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Accoladed Hunter leader Sarah Poissant opens up on her "mental unwellness", and how being authentic

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

This article was written by Penelope Green for the Newcastle Herald.

FROM its "happiness committee" to its random acts of kindness initiative and focus on staff connection, Sarah Poissant's paediatric business The Rainbow Clinic was this year named Outstanding Employer of Choice at the Lake Macquarie Business Excellence Awards.

With 130 children on its wait list, the Charlestown clinic is thriving, offering occupational therapy to children of all ages with learning disabilities and diagnoses including Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Yet the hard-earned accolade shines in stark contrast to 2016, when Mrs Poissant was burnt out and on the verge of a breakdown, two years after launching her business.

"We had expanded really quickly but we didn't have systems or values, we grew a bit too fast," recalls the 39-year-old mother-of-two, who has a formal diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and describes herself has a person who "has lived experience with mental unwellness".

To overhaul and improve her business systems, she partnered with Nicci Richman, a consultant whose business Audir specialises in neurodiversity, and Toni Knight, a psychotherapist, counsellor and consultant.

"We learnt so much - that we needed a practice manager, that values were important... we didn't have a toxic culture but there were a few tricky players," Mrs Poissant recalls.

"[Nicci and Toni] came in and helped put systems in place, set clear expectations, online performance reviews, employee satisfaction surveys, and far more. I call Nicci our care and wellbeing officer."

Raised in Kilaben Bay, Mrs Poissant was school captain of Toronto High and chose to study Occupational Therapy at the University of Newcastle because "all I wanted to do was to help people".

She was in her last year of university when her mother had a major psychotic depression and took her own life, aged 54, in November, 2006.

"She had struggled a few years prior with depression... Before she passed she was helping me to put plans in place for me to move to London. She said 'Follow your dreams'," Mrs Poissant says.

And so, in January, 2007, she headed overseas and began to work in the United Kingdom, but within months she was battling her own depression.

"I struggled about eight or nine months after mum's death, I crashed and burned for another eight months, I had a great job but couldn't bring myself to do anything, I thought the world had collapsed," she recalls.

Rallying and then deciding to remain in London longer after landing a plum senior OT role, Mrs Poissant returned to Australia in 2012 to be closer to her family.

Within two years she founded The Rainbow Clinic as a sole trader at a group clinic in Warners Bay.

Relocating to a bigger premise in Charlestown, her business has eight therapy rooms, two sensory gyms and 18 staff, a handful of who are neurodiverse.

Ms Poissant, who struggled with post-partum psychosis, sees a psychiatrist and psychologist and prioritises self-care.

"The reason I cope is because of having the most amazing team and family around us," she says, acknowledging her husband, Pat.

"We call our team our Rainbow family, there are a lot of people here who are the strength I am incapable of reaching, they do it so well. It's about finding people who can help with your weakness, that are their strengths. They understand you, they know my vulnerabilities and just get it."

Ms Poissant, who is mentored by Atune founder Simon Ashley, says her lived experience enhances her professional skill with clients.

"I always wanted to work with children and help them achieve their dreams and close the gap on their difficulties, and there is a compassion and a level of empathy that I can show families and children, I always meet them where they are at. I don't judge them," she says.

"The best thing about working with kids is they don't judge you, either. Kids are honest, when I engage with them it's in the here and now, they are not fretting about the past or stressing about the future, and this job energises my heart and soul because I meet them where they are at. It allows me to have compassion and empathy."

Occasionally she will share her journey with certain clients, and she jokes that she has "come out about it" to her staff.

"Nicci encouraged me to come out and say why there's a level of struggle. Sometimes I am super stressed, sometimes I am a bit manic and 'ADHD' and there are those parts where I need to regulate my emotions a bit better," she says.

"It's all a learning, and I think the more vulnerable you are as a human, when you present authentically as who you are, that's when people can rally around you if they want to stay."

She laughs when she says that her traits can mean that she is intense when she is "on".

"It's like you are firing on impulse and adrenalin, so my best work is done under pressure because we like to have that stress, I like that final push, I work to the last minute. Maybe I procrastinate but the quality is you deliver under pressure and thrive in challenging situation.

And her acceptance of her own quirks has brought a calmness she did not have until recently years.

"It allows you to be really real. It allows you to show up as you. When you have an acceptance of your good and bad parts," she says.

"I feel this diagnosis or whatever it is has given me a level of insight into good mental health, putting stepping stones in place to be a better person and responding in certain ways , it's helped me learn tools and impart that to others," says.

"I feel it allows you to serve from a place of understanding and openness. I think it's also given me an ability and a way to acknowledge and understand people's struggles. When someone is struggling, I don't judge them, but I know where they have been and I've been on that journey."

Mrs Poissant has prioritised and invested in her private practice's workplace culture based on what she says are its core values - passion, professionalism, family approach, respect and fun - which have been defined by extensive consultation with staff.

"We live to our values, we have a social committee, a happiness committee, we have random acts of kindness, we invest in our team's wellbeing allowing for evidence-based training, we allow flexibility in their working schedules, we give back in terms of praise and it fosters a level of appreciation," she says.

"We listen to staff's feedback and I think that's the secret to being good at what you do - hearing them out and having their voice, because they often know the solution," she says.

"Staff come with all their emotions, they come and feel they are in an open environment and that's because we have been open and honest with them, too."

She says the long wait list at her clinic has been testament to the team's hard work and though she is keen to help more families, she also doesn't want her current team to face burnout.

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