Do you take being employable for granted? I sure do and that's saying something because I’ve been a freelance designer for the last 15 years which means I’m often out of work. Being out of work though doesn’t mean I couldn’t go and get a job if I really had to. I’m lucky it's never reached that point but believe me, I’ve been close and the idea that there could be barriers to me finding a job has never really crossed my mind.

If you're a young person or a person with a disability, the job market looks like a very, very different place which we learned about as part of our Future Shapers program day about employment and mental health this week. 

First I want to acknowledge how important having a job actually is. As social beings, connecting with our community and people outside of our immediate family, often happens in the workplace. Having a job gives you money that is a necessity if you want your independence and autonomy over your life or just want to survive a day in this consumerist society. If you’re lucky and you love your work then having a job can give you purpose. This, I believe, is one of the most important benefits of having a job. Purpose.

Now imagine you can’t get a job. Imagine that you have a disability, or a criminal record. All of a sudden access to the overwhelming benefits of being employed are denied. Their path to independence or rehabilitation is a dead end. As a community this is something we should give a shit about. As a community we need to evolve and really consider our actions and expectations. As a business owner it has made me question our employment practices and ask if there is more we could be doing to cast a wider net. We need to ask ourselves what kind of support we could offer someone who works with us. Do we have the patience and time to invest in someone who might require more of both? 

The job application process itself is a barrier to entry. Admittedly I haven't applied for a job in  awhile but the words we use matter. There is now third party software that goes through your job application removing gendered terms and bias. Having a super clear job description is important. Being open about expectations and defining opportunities for growth are important. Answering 5 pages of key selection criteria isn’t always the best way to get the right candidate.

If you do manage to get through the application process and land a job, what supports are in place in the workplace for you? With nearly 50% of us experiencing a mental disorder at some time in our lives and 1 in 5 of us within the last 12 months (forgive me if my stats are off - I’m doing this from memory!) workplaces are having to invest huge amounts of time and resources into the mental wellbeing of their staff - and rightly so. 

We were fortunate to have a discussion panel with four of the most at risk professions which included representatives from fire, veterinary, nursing and construction. Side note here… This is one of the benefits of being part of the Future Shapers group - access to people like this, sharing their stories and experiences so openly is extraordinary. 

Each person in the panel was asked why their industry suffers from higher than average rates of mental ill health and what their industry is doing to help. I think everyone can imagine the stressors put upon our first responders - Fire, police and paramedics are the first people we call when shit goes wrong. Our ‘once in a lifetime’ catastrophic event might be the third call out they’ve had that day. Prolonged exposure to the extremes of humanity takes its toll. Luckily there are many supports put in place now. People are encouraged to talk and trained to look out for each other. Professional help is easily accessible and regular check-ins are normal.  

The same goes with nursing. Buddy systems and ‘tea-room’ debriefs are encouraged. Construction has been a tough nut to crack but constructive conversation around mental health on the building site is happening more often. Veterinarians are doing all sorts of things to help support staff like removing ‘on call’ shifts and making sure that Vets don’t work alone, which is a problem in regional areas. What I did learn was that most major employers have EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) where staff can access support when they need it. 

It was encouraging to see how much workplaces have changed to accommodate the wellbeing on their staff over the last 30 odd years. ‘She’ll be right mate’ is no longer the mental health plan and the benefits are overwhelming with wellbeing and job satisfaction on the rise as people feel more supported in their workplace.

The overarching message was it’s ok to not be ok. As a small business owner we don’t have an EAP - god I’d probably have them on speed dial if we did. We’re far too small to have anything too formal in place just yet but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn for the business and industries that are doing it well. This leads to the final stop for our program day - Haymes Paint.

Haymes Paint is an institution in Ballarat - it is the last remaining Australian owned and operated paint store and they invest heavily in their staff's wellbeing. As a family business they’ve been able to set the tone for engagement - there isn’t the engrained hierarchy that comes with working for the public sector. The ‘family values’ (truth, passion, motivation, respect and listen/learn) are lived daily and not just a tagline on the email signature.

I was particularly inspired by the trust and transparency expressed. It was everywhere. In the way Matt the owner spoke to his staff and the way they spoke back! Speaking out and pulling people up on the little things is encouraged. Having the ‘unhealthy’ conversations that are healthy and taking issues seriously when they do arise is paramount.

They also have a no dickheads policy which I think we can all relate to. You can assume that 10% of people are dickheads but 90% are really hard working people like you and me. Rules are made for the 10% but the majority of people want to do their best work. The best thing I can do as an employer to support our staff is to create a workplace where they have autonomy, purpose and ability to master their craft. 

My job isn’t to fix other problems but to steer them in the right direction for the appropriate help. Being an ally to our people and asking simple questions like ‘what does support look like from me’ can make all the difference. When I consider that there are parts of the community who don’t have access to being employed it makes me want to do more. As a business on the cusp of major growth maybe we can.

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