Employment barriers a state of mind

Bosses are being urged to give the mentally ill a chance, writes Larissa Ham.

Bosses are being urged to give the mentally ill a chance, writes Larissa Ham.

When hotel manager Tony Wilson was asked to consider hiring people with a mental illness, he was a little reluctant.

"At the start you think the worst of everything, don't you?" says the general manager of WestWaters Hotel in Melbourne's Caroline Springs. "Initially, I thought, 'What's going to happen? Are they just going to explode?"'

But after meeting several applicants put forward by the non-profit organisation WISE Employment, Wilson became receptive to the idea and hired four people suffering from illnesses such as bipolar disorder and depression.

He manages those staff himself - with the back-up of WISE if needed - ensuring they're not pushed too hard too quickly because this could lead to embarrassment or despair.

"A lot of employers don't have the patience. In the rush and bustle of the world we live in, people want everything done yesterday," Wilson says. "People tend not to give anyone much of a go."

One employee started as a cleaner but has since been promoted to functions assistant, and Wilson says all four have come a long way.

There have been challenges, such as problems with interaction, but Wilson says staff have been made aware that some of their workmates have different problems and they're fine with that.

Matthew Lambelle, the general manager of strategy and alliance at WISE Employment, says with one in five Australians suffering mental illness during any one year, and almost one in two over a lifetime, it's likely that most employers will face the issue at some point.

"Whether or not they know they're employing people with a mental illness, chances are, they will at some stage," he says.

Last year WISE found work for 921 people across the country. Lambelle says mental illness can still be a loaded label that "can conjure up all sorts of weird and wonderful fantasies". But hiring anyone can be risky.

"Staff members can go through a divorce, they can lose a loved one, they can fall on hard times," Lambelle says. "Anything can happen."

He says employers shouldn't expect substandard performance from those with a mental illness. "They need staff, they don't want hassles. They need to get on with the purpose of running a business."

However, flexibility can be helpful. For instance, an employer might let a staff member start work later if they take medication overnight, or allow them to work in a quieter corner of the office. In those cases, it pays to extend the same favours to all staff, Lambelle says.

He says the most important thing "is being open-minded to the fact that mental illness is real, treatable and common".

One of the biggest challenges is encouraging candidates to disclose that they have a mental illness. Many still fear it will damage their chances of employment or promotion. But talking about it - without having to tell your life story - to an open-minded employer can improve your chances of success, he says.

"The biggest thing is, you don't want to set employers up to fail, and you don't want to set job seekers up to fail."

Naomi Lehrer is the client relationship manager for the Mindful Employer initiative, which provides e-learning and face-to-face mental-health workshops for employers. With figures from the National Mental Health Commission showing mental disorders cost the economy $20 billion annually through lost productivity and labour participation, Lehrer says mental health is a big issue for small-business owners.

"Anyone who employs, say, more than 10 people, will most likely have someone that's affected by mental illness. [Left unmanaged] it will affect the bottom line."

Lehrer says poor management of someone with a mental illness can create problems such as a toxic work environment, accusations of favouritism, or loss of key staff.

The Mindful Employer program, an initiative of SANE Australia, helps give managers and business owners the skills and confidence to ask their staff, "Are you OK?"

"You don't need to solve their problem, you just need to support them," Lehrer says. This could include reducing that person's hours for a time, or referring them to other support services.

She says a mental illness should not be treated differently to a physical one. "You'll employ someone with diabetes. That still needs to be managed."

Wilson from WestWaters Hotel encourages others to give people with mental illness an opportunity.

"They can't just be doing nothing. They need to be able to be doing something so they have some sort of fulfilment in their life."

Wilson says he has found the experience personally satisfying.

"In this case, I feel as though I've done something that's of benefit to four people's lives."

Mindful Employer will hold three-hour public workshops on mental illness in Melbourne on October 15 and in Sydney on October 17. For details, see mindfulemployer.org or phone Naomi Lehrer on (03) 9682 5933.

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