In my world: the plant baker

24 April, 2009
John Foster is MD of Fosters Bakery in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, which supplies fresh and frozen products to major retailers, airlines and caterers
Page 18 

People off work through mental ill-health costs business millions every year, but this is the tip of the iceberg compared to the higher costs involved when people at work perform below par through a mental ill-health condition. My eyes were opened to this 'last taboo' subject recently when I was encouraged (in one of my voluntary work roles) to do a 'mental health first aid' course. No sooner had I finished it than TV's Secret Millionaire featured a Barnsley millionaire confessing to having had a 'secret' mental breakdown a few years ago. I had no idea just how much this subject affects the workplace; I just thought stress and depression were the new 'bad back' lame excuse on a sick note. How wrong I was!

In fact, nearly all of the UK population suffer some sort of mental ill-health at some time in their lives. The condition is not usually severe, but, like any illness, a mild condition may worsen if not treated. "Pull yourself together!" is rather useless in helping someone to recover from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wouldn't it be good if the baking industry were open about mental ill-health and doing something positive to tackle it? Most people are prejudiced in their thoughts on the subject. If your friend said they had just joined a "physical health club" you might be impressed, but if the same friend said that they had just joined a "mental health club", would you be as impressed?

If a colleague reports that they are depressed, do you know the best way to help them make a recovery and how best for them to avoid recurrence? Do you know the difference between stress, depression, addiction, phobias, neurosis, psychosis, bipolar, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder or panic attack? Do you know the long-term effects of caffeine, lack of sleep, alcohol or drugs? If your grandmother or teenage son were preparing to commit suicide, would you spot the early warning signs? Do you know how to take care of your own physical and mental health? I do - I've done the course.

Even though mental illness may not be caused by work, it does affect people's ability to work at their best, so it is something we should address. But we are bakers, not therapists. Like an ordinary first aider, our job is to recognise when there is a problem, provide initial help as trained mental health first aiders and move the person to appropriate professional help if necessary. Mrs Foster remarked that, in an economic downturn, business owners and senior managers are more likely to suffer personal mental ill-health. How is your mental health, reader?

Don't panic! Most ordinary first aid at our bakery involves little more than a sticking plaster but, left untreated, it leaves a bloody mess all over the bakery and spoils the buns. It's something similar for most mental health first aid too: early treatment - usually simple - avoids a messier situation.

To find out about a course in your area see www.mentalhealthfirstaid.csip.org.uk





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