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Making a difference for mental health in the workplace

Owen Fowler joined Serco in 2019 at the Australian Taxation Office contact centre in Queensland. A community-minded entrepreneur, his earlier career had been a rapid rise and fall through business, betrayal and bankruptcy that drove him into severe depression. Owen re-emerged through therapeutic writing which he developed into a book, using his experiences to help others and increase awareness around mental health. 

Today, Owen is a passionate advocate for mental health, believing that the best place to start is by talking about it. 

What can it mean to work with mental health challenges? 

The greatest challenge is how easily it can escalate. Things can pile up quickly when you don’t feel right (under any degree of pressure) which can impact negatively on you and your work. You may feel as though you’re failing yourself or your employer. It becomes a vicious cycle. That’s why it’s important to get the help you need as soon as possible. 

Why is it important to be open about mental health? 

It starts to desensitise the topic and educate people. There is still a lot of stigma attached – particularly at work – but being open about it can encourage people to come forward about any challenges they may be experiencing. 

What do employers need to be aware of? 

Mental health has direct links to morale, productivity, quality, turnover…the list goes on. Employers need to be aware of those impacts and have suitable measures in place to help identify and address any issues appropriately. Getting it right and helping people feel supported can reverse the impact and raise morale – giving team members stronger faith in their employer. 

In what ways has your employment with Serco helped you? 

I fell in love with working here because of how the business responded to me. When I joined, my manager and I had a ‘getting to know you’ discussion in which I shared my experiences and we had a really good conversation. From that moment I felt understood and supported. There’s been no end to what my team has done for me – I’m so grateful for them. I couldn’t believe it when Serco sponsored my book launch! I never dreamed of such support from an employer. 

How is Serco making a difference for mental health in the workplace? 

Simply by making mental health a topic of conversation. We address it strongly here in the contact centre. We have colleagues trained in mental health, virtual reality headsets to help us calm and re-focus, and a good employee assistance programme. 

What recommendations would you make to anyone living with mental health challenges – and to their colleagues? 

Talking to someone is one of the best things you can do. A weight will lift from your shoulders. It might not solve the problem, but you won’t be alone anymore. And as it becomes easier to talk about, it becomes easier to manage. That said, don’t force a conversation you aren’t ready to have. 

The same applies to colleagues. If someone isn’t ready or willing to share, respect that. Similarly, be careful giving advice. Poor advice does more harm than good. Referral to an employee assistance programme is a better option. 

Beyond that, everyone should familiarise themselves with the help available. It’s just as important as knowing who your fire warden is. And finally: just be a friend to your colleagues – let them know you’re there and that you care.