Initiative aims to eliminate workplace stigma

Calling all McHenry County business owners: It’s time to start hiring employees with backgrounds that involve mental health issues, addiction and prior run-ins with the law.

That is the message Michelle Durpetti is spreading through a countywide effort targeting a select group of residents trying to re-enter or enter the workforce.

“Our goal is to bring businesses, the community, social workers and consumers together to address the large gap that exists for these prospective employees as it relates to obtaining secure employment,” said Durpetti, manager of Advantage EAP. “Our next goal is to get company commitment to hiring, which will be a very large task.”

The Stateline Society for Human Resource Management Workforce Readiness Initiative includes local human resource, mental health and specialty court professionals focused on eliminating the stigma often attached to job seekers with a mental illness or addiction, as well as veterans and those with criminal backgrounds who have been rehabilitated.

A three-prong approach highlights their effort: increasing awareness and education for employers during the hiring process, supporting successful re-entry and entry into the workforce and supporting the employer and employees once they are in the workplace.

“In the workplace and in public, these are often things that are kept secret that no one wants to talk about,” said Durpetti, a member of the Workforce Readiness Committee. “We are working very hard to bridge gaps, improve services and talk more openly about all the issues.”

The Crystal Lake-based chapter of the national Society for Human Resource Management partnered with Scott Block, specialty court administrator, which includes the 22nd Judicial Circuit of McHenry County Mental Health Court.

About 75 percent of each graduating class finds employment after completion of the program, which takes between one and two years, Block said.

“You can’t talk about criminal justice and the court system without talking about mental health and addiction,” Block said. “We work with the most difficult population – a triple-whammy when they are trying to get back into the workforce.”

As part of the Workforce Readiness Initiative, human resource professionals from throughout the county are educating current Mental Health Court participants before they attempt a job interview.

That includes a mock job interview, as well as résumé building and training on how to identify their issues.

Once they have completed the workshops, the participant will receive a recommendation letter to show employers.

“This is a population wanting and willing to work that needs people who are going to give them employment opportunities,” Block said. “If they don’t have opportunities, where do we expect them to go? What do we expect to happen?”

Helping hiring professionals realize that prospective employees can recover or control their mental illness is another goal of the initiative.

“If your neighbor has a heart attack, needs surgery and then comes back, folks rally around those cases,” said Wendy Nueman, program monitor and training assistant for the McHenry County Mental Health Board. “Somebody with a mental illness, people tend to run away from.”

For those who do enter the workforce, employers need to think about the limitations one may have if an issue has been disclosed, or have an open dialogue if one is perceived.

“Have a plan,” said Carlos Arevalo, an employee-focused attorney based out of Crystal Lake. “From a legal standpoint, the moment you perceive or the person says he or she has an issue, it’s your job to integrate something.”

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