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As a pharmacist, I’m used to treating all kinds of physical illnesses for our clients but it still came as a big shock when in 2015, we lost a 16-year-old staff member to mental health issues. I thought I knew my staff, and had a good idea of what was happening in their lives, but this made me stop and reassess how I could become a better, more supportive manager.

Recently, I became the 2017 Telstra Australian Young Business Woman Award winner. I’m proud to say that Capital Chemist Wanniassa’s new focus on mental health played a big part in this awards recognition.


The impact on the team


The team at Capital Chemist Wanniassa were heavily impacted by the loss of our colleague. It was a very distressing time for everyone, and it became apparent there was a gap in how we were helping our team develop and how we were looking after their mental health.

It also drew our attention to the enormous number of people in the community who aren’t in tune with their mental health.

For me personally, having a team member take their life under my leadership was incredibly shocking. I made it my business to understand how I could be more aware and in tune with my team.

This led to the evolution of a number of different innovations that we’ve implemented into our business over the year since.


Making mental health a focus


My first piece of advice for business owners, is that you have to be okay to talk about it.

Everyone in the workplace has to agree that it’s no different than if someone comes in with a physical illness.

Employees should be able to tell their manager that they’re extremely stressed, that there’s some stuff going on at home, or that they’re experiencing difficult emotions, without the fear of being judged.

We need to stop having this perception that you can only talk about a cold or a sore back, while brushing the messy stuff under the rug.

Statistically, you have a one in two chance of developing a mental illness in your lifetime. If you consider diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or any of the other big-hitting diseases such as cancer, there is no disease with an incidence rate as high as mental illness.

So, if it doesn’t impact you directly, chances are the person sitting next to you is going to be affected.

We need to make sure working environments are open to those conversations, and when people do bring up mental health problems that we don’t treat them any differently.

The second step is to ask the employee how they would like to be treated. For example, would they like quieter duties or modifications made, or do they want the opposite – to be treated exactly the same? The goal is that work can be a place where they feel supported.

Another important step is to be able to connect people with services where they can get help. We don’t all have the skill set to be able to deal with the complexity of mental illness. But we can make sure people know where help is available.

You can become a mentally healthier workplace using a number of resources. Within the business you can ensure pamphlets are available, from beyondblue, Lifeline Australia or Black Dog Institute, who offer support online and over the phone.

Heads Up by beyondblue has online resources for workplaces on how to implement mentally healthier initiatives within your business and mental health first aid training is also available across Australia.


Benefits of open communication


Since implementing these changes we have a higher retention rate within our team. We feel more like a family, who stick together no matter what.

Now staff will comment if someone is struggling. Instead of making remarks about them not performing well, they are more concerned about their wellbeing.

This leads people to communicate more, and in turn they feel comfortable and supported by their team.

We’ve had situations where team members have had tough times but I’ve noticed that having an understanding workplace has reduced absenteeism, because staff know that work is a safe place.

If you unwittingly create a difficult environment for people living with mental illness, they may want to take time off because they feel it’s too hard to be at work. While for some people they need a proper break, we’ve found that for others work can be a good escape from the stresses of everyday life.

Opening up conversations about mental illness has been a relief for a lot of people who were then excited to find ways we could adapt their workload day-to-day, or cater to their needs better.

I’m incredibly proud of the path my team and I are now on. There is more work to be done in the community, and in many organisations around the country. I hope to use the opportunity of winning 2017 Telstra Australian Young Business Woman Award to further the conversation around mental health.

Elise Apolloni

Parter and pharmacist, Telstra Australian Young Business Women’s Award at Capital Chemist Wanniassa
I’ve been working in pharmacies since I was 14 years old. After becoming a qualified pharmacist, I managed Capital Chemist Wanniassa for two years before eventually becoming a partner in the business. My vision is for Capital Chemist Wanniassa is to make a positive impact on the health of the community. I hope to connect customers with the most passionate and educated pharmacy health experts in Canberra. After the untimely passing of a co-worker, I developed a passion for better informing the community about mental health issues. I raise awareness by volunteering as a telephone crisis supporter at Lifeline Canberra and a phone counsellor for the National Pharmacists' Support Service, as well as becoming an instructor for 'Mental Health First Aid' training.

I believe pharmacists are massively under-utilised health professionals, and that women make amazing leaders in business. The world needs more people who challenge norms, bring up issues which can be uncomfortable to talk about and raise awareness of health conditions.
Elise Apolloni

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