Case study: How the Southern Migrant & Refugee Centre supports positive mental health in the workplace

The Southern Migrant & Refugee Centre has spent over 25 years helping some of the most vulnerable in our community, and also recognises the importance of looking after their own.

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Based in Dandenong, the Southern Migrant & Refugee Centre (SMRC) is a not-for-profit organisation providing services to migrants and refugees living in the southern region of Melbourne. Founded in 1993, the SMRC has grown to become a complex organisation, employing full-time, part-time and casual staff, as well as managing a vast network of approximately 200 volunteers. 

The SMRC provides services ranging from early childhood support, to palliative care across a diverse mixture of cultures and language groups – enabling migrants and refugees to participate successfully within their new community in Australia.

SMRC CEO Ramesh Kumar.When CEO Ramesh Kumar joined the SMRC in November 2017, he found a happy and engaged group of employees who genuinely enjoyed what they do. Nevertheless, the SMRC faced significant workplace mental health risks including:

  • emotionally demanding work and exposure to vicarious trauma
  • unclear boundaries between work and personal life as well as long working hours
  • lack of role clarity

Janine Galvin, HR Manager, described how SMRC had previously offered its employees standard mental health services that we see in many workplaces, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), HR support and participation in awareness days.

“There was a lot of fear from staff that if we spoke openly about mental health that it might trigger somebody else within SMRC that was dealing with something,” says Ms Galvin.

During July and October 2019, the SMRC participated in the Victorian Chamber’s Mental Health Essentials program and also attended a free Mental Health Essentials briefing that helped employers to identify and control mental health risks in the workplace.

These programs led to the SMRC creating their first Mental Health Action Plan.

“We used the points from the Mental Health Essentials briefing as guidance and sent out a survey around those 11 mental health hazards. The survey had a 78% response rate,” says Ms Galvin.

The results allowed the SMRC to pinpoint four specific areas of mental health risk including:

  • job demands
  • role clarity
  • lack of support
  • organisational justice

The SMRC went on to distribute the survey results with their employees and established a Mental Health Committee, who are presently drafting an organisational Mental Health Action Plan.

Proactive involvement of employees is crucial.

The SMRC intend to share the Action Plan with employees in an open forum and seek their input into how different mental health risks can be addressed.

“I genuinely believe in closing the loop of accountability. If you ask someone a question and they say something, you’ve got to do something about what they say, otherwise why did you ask in the first place?” says Mr Kumar.

The SMRC is dedicated to ensuring thier clients achieve sustainable settlement outcomes, competencies and transition to independence.

The SMRC have come to understand the importance of regular communication with employees, a lesson learned from acting on a previous organisational survey results. 

“In our staff meetings there was a progress report. ‘This is what you said. This is what we did about the issue. This was the outcome’,” says Mr Kumar.

Other mental health initiatives that the SMRC have undertaken include investing in Mental Health First Aid training for managers and participating in the Achievement Program. (Current priority areas include mental health and physical activity.)

The actions the SMRC have taken not only reduce organisational risk, but have driven a positive shift in workplace culture, where employees feel able to openly discuss mental health in a way they wouldn’t have in previous years.

At the Victorian Chamber, we work with many businesses who want to improve mental health in their workplace. 

It is inspiring to work with those who are prepared to go beyond tertiary interventions (EAP, awareness days, etc) and thoroughly analyse and address the work-related factors that contribute to workplace stress. 

Our thanks to SMRC for sharing their experiences.

Mental Health Essentials

Mental Health Essentials is a free training and consulting program for small and medium sized businesses who employ young workers and want to create mentally healthy workplaces.

This program is supported by WorkSafe Victoria through the WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

You can find out more about Mental Health Essentials and register your interest by visiting the Mental Health Essentials website, emailing us at or speaking with one of our consultants on (03) 8662 5333.

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