAYE:  That the employer did not, I can't think of the words but they failed to look after my safety. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Knowing that you had a propensity for anxiety and depression? 

GAYE:  Yes, and all they had to do was more me to another team and I would away from all the incessant micromanaging of me and hopefully, I mean I had a breakdown when I left work, I had a full blown breakdown. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Alex, what’s the legal position around all of this? 

ALEX:  Well, an employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to allow somebody to perform the inherent requirements of their role. They'll vary from individual to individual. So it might be, you know, as you said, working less hours, additional support, so it will just vary. An employer can't discriminate against an employee, they can't give them lesser treatment because they have a disability and that includes mental illness. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  But if they have made reasonable adjustments and that's not enough, then what's the position? 

ALEX: Well if the person, if reasonable adjustments have been made and, if ultimately they can't fulfil the inherent requirements of the job they may be dismissed. And it's not just up to an employer to unilaterally make that decision, it needs to be based on medical advice, cogent evidence as to the performance of the individual. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Carol, you mentioned earlier about how difficult it has become for you in various work situations and you talked about having been suicidal on a couple of occasions? 

CAROL:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  A few years after that plan was drawn up you sent a very distressed email to one of your colleagues? 

CAROL:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Can you tell us about that? 

CAROL:  I said oh, you know, I, I'm back at my best, my favourite fantasy of just committing suicide at my desk so that I can be the most nuisance that I can possibly be. Which is, you know…

JENNY BROCKIE: What do you think it was like for your colleague to get that email? 

CAROL:  I would think that that would be extremely confronting.  Again, I think the fact, someone mentioned about mental health literacy, I think had that person come to me and talked to me, do you really feel like that? Is there something that we can do?  She didn't talk to me at all about that but reported that to the manager and then I was called into the office and I was escorted out of the building and never worked again. It was …

JENNY BROCKIE: How do you reflect on that now, on that incident? 

CAROL:  I was, I really felt that I, and that's, that's the nature of that suicide ideation, you know, for me it's a panic attack. I was so desperately trapped that the only way, and I thought well, and I would hit them back, you know, by, you know, being that they would have to deal with it. It was an unfortunate and it was a terrible way of crying for help. You know, if I had been less mental I might have said I'm really struggling, you know, can you help me?

JENNY BROCKIE:  What would have helped you in that situation? 

CAROL:  I, if, if there had been someone who could have got alongside me and said, you know, what do you need? Do you need some time out?

JENNY BROCKIE:  How did you leave in the end? 

CAROL:  In the end, look I was sent home for several months.  I fought very hard to return. When I did return, my job had evaporated, it had been restructured and it didn't exist anymore and I fought on for a little while and in the end I was offered a redundancy package and I just thought it was all too hard and I accepted the redundancy package. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Holly, I'd like to talk to you about your situation at work because you're a project administrator at NBN Co, you're managing depression and anxiety at work. 

HOLLY:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:    How does it affect you? 

HOLLY:  Day to day it doesn't really affect me I feel and it might just be the work that I'm doing compared to what I could be doing. Occasionally I'll get unexplainably upset, like I've been crying just in the middle of the workplace and really anxious and that sort of thing for no reason. But there's this understanding, because I did come into the work, everyone knew I was depressed, I had anxiety. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Everyone knew because you'd been up front about it? 

HOLLY:  Yes.  It was because I went through this scheme actually made by Pete here, my manager, that, that let young people who are mentally ill or at risk of mental illness gain skills and come to a work placement at NBN and I went through that process and got a job out of it.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Did you have fears about what it might be like, about how other people might respond to you being so open about it? 

HOLLY:  Yeah, I did a bit but I've also had people come up to me and say hey, I'm depressed too and they've found some solace in knowing someone else is there with a mental illness. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And Pete, why did you start, you're Holly's manager, why did you start this program? 

PETE: I had a, I have a passion for helping young people. I had an idea of what I wanted to do so we took it to Headspace and Ostara, another group called Steps, with an idea of getting them some work experience with us and it's worked out quite well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you've actually had people work experience first and then targeted people for employment? 

PETE:  Yes, so when Holly came through, she came and did some work experience.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What's helped you as an employer in doing that? 

PETE: I think we've just normalised mental health in our part of the organisation.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Have there been challenges? 

PETE:  No, the first time Holly was crying at her desk was a challenge because before I knew there was five other people pinging me saying what's up with Holly? So I went down and had a chat to her and I said what's up and she just said I'm in dark place at the moment Pete.  I said is there anything do with work and she said no, no.  I said do you need my help? No, she said she's okay and she's just been able to function normally. You know, occasionally she'll send me I'm an email saying I'm in a dark place, I'm going to work from home today, and we're okay, we support that for all our employees, Holly doesn't get any special treatment. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Alex, you run a small manufacturing business, I think you've got five employees, it's quite little? 

ALEX C: Yes, quite small. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You hired someone through a disability recruitment service. How did that go for you, for your organisation? 

ALEX C: Um, well, not well in the end because the individual doesn't work with us any longer.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Why didn't it work out? 

