Breaking down barriers — 1 cup at a time

Willow Bean Café in Vancouver supports employees with mental health issues
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/03/2013

Employment opportunities can be hard to come by when you’re suffering from a mental illness. Stigma is still alive and well, and barriers to traditional employment discourage many people with mental health issues from rejoining the workforce.

Those are a few of the reasons why the Willow Bean Café came to be. A mental health supportive employment program, the café was created through a partnership between Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver-Burnaby branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and Sodexo Canada.

The café provides CMHA clients with meaningful employment in a supportive setting, according to Elisha Brodeur, employment support co-ordinator for the Willow Bean Café (via CMHA) in Vancouver.

“It’s a program that trains clients of CMHA in an actual café setting,” she says. “It’s quite a unique experience.”

There are currently six baristas and all are both employees and clients of CMHA.

“They’re people who have maybe faced more barriers to finding employment due to mental health problems or struggles with mental illness,” says Brodeur. “The café... is an awesome kind of opportunity for people to experience an actual work environment and also get support in that process.”

Brewing up a better understanding of mental health

Brodeur provides personal and professional support to the café’s baristas, helping them with the adjustment.

The baristas work part-time hours, which makes for a gradual, low-pressure transition back into the workforce, she says.

Each of them has six months to work at the café developing their skills and experience, after which they can transition to their next role.

“It’s an opportunity for them to work and gain skills, but also to be in a place where mental illness is not stigmatized,” says Brodeur.

The café is located in Vancouver General Hospital, which provides a supportive environment for the project, she says.

And having that element of support and understanding is critical for sufferers who feel stigma still weighs heavily on their attempts at recovery.

“The stigma of mental illness is invisible and we as a (society) don’t really understand mental illness fully,” says Brodeur. “Mental illness can be really debilitating in a lot of ways.”

It can create an inability to function at a capacity that society often expects, she says.

“Day-to-day life can be very challenging — even just getting up in the morning can be a challenge.”

Supporting skills development

Brodeur will be the first to point out that dealing with those challenges takes support from the community — and that’s where Sodexo Canada comes in. The food and facilities management company has 10,000 employees across the country and is one of the partner organizations behind the Willow Bean Café, offering training and skills development along with providing the products the café sells.

“What we provide is the services,” says Barry Telford, vice-president of health care and education services at Sodexo in Burlington, Ont. “So we do training, we do job skills support, technical support… the concept is around re-introduction into the job market.”

Sodexo has an on-site trainer who helps the baristas develop skills to gain employment elsewhere once their six months in the program are through.

Partnering with CMHA and Vancouver Coastal Health on the café project was just a natural fit, says Telford, since Sodexo does a number of similarly community-oriented initiatives throughout Canada.

“We are very committed as an organization to supporting diversity and inclusion at every level we possibly can. When this opportunity came up, we were very proud to participate,” he says.

“The fun part is seeing people making progress and conquering some fears that they may have in a really supportive and caring environment… it’s a pretty amazing operation to watch.”

Stripping away the stigma

That transformation is able to occur when the fear, misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental illness are replaced by support and understanding.

“One major obstacle for some is an ongoing stigma attached to people with mental health issues,” says Chris
Flynn, Vancouver Coastal Health manager of tertiary mental health services at the Willow Pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital.

“Willow Bean baristas have been able to demonstrate their skills and abilities when given an opportunity to learn while being supported and encouraged.”

Employment opportunities

And that’s why Vancouver Coastal Health, along with its partner organizations, felt the café was such an essential project.

“It is a very important initiative because it supports our recovery model which, in turn, supports folks with mental illness having opportunities, such as employment, like everyone else,” says Flynn.

“And like the rest of us, if given a chance, (mental health clients) can learn new skills if given the support and training that is needed.”

The skills the baristas are building go far beyond learning how to brew a perfect latte. Self-confidence, self-esteem and the knowledge they are making a tangible, positive contribution to their communities — and the workforce — are perhaps the most important attributes they develop at the Willow Bean.

It’s a small café with only six employees but there’s a lot to be learned from the project that can translate well into other workplaces.

“What other employers can learn is that people with mental illness, when given the chance to learn new skills, do become productive and valued employees,” says Flynn. “In addition, the employers will be helping to de-stigmatize the perception that people with mental illness can’t have regular employment.”

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