Mental health and illness. Where do you start as an employer?

Mental health and illness. It’s high on our agendas and priority lists, but where do you start as an employer? Is it really something you have energy or time for, are there too many risks, will there be repercussions getting involved in people’s ‘business’? I had often thought this myself, “Is it really my business to even ask?”, “Why should I get involved?”

My career began in the era of the ‘leave your troubles at the door’ philosophy, but as a business owner myself in the 21st century, I soon learnt this is no longer possible. A couple of years ago, I had a great casual waiter, amongst many, but this one was quite anxious, and their performance could vary from terrible to amazing. Some days they might be really forgetful and vague or make multiple silly mistakes which would all add up to be a big problem, other times they’ll come bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and absolutely nail their shift and service. The interaction with the guest, despite the anxiety, was always of a great standard; however, the rest of their roles and responsibilities would be lacking and impact the team. As is often done in the industry, I could have cut this person’s shifts back or tell them ‘there aren’t any shifts available’. But I chose not to. I chose to focus on their eagerness, willingness to get better, but in doing so, I also chose to become curious as to why their performance was so varied and ultimately dropping in standard. I sat down with this employee and asked; How are you? How are you finding the job? What can we do for you to give you the tools to get better? But how are you, really? I’ve noticed perhaps you’re quite anxious. They explained they were feeling particularly anxious, had feelings of worthlessness and not being good enough. We talked through these thoughts, and I reassured them they were irrational. However, the most significant outcome from this conversation was that I identified this person needed help, help that I could not provide.

I realised I was asking myself “Is this bright, intelligent, eager and dedicated person, starting down the path of depression and anxiety”? It became really important to me to help them feel comfortable to communicate with their manager how they were going and to create a workplace that made no judgements when they did. I needed my team to treat mental health as we do physical health, and we feel confident to support each other. I’m fortunate this person sought the help they needed, they spoke with their GP explicitly about how they were feeling physically but most importantly, mentally, asked for a mental health plan and got a referral to a psychologist.

Time went by; this person finished their Uni degree and was ready to move on from hospitality and find a job in their field of study. When they asked for an exit interview, I instantly felt nervous as I’ve found they can often be a negative experience. It turns out I had nothing to be nervous about.  For this person, that initial meeting we had was about much more than just my ‘duty of care’. They wanted to express their gratitude and appreciation for listening to them about their thoughts and emotions, for suggesting a pathway to seek help, for giving them a work environment which helped them feel supported. They wanted to tell me what a difference it made to make it ok to not have to leave their troubles at the door, but to wear them like an accessory and say, “I’m struggling today, but I’ll be ok”.  At that moment, I was given proof that there is huge value in building the skills and the concern to work out if someone isn’t right or perhaps are needing a bit of help. Importantly, this can lead to early intervention to a problem which otherwise may be long-lasting; detrimental to themselves, their family, friends, future workplaces, society and ‘the system’.

Evidence shows it is not just the responsibility of health professionals to identify or even to promote and prevent; it must be multidisciplinary. Employers are a huge part of this puzzle. If you’re an employer and you notice someone’s behaviour has changed, or perhaps just isn’t right, maybe it’s worth a conversation to help guide them in the right direction? I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it may just save their life. In turn, this may mean a whole new level of loyalty and commitment to your business than you ever thought might exist.

  • Bianca Welsh is a Mental Health Advocate (BBehavsc); Co-owner, HR and restaurant manager of Stillwater Restaurant and Black Cow Bistro; as well as a board director with Design Tasmania, Launceston Chamber of Commerce and Visit Northern Tasmania.
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