What did you do well today?

Why would a union run a conference about mental health, wellness and mindfulness, IE Journalist Sue Osborne asks.

Many mental health issues arise out of stress in the workplace aggravated by issues such as bullying, overwork and lack of recognition. One in six workers will take time off due to mental health issues. Common issues like depression and anxiety impact on the workplace as well as the individual and their family, costing the economy an estimated $12 billion a year.

The IEU’s Support Staff Conference Work Well held on 21 August in Sydney took a big picture look at what support staff can do to keep themselves well in the workplace.

NSW ACT IEU General Secretary John Quessy said the IEU plays a key role in promoting and supporting the industrial needs and interests on non teaching staff.

Better working conditions contribute to a healthy workplace. The IEU’s Support Staff Advisory Committee, acting on feedback from support staff, decided to extend the Union’s support through this conference.

Keeping positive

Keynote speaker Dan Haesler is an educator, writer and presenter who specialises in talking to people about positive psychology.

He entertained the audience with his humorous and enthusiastic look at some of the theory behind what makes us happy, not just in the workplace but in life as a whole.

Dan explored Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his PERMA model. Seligman outlined positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA) as the things we need in our life to achieve a healthy mindset.

Martin Seligman is an American psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books. Since the late 90s, Seligman has been an avid promoter within the scientific community for the field of positive psychology.

His theory of ‘learned helplessness’ is popular among scientific and clinical psychologists. He is Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychology.

Seligman has written about positive psychology topics in books such as The Optimistic Child, Child’s Play, Learned Optimism, and Authentic Happiness. His most recent book, Flourish, was published in 2011.

“The whole essence of positive psychology is to recognise what’s going well and build upon that,” Dan said.

“It’s not about being happy all the time, it’s about taking a more positive mindset and being able to address our own wellbeing at home and in the workplace.”

Giving meaning

Dan said some innovative schools were looking at providing more meaning to their support staff by including them more in the results of their work.

“If you’ve spent days processing the paperwork for the excursion, perhaps you’d like to go on the excursion and see the results of that in the kids’ faces.

“It’s great that the IEU is addressing something as important as mental wellbeing, given we know workplace mental health can be something of an issue in the education sector.

“The Union is being proactive, rather than just focusing on wages, although that all plays into mental wellbeing as well.

“I think it is really powerful to spend a day just addressing positive psychology and understanding ways to address depression. I highly commend the IEU for taking on this initiative.”

Workshops at the conference addressed a number of issues around the topic. For instance NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association Professional Officer Marc Hopkins discussed depression and mental illness in the workplace and gave participants some important tips on how to approach a colleague suspected of being unwell.

If you are not healthy in your mind you can’t do your work so you need to regenerate, and the Union is streaks ahead of anybody else by recognising that need.

Better to ask

Marc said it was better to be embarrassed by asking the question than not ask and a serious event ensues.

If someone says they are feeling suicidal or thinking about harming themselves in some way, there are a number of responses a colleague can take, including calling a family member, calling an ambulance, encouraging the person to go to a hospital or health centre or make an appointment with a counsellor or GP or ring a crisis telephone helpline. Marc said many employers are now installing mental health First Aid officers in the workplace as well as the traditional First Aid officer. There are a number of courses available for this.

On the other side of the coin, Mandy Lamkin’s workshop talked about meditation as a tool for building up resilience and preventing mental health issues arising. Meditation doesn’t have to be in an evening class, it can be done anywhere. Having a room in schools with no computers or phones (not the staffroom) set aside for quiet time is a start, she said. For more details go to mandy@mindfulness.com.au.

Vincent Cooper, the Aboriginal Education Worker at St Joseph’s High School in Aberdeen, presented the acknowledgment of traditional owners at the start of the conference.

As well as being the Aboriginal Education Worker, Vincent teaches Aboriginal Studies to Years 9 and 10.

“Support staff need to take time out to feel they are important. Professional development for support staff is lacking so to get a sense of worth, support staff need a day like this,” Vincent said.

“I got some good food for thought today. I really liked Dan’s idea of not saying to people ‘how are you?’ but saying ‘what did you do well today?’ I’m going to try that.

Healthy mind

“If you are not healthy in your mind you can’t do your work, so you need to regenerate and the Union is streaks ahead of anybody else by recognising that need.”

NSW ACT IEU Vice President Support Staff

Carolyn Collins said support staff tend to be self-effacing and find it difficult to accept gratitude or to acknowledge their own worth.

“We don’t expect anything; we’re givers, so a conference like this about our well being is fantastic.”

Seven members of the support staff team from St Dominic’s Centre for Hearing Impaired Students at Mayfield near Newcastle, including teachers aides, secretarial staff, pastoral care staff and library assistants were able to attend the conference. Two signers were present during the conference for one member of their staff.

They said the day was special for them because there is no professional development for support staff offered by their diocese, and it was a great opportunity for them to spend time together.

“Working in a special needs school is very draining and we understand and use positive psychology ourselves.

“It’s a challenge dealing with our students, parents and school community, and if we couldn’t call on positive psychology we wouldn’t survive.

“We’re great supporters of the Union and really pleased the IEU has given us this day.

“Wellbeing is really at the heart of education.”