ALEX C: Over that course of time initially everything was great, he came on board, it was fine, he was only working with us two shifts a week, five hour shifts just doing odd jobs around the place. But over a period of time two issues came on board. One, he wasn't picking up some of the simple tasks, some of the tasks in the factory, nor was he, and then his absenteeism was increasing. I tried to talk to him about both.  But, because we're such a small team, you take one person out, it really, on a regular basis because his absenteeism, you know, crept up to about 50 percent which hurt such a small team on such a regular basis. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So were you making adjustments for this person? 

ALEX C: I was trying to, you know. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  But you couldn't carry the extent of them given the size of the team? 

ALEX C: Yeah, yeah, and that was causing significant difficulties.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So has that affected your attitude to hiring people with mental illnesses?  Would you do it again? 

ALEX C: Yeah, I would.   I think it's case by case.

JENNY BROCKIE: Pip, you're a small business owner.  What's it been like for you managing people in your workplace with mental illnesses? 

PIP:  Oh, it's been quite stressful I would say, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  In what way? 

PIP:  We've had a couple of employees come through who've had varying degrees of mental illnesses.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Describe what it's been like for you from an employer's perspective? 

PIP:  It is quite difficult in that we are a small team, and like Alex has said, if somebody doesn't show for work that impacts across the board and how efficiently and effectively the business runs that day. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And to what extent were the people that you've had, who’ve worked for you, to what extent have you known that they've been dealing with mental health issues? 

PIP:  So one girl came to us from an employment agency, so that was a full disclosure so we were able to, we parted amicably at the end of her time when she chose to leave. One girl just kind of comes, would come up in conversation so she would kind of share and there was evidence in her behaviours and the way she would handle things and you knew when she was having a good day and you knew when she was having a bad day, and when her medication was working and what not. But in the end it was just causing me too much stress and then…

JENNY BROCKIE:  So how did you resolve that? 

PIP:  Well in the end it kind of, it came to a head when she just threw stuff at me and just basically attacked me and screamed at me. I'm like I can't deal with this, I can't have this in my workplace. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So where does that leave you now in terms of your attitude as an employer? 

PIP:  Well, I have one girl working for me at the moment and she has had a mental breakdown and she's fantastic.  She wants to work, she's getting help, she has, she's making a very conscious decision to get better and she is amazing and if I could have ten of her, I would. So I don't have a problem with people with mental health issues.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay. Someone wanted to comment? 

PETE:  I guess the difference been what you've experienced and what we have is we get to know the young people for seven weeks so we have relationships with them over the course of the program and we can see whether they're going to have a sense of reliability or whether they're going to be interested in coming to work with us, and we strike up that relationship between them.   

JENNY BROCKIE:  You're also a big organisation which I think makes a difference. 

PETE:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  It's very different working in a smaller organisation. 

PETE:  Sure, sure.

MALE: My experience that we worked with this is individual for about three months without a hiccup and then things started deteriorating from there.  So we had got to know him quite well over that time and he had demonstrated great reliability and then things kind of fell apart and I didn't, you know, I spoke to my boss and I had those resources but not very many resources beyond that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  I suppose what all this raises is that, you know, not all situations are going to work out in any employment environment, but where do you draw those lines and how do you deal with situations where there is that tipping point and they're not going to work out? 

DOMINIC:  I think that's the important balance here because once you normalise the conversation and you can actually say that reducing stigma in mental health is a normal part of the workplace, then you can get to the core issues here of actually dealing with does that mean they can do the job or they can't do the job.




CRAIG:  I work Monday to Friday, three hours a day. The company I work for is Cleanforce and I have been working there for eight years. Some of the other jobs I’ve had, the people who I worked for weren’t the nicest people towards me, but it’s not always a one way street, there are reasons why they were not nice to me.

I was just too slow and with Schizophrenia you are answering questions in your head cause of the voices and you are trying to do a job at the same time, it makes it bloody hard, I’m telling you.

My life has changed dramatically since I have been working at Cleanforce because I got a girlfriend now too, which is good. I didn’t have a girlfriend for ten years before that cause I was unemployed and sitting in front of the TV.

Just the way Cleanforce has helped me keep a job and my mum too, yeah. I remember the bad times when mum was yelling at me and all that cause I wasn’t doing anything so, yeah. They were bad ol’ days.

When I make a mistake I… with Cleanforce they don’t yell at you which is good, they talk to us calmly and show us how to do it again. Cleaning, I’m suited to, the other jobs I weren’t suited to, I couldn’t do them cause of my Schizophrenia, I just find that I’m happy now, yeah.

Until the robots do it, I’ll keep going.


JENNY BROCKIE:  Craig, thanks so much for letting us come out and see you at work and thanks for joining us. 

CRAIG:  Is that what I look like on TV, is it?  

JENNY BROCKIE:  That is what you look like on TV, yep, that's what it's like. How is the job that you've got now different to the other jobs you've had? 

CRAIG:  Well I know how to do it at a better percentage, a better rate and I don't get told off as much as when I was working warehouse work, because I wasn't very good at warehouse work and I didn't know what to do. So I chose cleaning through mental health clinic in Heidelberg put me forward for the job and lucky enough I got the job eight years ago and everything's been great since. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Paul, you run the cleaning business where Craig works. Half your workforce are dealing with mental health issues. Why has your company chosen to put your workforce together that way? 

