Rural Mental Health

The pandemic will throw a spotlight on many business practices but none so much as the quality of an organisation's mental health support systems for its staff - and for an agribusiness, its farmer and grower suppliers.

Beef processor and exporter Greenlea, and Open Country, the country's second biggest dairy manufacturer, are large companies but believe their strong "family" cultures are good foundations for mental health support and will help them through this unprecedented grim time.

New Zealand's global kiwifruit marketer Zespri, with more than 600 employees, half based overseas, prides itself on its strong community culture and says it's times like this when the collaborative nature of the kiwifruit industry shines.

"As we begin operating in a new way to keep ourselves, our whanau and our communities safe, we'll be utilising some of the established health practices we already have in place to support our people," a spokesman says.

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"This includes making sure we're deepening connections amongst our vibrant and diverse global Zespri team and embracing and celebrating our unique cultures and perspectives.

"We're also helping foster peer support networks and supporting our managers so they can feel equipped to look after themselves and their teams."

Waikato's family-owned Greenlea has a long history of guarding the health and welfare of not only its staff, but its farmers and the rural community.

The Greenlea Foundation Trust, which receives a percentage of the company's profits to give to charities, has for years sponsored the central North Island rescue helicopter with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

"A focus at the beginning of our support process is helping farmers," says managing director Tony Egan.

"Obviously the helicopter service is the physical side of that but we also sponsor the Rural Support Trust which helps farmers with mental health issues. We recently supplied them a $15,000 donation for a new vehicle for the administrator. And we continue to help wherever we can through the Greenlea Foundation."

Greenlea employs 460 staff across its two beef processing plants in Hamilton and Morrinsville.

To them it offers confidential and financed access to employee assistance programme provider EAP Services, which delivers workplace support to 560,000 employees from more than 1400 New Zealand businesses and public sector organisations.

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Egan says the service can offer independent and professional counselling to staff and their immediate family.

An employee can contact EAP direct without consulting management and Greenlea pays for the first three consultations.

EAP offers help with personal and workplace stress, relationship issues, conflict situations, anxiety, depression, harassment and bullying, family and domestic violence issues, trauma, grief, addictions and budgeting advice.

Zespri and Open Country Dairy also offer their staff access to EAP.

Open Country chief executive Steve Koekemoer says the beauty of the service is that employees can approach the service anonymously. For managers it's also a valuable help channel to steer staff towards if there are concerns, he says.

Open Country is a business based on a family culture "which doesn't lend itself to people being left alone stuck in a corner," he says. The company has around 320 across the country and 1000 farmer-suppliers.

"We track EAP and every year look at a report that comes in. And we have a steering committee to discuss cases - people's names aren't on them but we discuss the concerns," says Koekemoer.

"The steering committee's not a head office thing - it involves people from each of our sites. We've never had an issue where staff have had to pay.

"We're making sure they have access to professional services and don't have to worry about the cost. Being able to be anonymous is quite a powerful thing - many people struggle to talk to a manager directly."

Photo / File
Photo / File

Open Country and Greenlea use other initiatives too to support staff morale.

Greenlea has regular barbecues and morning teas for processing plant staff and gifts hams at Christmas and chocolate eggs at Easter, says Egan.

"We do things that support a level of socialising at work and which also record appreciation for the work they've put in."

Open Country also has a lot of staff functions, says Koekemoer.

"We're a very social bunch - we're very old school, not a corporate as such."

The company sponsors Mike King's mental health charity and the Rural Support Trust and supports several other mental health initiatives including Farmstrong.

"We look after our suppliers as well," says Koekemoer.

"It's a tough job getting up early in the morning in all weathers when times are tough.

"We do a lot in the background."

A spokesman for Mount Maunganui-headquartered Zespri says it has flexibility in how it operates due to the global nature of its business "so our people are empowered to work in ways that suit their lifestyle".

"When open (pre-pandemic) our office provides a range of working environments whether it be quiet focus zones or more collaborative spaces."

The company offers staff a range of in-house support networks including confidential access to EAP.

Zespri supports Surfing For Farmers to encourage growers and others in the $3 billion-plus kiwifruit industry "to get together in a manner that highlights the importance of health and safety and mental health".

"It's a fantastic programme and we've seen number increase as word's got out - not only does it bring the proven benefits of spending time in and around water, it provides a great chance to get together and just have a chat and build relationships."