CHESS Employment services is a not-for-profit non government organisation founded 16 years ago in Coffs Harbour, that helps people with a mental illness get back to work.
Today CHESS has grown to six locations: Grafton, Nambucca, Bellingen, Coffs Harbour, Woolgoolga and Yamba. In 2011, Australia is in a mental health epidemic, with regional Australian employers and their workers often dealing with the stigma and impact of mental illness. FOCUS speaks with Paul Kelly, the General Manager of CHESS Employment Services, about mental illness, the facts and what CHESS does to provide employers and those with mental health issues a pathway to both health and prosperity.
What is mental illness?
Firstly, anyone at any age can develop a mental illness. One out of five or 20% of Australians will experience mental illness at some stage in their life. Three out of every 10 or 3% will be seriously affected. The causes of mental illness are unclear – there is evidence of genetic predisposition to some forms of mental illness; however, other factors causing or contributing to mental illness can include stress, bereavement, life threatening illnesses, accidents, unemployment, abuse, relationship breakdown, unemployment and social isolation.
How is it affecting employers?
In September 2006, the Australian Safety and Compensation Commission published a statistical report that stated that from 1996 – 2003, workers compensation claims had increased 70% for mental disorders. These compensation claims were higher than falls, slips, trips and all six other categories. Employers we work with are interested in understanding the nature of mental illness, getting assistance on how to identify if their staff may have a mental health issue and using our support services to assist in early intervention, should their staff need help in this area. Also, there are some that need educating about the stigma mental illness attracts. That is why we call it the ‘elephant in the room’. The statistics indicate that people are aware of it, but we have to pretend it’s not as prevalent as it is. With over 1 million Australians on antidepressants, with in excess of 12 million scripts written, one could say mental illness is more common than the cold.
The reality is that by discussing their mental health issues without judgement, people can make decisions about how they will choose to manage it and take responsibility for it, and employers can make them accountable for those decisions. That is a healthy way to deal with any illness. Some still think that people with a mental illness are Hollywood’s definition of crazy and imagine someone running down a street screaming with scissors. The reality is that there are many types of mental illnesses and many types of symptoms. Not everyone with the same diagnosis will experience the same symptoms. It also does not discriminate. It affects men, women, children, the elderly. Our clients include doctors, lawyers, executives, teachers, shop assistants, timber workers; it is not a disease of the weak or the poor.
So it must be hard finding businesses to take on staff with mental health issues?
There needs to be two distinctions. At CHESS, we work with people who have had a mental health issue and who have received appropriate treatment, counselling – including some medication – and are willing to work. The single criteria that defines how CHESS will work with them is what we call keenness and whether they own their illness. Just like someone who has diabetes and finds out they must monitor their blood sugar by taking responsibility, so that they can get back to work. People with a mental health issue are no different. The employers we work with know that often they are able to have access to expensive and superior skill sets that would otherwise be difficult to access by working with CHESS. This creates more growth opportunities for them. Also, when we audited our employers, we have found that staff with mental health issues that rejoin the workforce are 85% more reliable than an average employee. The second distinction is the growing problems employers have who have valued staff that are showing signs of, or they suspect may have a mental illness. In this situation, the employers know we have the support services to assist that staff member and the business in managing the illness and getting the staff member back to work. It is those who do not either know they have an issue or ignore it that can be disruptive to business.
How do you know that the people you place with employers are OK?
Before we allow our candidates to meet with employers, we categorise them into pathways that will assist with managing their illness and any associated behaviours. The category dictates whether or not they meet with employers. Some are immediately employment ready and can be placed like any other commercial recruitment firm would place an ‘A candidate’. Once placed, they have a dedicated support consultant and the employer has their own dedicated consultant to manage the relationship and deal with any issues. Not that there are many issues but managing risk for our employers gives them confidence in our service. Other people we work with need some programs to assist them to ‘talk through’ the story surrounding their illness and learn how to take responsibility for their illness at work. Once we feel they have completed these programs, they can be upgraded to start meeting with employers. Others need more intensive assistance in getting their confidence back. So as a non profit rather than promoting our brand, we have invested in programs that promote social inclusion and develop new skills … like: Visual Noise, which has produced our Art Show this year; E-Hub, our computer refurbishment program; we have The Innovation Farm, our organic produce farm; our community garden; as well as the CHESS Market Stall, that sells our produce. Once we see them cope in those environments, we upgrade them to the ‘talk through’ programs. If we find that they are still struggling, we are able to refer them to our Personal Helpers and Mentors Program, to assist those with serious challenges. We also fund programmes for any community volunteers – these are The Men’s Shed and The Bike Recycling Centre.
Do you work with any employers?
Yes and no. The government does incentivise employers through subsidies to take on an employee with mental health issues. However, the majority of our employers are not interested in taking on our candidates for that reason. Also, if getting the subsidy is the only reason we feel that the employer wants to use our services, we are less likely to want to work with them. This is because the relationship between staff and employer must be one of trust, mutual respect and commitment to maintain a profitable business and stable employment. We do work across industries, from farming, accounting, building, marketing, sales, retail, real estate, trades and hospitality at all levels, from traineeship to Office Managers to Executive Management.
Best moment in your job this year?
Hearing about a 25-year-old man with depression and ADHD come to CHESS for a job. He was classified due to his attitude and commitment to manage his illness as an ‘A Candidate’. We sent him to an interview with a ‘mental illness friendly’ employer for a manual job. The employer was so impressed, they offered to pay for his training to become a trade’s estimator. CHESS bought him his first suit and took him to get it fitted at Jack Simmons Menswear in Coffs. Jack shook his hand, called him ‘Sir’, and congratulated him on the job. The man called us to say he wore his suit and took his wife to Latitude 30 with his first pay. This is a great example of how our work changes lives and creates productivity that generates more benefits for everyone in the region.