By Kate Southam
Employment can be a double-edged sword for people living with a mental illness.
In Australia, one in five people are likely to experience a mental illness annually or 45 per cent over a lifetime. Yet most workplaces don’t know how to support an employee who becomes ill or is managing an illness.
On the plus side, a job offers social connection, financial independence and daily purpose. On the minus side, there is social stigma and work stress to cope with.
For those re-entering the workforce, the challenge of disclosing their illness while job hunting is another challenge. Disclose and risk not getting the job or decide not to disclose and cope with the anxiety of keeping their health issue secret?
Caroline Crosse has worked in the area of mental health for 25 years and says “social firms” make an ideal employer.
“Up to half the employees of a social firm are living with a mental illness but the firm is run as a commercially viable enterprise,” Ms Crosse explains. “Managers must be paid a competitive salary and most of the revenue must come from the service the business offers, not a government subsidy or support from a charity.”
Ms Crosse heads Social Firms Australia (SoFA) set up in late 2004, to consult to organisations wanting to start a venture or convert to the social firm model. The team includes an expert in business and commercial finance, an occupational therapist, a social worker and trainers.
Since 2005, ten social firms have been created employing 300 people – half managing a mental illness or disability. Examples include a cleaning company that has grown from seven employees to more than 100; an e-waste recycling venture and a software-testing centre. There are another 10 firms in the works and while all ventures are based in Victoria, social firms could soon open in Queensland, NSW and South Australia.
“We started SoFA primarily in response to the high unemployment rate amongst people with a mental illness,” Ms Crosse says.
“For example, the unemployment rate for people with schizophrenia is 75 percent and the illness typically first affects people between the ages of 16 and 25.
“Imagine, just as you are about to hit university facing a life on the disability pension? You have all these plans that are then rudely interrupted. While your friends progress as they take on careers, your life takes a dive down into isolation, poverty, medication and hospitals.”
For those coming back from an illness, finding support to get a job has not been easy. Workplaces know what adjustments to make when a worker returns after a physical illness or injury but not a mental illness.
Ms Crosse says medical experts also put the focus of rehabilitation on medication believing work is too stressful for those recovering from an illness.
“Employment was seen as an outcome of recovery, not part of recovery.”
However, in Ms Crosse says even working 10 hours a week can make a huge difference to a person’s recovery and quality of life.
“Work creates routine and structure in their lives and facilitates a huge transformation. It is not just about having a job it is about moving from black and white back into colour.
“There are so many great stories. For example, one man got jack of having to get up so early to catch the tram to his job that he decided to get his driver’s license back and is now saving for a car.
“For him it was a practical decision about not wanting to get up so early but what I heard was that this man is getting engaged in his life again,” Ms Crosse says.
As a 2001 Churchill Fellowship recipient Ms Crosse studied social firms overseas including a guesthouse in Edinburgh, a wholesale organic and health food mini supermarket in Cambridge and a packing business in Wales.
Seeing how well they worked, she co-founded SoFA at the end of 2004 with David Young, currently artistic director of Chamber Made Opera.
As well as helping to create social firms, SoFA runs training courses for job hunters and seminars for those working in the mental health sector.
To date, 235 people have completed a Health Optimisation for Employment (HOPE) course. Of those participants, 30 per cent secured work within six months of doing the course and 30 percent returned to study.
CareerOne.com.au, April 2012