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Lanie puts passion into compassion

"People with mental health issues just want a chance and to be treated like anyone else.” Lanie Lawler - Bass Coast Cleaning and Property Management

Lanie Lawler started a cleaning business in 2016 and, fifteen months on, is undergoing a major growth phase.

But that’s not what truly sets her apart from her peers, for that you need to look at her staff. It may even make you question who you’re hiring or, more to the point, who you’re not.

One of the things that makes your business different to most is the fact you actively seek to employ people with mental health issues. Why is that?

Before I started my own business I worked counseling people back into the workforce and discovered employers were reluctant to take on anyone with a mental health barrier regardless of their skill set. I saw people getting their hopes up and wanting to work, but employers were not coming to the party.

I have Bipolar 1, depression and mild anxiety and had a mental breakdown when I was 26. I had high managerial roles with high pressure and an employer that didn’t understand. He’d just yell at me and expect me to do more.

Do you think people with mental health issues are stigmatised and/or discriminated against?

Yes, very much so. Some of the worst to discriminate are potential employers. People who are uneducated or who haven’t dealt with mental health issues don’t know what to expect from people that suffer these conditions.

What kind of impact do those negative experiences have?

It makes people feel unworthy, self-esteem and confidence get lost and there is no self-worth. It also makes you feel like you cannot contribute to society let alone your community, which worsens the mental health issue. These impacts can lead to hopelessness and the possibility of suicide given that they may feel like failures.

In your experience, do people with mental health issues need extra support?

People with mental health issues need minimal extra support. The main kind of support would be to understand their situation by doing some research and asking the employee to explain it to you. Some people think that people with mental health issues need or want extras or different rules. This is not the case – they don’t want special treatment, they just want a chance and to be treated like anyone else.

What types of mental health issues do your staff deal with?

My staff have mental health barriers such as depression, severe depression disorder, bipolar, anxiety, borderline personality disorder and suicidal tendencies.

How do you approach managing and supporting a team of people with varying degrees of mental health issues?

My staff know all I expect is transparency and honesty. I also do the same with them. This alleviates anxiety. I support my staff the best I can and they do the same for each other. You wouldn’t change it for someone with diabetes. People with mental health issues don’t need to be treated differently from anyone else.

How has your mental health affected your work?

I have had managerial roles for most of my career so stresses that relate to the workplace are no different to anyone in the same role without a mental health condition. The only time mental health has affected my work is when an employer or staff can’t and won’t understand. For example when they find out you have a mental illness, if you are having a bad day they will always ask if you have taken your medications.  Um, yeah I have. I’m just having a bad day, as everyone else does.

You worked for a number of years counseling jobseekers experiencing mental health. What did you learn from that experience?

I learnt that mental illness is very common and can be affected easily by the way people react to it.

Do you partner with any other organisations?

We more help than partner. We assist a not-for-profit business called Clean as Casper that provides mobile showers to the homeless. We wash their towels, bath mats, face washers and robes. We do this for no charge because it can cost them up to $250 a week to go to a laundromat.

I have also been in talks with Mindfull.

You’ve taken on a lot starting a business, growing so quickly and diversifying. Has that had any impact on your own health?

Yes it has, I am super tired. Running a business is hard work, but so worth it. My staff and my support network of family, friends and other businesses keep me going. I make sure I prioritise things and delegate where I can. I do have lack of sleep but anyone in their own business will be in the same situation in the first two years of set up.

What advice would you give to business owners looking to make their workplace more mentally healthy.

The first thing would be to become an advocate for breaking the mental health stigma – getting educated. Have a toolbox meeting and remind staff they’re not robots, they’re human. Be open and allow staff to know they can approach you - having that in a workplace as a start is a major step. Employers need to remember that people with mental health issues don’t want this and it can happen to anyone.

Finally, you own a cleaning business. Does that mean you’re a neat freak?

Ha ha ha, like a mechanic, they hate working on their own cars – you should see my desk and car.

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If you are struggling with mental health issues, or are looking to make your small business more mentally healthy, the Victorian Small Business Commissioner has advice and a list of service providers who can help.