PAUL:  That's, that's a very good question. Sorry, seeing Craig up there, it's…

CRAIG:  He's a good boss. 


FEMALE: Pay rise. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  I think mum had a tear in her eye as well. 

PAUL:  Sorry, I've just got to take a breath. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  No, that's fine, take a breath, take a moment.

PAUL: So to go back, we, we set out on a journey to create a pathway for people with chronic enduring mental illnesses that had significant barriers to employment, to re-enter the workforce. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And tell us about, you know, the benefits of that and the challenges of that? 

PAUL: We've developed these very solid relationships with the local mental health clinics which provide psychosocial rehabilitation to people with these types of disabilities and they refer to us. We do get some funding from the government to support each individual on a case by case basis. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And this is support for their wages? 

PAUL: No, this is support to provide the resources that we require to assist them.

JENNY BROCKIE:   What sorts of adjustments have you made to the way the business is run? 

PAUL: We have flexible rostering, we have a training program that's really in most cases one-to-one at the employee's own pace.

JENNY BROCKIE:  How do work out how much to pay people in terms of productivity? 

PAUL:  We use a tool that's contained within all modern awards called the supported wage system and, to the best of my knowledge, that is in, since 2010 that is in every industrial award in Australia. So it is open to every employer, it's not just us who set out to do this, it is every employer. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And on that basis, you pay people a percentage of the standard wage that's related to productivity? 

PAUL: That's correct. So we, the way it works essentially is if a job should take you and me, without a disability, an hour, we know how long that takes so we've measured that, and then we compare the employee with the disability against that benchmark and so an assessor measures that employee's productivity compared to a person paid under the award and that's done on three occasions. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Craig, how much are you paid, what percentage? 

CRAIG: 80 percent of the full wage. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  80 percent? 

CRAIG: 80 percent, yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how do you feel about that? 

CRAIG: Oh it's great, I mean I've got a job and plus I'm on, there's CentreLink too, so that gives me a decent wage to survive on for a two week period which I, when I get paid. Now I'm just lucky to have that because I could get myself private health insurance, car insurance and things like that and car registration, which if I was just on the pension I couldn't, I wouldn't be able to afford to do that because I smoke and you know what the price of cigarettes are like. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now you've just lost everyone at that point. 

CRAIG: That's all I'd like to say. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Alex, what's the legal position? Can an employer choose not to hire somebody because they have a mental illness? 

ALEX:  It would likely be discrimination in that were to occur. So they could take that to the Australian Human Rights Commission or the various discrimination tribunals in each state across the country. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What if the nature of their illness precluded them from being able to carry out the work that was involved in the job? 

ALEX:  That is one of the defences that an employer has in this situation. So if they were able to persuade a tribunal that the individual couldn't perform the inherent requirements of the job, even with reasonable adjustments, or such adjustments would cause an unjustifiable hardship, then they could lawfully not employ them. But that is in a very small minority of circumstances. 

One of the things I've heard this evening, is all these incredible things being done by employers, you know, it's absolutely fantastic. My observation, my clients' experience and I think about 70 percent of them probably have mental illness, is much more akin to Carol's, where she had a cry for help in the workplace and she was marched out the door. So whilst I'd like to say that management plans are put in place, or that indeed kind of preventative measures are put in place, where it comes to mental illness, I don't see that as often as I would like.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Carol, how do you work out what you're best suited to? 

CAROL:  When I teach I, it's euphoric, I love to teach. Whether it's in small groups and one-to-one or whether it's a in a larger group I love to teach.  I think the other thing for me is I have to really accept that I, that a full time job is not going to be right for me either. That I need to have probably a part-time job so that I can have that work life balance thing and look after my health. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  John, how are you managing now, given the trauma that you're exposed to as a paramedic? 

JOHN:   I mean I still have my occasional relapse and that ranges from, you know, anxiety to just basically, you know, hypervigilance and avoidance and things like that, and they happen these days a lot less frequent than they used to. But I've learnt now to manage those and I'm all about self-awareness.  That's an important thing for me and I'm fully aware of what is happening to me as opposed to before, I didn't. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you feel supported?

JOHN:   I do now because like I say, I'm more open about my  condition and I'm open to when I feel like I need to be taken off road or I need some support. But I know of incidents that's still not happening, that people still go to, still have issues on a daily basis, that they don't get support until a later time and that's, you know, that's unfortunate and disappointing to say the least. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Holly, how's it going at the NBN? 

HOLLY:  It's pretty good, yeah.  I think like it's a case of trying to find the right person with the right job, which is probably the case with everyone but especially so with mental illness because it could affect, you know, job performance a lot more. But when you find someone who's right for the job and the job is right for them, you've got probably the best worker you could get. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Well thank you so much for sharing your stories, for sharing so much of your lives with us tonight, it's been really a fascinating discussion and really worth having so thank you very much. And that is all we have time for here but let's keep talking on Twitter and on Facebook. Thanks everyone. Thank you.