Succeeding against the odds to return to work

JULIAN Dennis is one of the happiest and most motivated workers in Port Macquarie.

The 58 year-old has started a new job, thanks to a pilot program designed to help people with brain injury to find employment.

HAPPY TO BE ON THE JOB: Julian Dennis has received the support and encouragement he needs to find new work opportunities through an innovative employment program.

HAPPY TO BE ON THE JOB: Julian Dennis has received the support and encouragement he needs to find new work opportunities through an innovative employment program.

Julian beat the odds to survive a massive head injury in 2001, when he was 43 years old.

A year later he returned to work on a part-time basis, but he struggled to keep up, had difficulty recalling information and his hearing loss made it hard to communicate effectively on the job.

A company restructure left him facing redundancy, which was a further blow to his confidence.

Following a sea-change move to Lake Cathie in 2004, Julian secured part-time work in a garden nursery owned by a family friend, and became involved in voluntary work with Meals on Wheels and his local surf club.

He was keen to keep busy and to find further work, but the employment agencies he spoke to couldn’t help because he isn’t registered with Centrelink, and Centrelink wouldn’t register him, because he doesn’t receive disability benefits.

When Vicki Solomon from the Mid North Coast Brain Injury Rehabilitation Service heard about the impasse in late 2015, she arranged a meeting with Jennifer Hill, a Case Manager with Coffs Harbour Employment & Support Services (CHESS).

The three of them discussed a new Vocational Intervention Program, which involves skills assessment, then a period of unpaid workplace training, and Julian readily agreed to participate.

The program is a partnership between NSW Health and the Agency for Clinical Innovation, with funding from the NSW Government. Northern NSW is one of three regions where specialist teams of clinicians and vocational providers are working together to improve return to work outcomes.

Over the next few months, the CHESS team assessed Julian’s strengths and the workplace supports he might need, then reached out to find potential employment placements.

After one false start in which a business withdrew their support at the last minute, Karen Vidler, a CHESS Placement Officer, secured a workplace trial for Julian at Emmaus, the Catholic Care of the Aged residential care facility in Port Macquarie.

Karen and Jennifer worked closely with Emmaus staff to ensure the appropriate supports were put in place.

Towards the end of the trial period, Julian received the news he didn’t dare dream of - he was offered a permanent paid job, working two days a week.

“To describe the program as a success is an understatement,” said Julian’s wife, Jan Dennis.

“Having somewhere to go two days a week, and people to value his efforts has improved his self-esteem, and the positive feedback he’s received has added a real spring to his step.”

“He wants to work and to make a contribution, and this program has allowed him to do just that.”

“We’re both really grateful for Jennifer’s support, and for the kindness and generosity of the Emmaus staff.”

Jennifer Hill is also genuinely pleased about the program outcomes for Julian, his family and his community.  

“Initiatives like the Vocational Intervention Program are an example of what can be achieved when agencies across NSW join forces to link those with a brain injury directly with employers and vocational support services,” Jennifer said.

Julian’s own take on his new employment status is equally positive.

“I am proud of the work I do, and the results I achieve,” Julian said.

“What’s really great is that when I told my colleagues how lucky I was to have the job, they told me in return that they felt lucky to have me in the job.”

“I don’t think people realise what a difference this has made.”

Julian is keen to demonstrate that people with disabilities can make a positive contribution in the workplace.

“Sometimes it just takes a bit of thinking outside the box to show that people like me have plenty to offer.” Julian concluded.

ONE OF THE LUCKY FEW: Currently only 29 per cent of people return to work after a brain injury in NSW, although this number will rise now closer links are being forged between employers, vocational service providers and the people wanting to return to work.

ONE OF THE LUCKY FEW: Currently only 29 per cent of people return to work after a brain injury in NSW, although this number will rise now closer links are being forged between employers, vocational service providers and the people wanting to return to work.