By Kirra Grimes

STAFF from Saputo Dairy Australia’s Leongatha factory enjoyed an inspiring presentation from local footy legend Beau Vernon last week as part of the company’s newly adopted annual training program, which prioritises mental health awareness along with other workplace safety considerations.
Saputo’s Leongatha processing plant shut down last week to allow 220 site operations staff to undertake training including compliance and OH&S, as well as activities based on promoting positive workplace culture and staff wellbeing.
As part of the holistic program, the first of its kind to be offered at the Leongatha plant, staff gathered at the Woorayl Golf Club last Tuesday to participate in team building activities, and to hear from Phillip Island footy coach Beau Vernon, who shared life lessons and psychological strategies that have helped him since the on-field accident that made him a quadriplegic at the age of 23.
In describing his journey through the following seven years, which included coaching Leongatha’s and then Phillip Island’s senior footy teams to flags in 2017 and 2018, Beau emphasised the importance of challenging negative thoughts and being aware of their impact on oneself and others.
“Training the brain” and breaking the cycle of negativity by regularly practicing gratitude and stepping outside one’s comfort zone were some of the ideas touched on in the former tradie and star athlete’s reflections on overcoming fears and challenges.
And, as well as ticking off an impressive list of achievements, including creating a successful coaching career, becoming a father, studying at university, and getting back in to his favourite sports like surfing as well as wheelchair sports.
“Be aware of your thoughts- are they helping you or not?” Beau asked the audience.
“It’s not about being happy all the time but taking little steps to break the cycle and help you get better outcomes.”
It was a presentation that clearly left an impression on the Saputo staff, with several audience members commending Beau’s resilience in the face of limitations and asking for more details on topics including seeking help, professional or otherwise, for mental health issues.
To this enquiry, Beau responded that he’d found it vital to have “one or two key people” he felt safe opening up to, and had sought help from a psychologist when he recognised, not long after getting out of hospital, he’d been using alcohol to “escape” his situation.
“Don’t worry about stigma,” he said. “Seeing a professional can be really helpful because they give you the tools you don’t get anywhere else.”
Saputo’s Leongatha site manager Paul Helmore said Beau was the perfect person to talk to the factory staff about mental health, as his strong ties with the Leongatha footy club made him well known in the local community, and his story reflected Saputo’s company philosophy of learning from experiences.
“Beau’s story is quite inspirational and it’s one that everyone can take different messages out of. As an organisation, we’re very much about learning from experiences, so having Beau share his experiences with our staff was a great opportunity,” he said.
With mental health becoming “very much a focus” for Saputo and “the entire Gippsland region” in the last couple of years, Paul said the company planned to incorporate mental health awareness into training programs on an ongoing basis.