The Two of Us

By Cassie Barrett and Marilyn Kraner

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On R U OK? Day we talk a lot about the importance of checking in with our loved ones, including our colleagues. But what actually happens if you say you’re not okay?

Cassie
Mental Health Promotion Resource Officer

I first met Marilyn when I interviewed for this role. I was upfront about my mental health from the start – I mentioned it at the interview. I think being a mental health role made it a bit easier – you kind of assume there will be at least some level of understanding around mental health in this sector – but it was really her approachability that made it easy to talk about. Marilyn’s response at the time was something like “Do you have an idea of what style of management is most helpful for you?” – just really practical, sensible and open.

It can definitely feel a bit vulnerable or exposed talking about mental health – even writing this has me feeling a bit nervous; unfortunately there’s still a lot of stigma and shame – but for me, deciding to disclose was really a no-brainer. Anxiety and depression have been part of my life for a long time, and I’m well aware that I’m better able to manage it when I have a good handle on my stress and triggers, many of which relate to work.

Being upfront about it has allowed for really open, transparent conversations. It also made it very easy for Marilyn and I to put in place a bunch of different strategies that help me to manage my mental health at work so that I am stable and well; and can do my job effectively.

From our various conversations and watching me work, Marilyn has a really good idea of the kinds of things that are likely to flare up my anxiety, and the signs that indicate I’m having a hard time. When things are particularly challenging I’ll usually let her know; if I haven’t said anything but she suspects something’s up, she makes a point of checking in with me to make sure I’m alright and to see if there’s anything that can be done to make things more manageable.

Checking in is a regular part of our supervision.
“How are you managing?”
“Does anything feel particularly tricky right now?”
“What can we do that would help with that?” (Actually, I’m not sure if that’s a mental health thing or a manager thing; that might be true of all her supervision sessions!)

It’s very much a dynamic, evolving process. Sometimes I cruise along for months with no issues at all. Other times things might be quite tough going. We really just play it by ear.

The main thing is feeling that there’s a space where I can be open and honest about what’s going on, with someone who makes me feel supported and can help me to plan the way forward.

I think a lot of people have the idea that managing mental health at work is this overly permissive style of management where you get to under-perform, or let deadlines slide with no consequences, or talk endlessly and inappropriately about your mental health. It’s really not about that at all. It’s about finding a way of communicating and working together that helps you to perform at your best and manage your health. That’s true of lots of different things; we all have “stuff” in our life that intersects with work.

In the same way that an employee with young children might need flexible hours in order to pick up their kids from school, a staff member living with mental illness might need some accommodations to enable them to perform at their best. Exactly what that looks like is variable. Maybe the staff member needs to work from home occasionally, or schedule an extra supervision time when there’s a particularly stressful project happening. Maybe they benefit from really clear reassurance and feedback, or using their sick leave to take a mental health day occasionally. Everyone’s different.

I can’t imagine how tough work would be if I felt like I had to hide what was happening for me, or if I couldn’t tell my manager when I need support. There’s this idea that “Oh, you can’t talk about mental health at work, people will think you’re weak” or “You’ll never get the job if you tell them about that.” For me that couldn’t be further from the truth – though I do acknowledge that may not be the case for everyone.

I often say how lucky I am to have a manager as supportive as Marilyn, but that really shouldn’t be the case. It shouldn’t be about luck; it’s about having a supportive, effective relationship with your manager. Everyone needs that.

Marilyn
Individual and Family Support Manager

I think all of us have a range of vulnerabilities as well as a range of strengths. It’s the job of all managers to draw out the strengths in each of our staff members to get the most out of them and enable them to experience the most out of themselves. Knowing a person’s vulnerabilities provides the opportunity to explore how they impact on work. It also enables you to embed strategies that minimise any negative impact and allow strengths to develop and shine.

Cassie made this really easy for me. She laid her vulnerabilities on the table from the outset. I knew straight away that I could harness her honesty, bravery, matter-of-factness and lived experience to create great outcomes for this role.

Some people are scared of talking about mental health issues. Others believe that mental illness means you cannot contribute as effectively in a job as someone without a mental health issue. I only need look around at my many family and friends who have established very successful careers while managing a range of mental health difficulties to know that this is untrue. Having a mental health issue at work does, however, benefit from a different type of conversation – one that explores the impact of the mental health issue on a person’s work and wellbeing.

In her time at Jewish Care, Cassie and I have had many conversations. Some are strategic, like planning our community education activities; some are pragmatic, like managing the budget. Some have centred around Cassie’s skill set, strengths, and professional development interests; and others have centred around her mental health.

The mental health conversations are incredibly important. It was so helpful for me to understand what triggers her sense of unwellness, what signs I might notice that would indicate she was struggling, and most of all, what I could do to assist and support her. Cassie and I spoke openly about the parts of her role that she finds most challenging, and the management style that works best for her. I made it clear that not only was I okay with us having these types of conversations, I had an expectation that they would be a regular feature of our work together, both as part of our formal supervision meetings and less formally through our day-to-day interactions.

I have tried really hard to make it clear to Cassie that I have her back; that I am open to all conversations and that I will be flexible and responsive.

At the same time I am also not afraid to let her know that I still have high expectations of her, as I would of any worker, and that I expect her to meet the timelines that we set and produce high quality work. I feel real respect for Cassie and I feel her respect for me. I think this has been possible because of the clarity of expectations coupled with a genuine sense of concern and care.

Don’t get me wrong – supervision with Cassie is not all about “how are you feeling?” conversations. There is always much laughter, and lots of great work too. But opportunities are always made available to ask the question: “R U OK?”

Cassie’s mental health issues or state of mind can sometimes get in her way. It’s my job then, as her manager, to start a more serious conversation to help challenge those negative self-perceptions and to negotiate strategies for support. But Cassie’s vulnerability is also her strength. Her lived experience makes her a wiser, more knowledgeable and empathetic worker. Cassie is an invaluable member of our team, and of Jewish Care as a whole. She lives and breathes the Jewish Care values and gives her all to the work and the team.

We as staff have the responsibility to make sure our managers know when we need extra assistance, extra understanding or a different approach so that our strengths can shine. This can only happen when managers create safe spaces for this to occur; when managers act without judgement and show themselves to be open to holding what may feel like uncomfortable conversations. Irrespective of whether a staff member is open from the outset like Cassie was, reveals their experiences to you along the way, or even if they are not yet aware of the relationship between mental health and work, as managers we mustn’t shy away from creating opportunities for these conversations to happen. If we don’t take the initiative and show our staff that we are open to hearing them, how can we expect them to disclose their vulnerabilities?

Mental illness does not stop an individual from being a creative, efficient, effective and highly contributing worker or team member. As managers we need to truly believe this, and take the time to really ask: R U OK? And if you’re not: how can I help?

*If you or someone you know is not feeling OK, then this page on the R U OK website provides an excellent listing of the many organisations you can seek help from.

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