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Mental Health Series: Making mental health a workplace priority

Wednesday, 11 October 2017 11:28am

This week is New Zealand's Mental Health Awareness Week – with the national theme “Nature is Key”. To mark the week, staff members from across the University have kindly agreed to share their stories. In the final installment of this three-part series we hear from Anatomy Manager Rachel Kinnaird, who makes the mental health of her team a priority.

Rachel-Kinnaird-image
The suspected suicide of a colleague at a previous workplace has made Gross Anatomy Manager very aware of the importance of supporting her team's mental health. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Gross Anatomy Manager Rachel Kinnaird cares deeply about the members of her team – and it shows in her interactions with them.

In the short time the Otago Bulletin Board is with her, various members pop their heads around her door, and with each one she is kind and respectful and takes the time to ask how they are.

Formerly a Forensic Autopsy Technician, Ms Kinnaird joined the University in 2015, moving to Dunedin from Wellington, after feeling she had hit the ceiling in terms of professional development.

While she misses that work, her Otago role has given her the opportunity to grow her career.

She manages a team of four – whose tasks range from embalming, dissecting and plastinating body parts and organs for teaching or research projects, setting up teaching spaces prior to labs and maintaining the prosection storage room to keeping all spaces scrupulously clean.

"It’s more than the fact we work around dead bodies. You don’t get into this kind of work and stay in it if it affects you."

Ms Kinnaird says the team is mindful of the sacrifice that the donors' families have made to allow their loved one to be part of the Donor Programme.

“In order to respect the donor’s generosity and altruism we get the most out of every body that someone has donated for that purpose. In this way we honour their legacy and it has a far reaching impact on the education of many students of human anatomy.”

But although the work itself could be seen as challenging, Ms Kinnaird says that the pressures on her staff are very similar to those on other staff across the University.

“It’s more than the fact we work around dead bodies. You don’t get into this kind of work and stay in it if it affects you,” she says. “It’s really the sheer volume of work responsibilities we have, the expectations on our team from academics who are passionate about the work they do, and the usual interpersonal relationships that cause stress points for people.”

Ms Kinnaird’s passion for supporting mental health in the workplace is personal, and stems from the suspected suicide of a colleague in Wellington.

"She was a beautiful human being, very gentle, very open with who she was, how she behaved with people. I had no idea she was dealing with that kind of hurt and anguish."

“One of my tasks at my last workplace was to check the death register each morning, to see who had been brought in,” she says. “One morning I checked the book and there was the name of my colleague, a doctor who worked with us. I never thought it was on the cards for her. She was a beautiful human being, very gentle, very open with who she was, how she behaved with people. I had no idea she was dealing with that kind of hurt and anguish.”

To this day Ms Kinnaird feels guilty that she didn’t know; didn’t do anything to help; that until her colleague chose to end her own life, she didn’t realise she was unhappy.

While it wasn’t part of her job then, in this role it is.

“I’m very attentive as a manager because of that experience. I guess I’m that way inclined anyway. I care about people and don’t like seeing people hurting. If I’m in a position to help, then I'll do everything in my power to help."

When she arrived in her role at Otago, her team had been short-staffed for some time, and were stressed, exhausted, and suspicious of change.

She worked to put in place supports, with the help of HR. The group took part in team development exercises, getting to know one another better, writing personality profiles, finding common ground and understanding, setting goals, and working together to discover what they wanted their new workplace culture to be.

"We have a lot more collaboration, people are more willing to work with each other."

Her team members have access to one-on-one support from Psychology Associates and receive wonderful ongoing pastoral care from the University’s Occupational Health Nurse Cath Logan and Occupational Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisor Carina Perner.

While some members of her team were skeptical to begin with, the results have been excellent and gradually they have made concessions and come on board.

“We have a lot more collaboration, people are more willing to work with each other. A few weeks ago I was sick unexpectedly. The team pitched in, caught up with each other, stepped in and stepped up. They are more aware of each other’s needs.”

For Ms Kinnaird, the first step was getting to know her team as individuals.

“Not just as people who do the work, but as people who do the work; people with lives, dreams, families, ambitions.”

Her advice to other managers is to get to know their staff, and try to walk a mile in their shoes.

"Don’t let the business of the day get in the way of really connecting with people."

“Don’t be afraid to get involved. Knowing that people are living with mental health issues shouldn’t scare you off. You’re not there to fix them, but you are there to support them.”

There are many avenues for a manager to get support in helping a member of their team, including their own line manager, Human Resources, Health and Safety, Occupational Health, and even free resources from the internet.

“Never feel alone in dealing with these things, there are always others you can go to. Know your own limitations, know your responsibilities,” she says. “If people disclose something to you it’s about listening - being there for them in that moment rather than solving the issues for them. Say ‘I’m listening. I’m here for you. With your permission I can talk to someone about getting you the appropriate support you require. In the meantime my door is open to you’.

“Don’t let the business of the day get in the way of really connecting with people.”

Yesterday Psychology's Dr Damian Scarf shared his story in the second part of our Mental Health Series, while on Monday we heard from Philosophy's Sally Holloway.

Advice for a manager working with someone with a mental health concern:

  • Make room and invest more time in listening, instead of fixing.
  • Be authentic, share a little.
  • When things go wrong or when people feel stuck with something or someone - ask for help - you are not expected to be a superhero.
  • The wellbeing cycle of flourishing and languishing effects most people, however for people with mental health issues those peaks and troughs may seem to be more noticeable and sometimes require intervention.
  • Check out workshops and training around mental health.

Places to get help: