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The inextricable link between mental health and work: perspectives from a frontline leader

rofessional people embracing and supporting each other.

Conversations with member and frontline leader, Jenni Beetson-Mortimer MIML

The Northern Rivers Community Gateway, under the leadership of Chief Executive Officer Jenni Beetson-Mortimer, is an incredible resource for the local community. The team of 65 – along with a vast network of volunteers – provide services from emergency relief and financial inclusion through to trauma counselling and homelessness support.

What originally started as the Lismore neighbourhood centre in 1976 has grown to the wide-reaching and impactful organisation it is today. Jenni joined the team in 2010. In that time alone, the organisation has tripled in size enabling them to reach further into the community and significantly expand the footprint of their services.

Working on the frontline with vulnerable members of the community, as Jenni and her team do, isn’t without its challenges. She shares her insights on the inextricable link between mental health and work and how they approach this at Northern Rivers Community Gateway.

When the crises is personal

Over the last five years, Jenni and her team have faced their fair share of challenges with the floods that ravaged the region and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a frontline service, they needed to remain open to continue to support the local community at a time when they needed it most. But Jenni’s team members were also personally impacted, as was the organisation.

“At the time of the 2017 floods, our office was located in the Lismore CBD,” recalls Jenni. “We weren’t allowed into the building for two weeks after the floods. When we did return, we were delivering our emergency relief from a table and chair on the ground floor. They had ripped out the water-damaged walls and we had to find an alternative location to deliver our trauma counselling.”

As a result of the flood, the organisation established a disaster management committee. They looked at what had worked and not worked during the crisis response and took proactive steps to position the organisation for the future.

These steps included seeking funding for a new building outside of the flood zone and moving from desktop to laptop computers for portability. They also transitioned to a paperless environment, moving the bulk of their back office operations and staff orientation online. 

This, combined with actions that arose from the pandemic to enhance the organisation’s remote connectivity, meant the service could continue when the 2022 floods hit. At this time, as with the 2017 floods, many of the staff were themselves impacted. Some lost everything and were living with friends or in recovery centres.

“To support our staff, we brought in a psychologist and did debriefing sessions,” she says. “We continued the conversations in our staff meetings to ensure everyone had the support they needed.”

It’s a testament to the organisation and staff that they were able to continue providing such an essential service, even through a time of such personal loss. Jenni says that the staff came to work. They filled cars with clothes and food and drove to remote regions that needed supplies. This wouldn’t have been possible without the proactive approach and necessary support in place.

Connection at the heart

There’s a theme of connection that runs through the culture at Northern Rivers Community Gateway. Connection is what they do for the community. But it’s also what they do for each other, especially important given the impact the work they do can have on a personal level.

Jenni explains that this connection happens in a number of different ways. The first is through the direct manager with six-weekly organisational supervision meetings and clinical supervision for all frontline staff.

“Our policies and procedures around clinical supervision are really well thought-out,” she explains. “Our clinical supervisors are external psychologists and they provide support and debriefing to frontline staff. We also engage a psychologist if there’s an incident where a number of staff are impacted.”

Connection also happens on a team level, with regular team meetings that are also used to debrief work or significant events. These meetings provide a connection point for the team. They come together to catch up but also take a constructive approach to addressing concerns in a strategic way.

“Immediately after a disaster, like the floods, we have a whole organisation staff meeting,” she adds. “Our staff come from across the region and we provide a catered breakfast so we have a meal together and catch up with each other. We do team building exercises and work in a collaborative way to address any issues that might have come up in the organisation.”

Not just reserved for post-disaster debriefing, these team meetings are regular events on the calendar. 

Perhaps most importantly, considering the work they do, the organisation has a policy for debriefing after dealing with aggressive clients. 

“If a situation happens, our policy is that the person or people involved don’t walk out the door until they’ve met and offloaded with their manager,” Jenni says. “They talk about the situation, what happened and what support they need. We can then refer them to our EEP or a psychologist as required.”

Emotionally intelligent leaders

According to Jenni, the emotional intelligence of managers and leaders plays a crucial role in connection. It’s something she places a great deal of importance on, going so far as to offer emotional intelligence training for the managers across the team.

“Managers need to be able to know their staff really well,” asserts Jenni. “Emotionally intelligent leaders can then delve into what might be going on for a staff member if they’re showing signs of disengagement or underperformance.”

Critically, emotionally intelligent leaders also have the skills for self-reflection to support their own mental health.

“The most important thing for managers to do is to reflect on their own performance,” she adds. “I myself have an external supervisor who I meet with monthly. I talk through how I reacted in certain situations and how I could have approached situations differently. This helps to define new paths forward.”

Culture as a preventative

Much of the work they do to build culture and connection at Northern Rivers Community Organisation is preventative. They put measures, policies and procedures in place to minimise harm. This structure and framework also provides a safe space where employees can voice their opinions knowing the leaders will listen.

One area of the culture that they’ve recently involved staff in was developing a mental health framework.

“We raised this at a staff meeting for team discussion,” she explains. “We genuinely wanted their input into what this would look like. What came out of this meeting was that the team wanted to implement a people and culture committee. The committee would look at rewards and recognition, mental health, wellbeing and team building.”

The resulting committee is made up of staff volunteers with no management members on the committee. Together, the committee is creating a set of recommendations for the management team to consider around creating a more collaborative workspace and building team culture and resilience. “If staff feel they’re being listened to and supported, then they’re more likely to come to you if they have challenges in or outside of work,” imparts Jenni. “If you show them that you understand them and will give them a level of support, it opens the doors to those conversations.”

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