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Team leaders

Trying to help young footballers deal with the tragic suicides of seven of their peers convinced a Victorian man he had to come up with a plan to change attitudes and lives. That plan is now available in the workplace. By Liz Swanton

Dave Burt is the type of man who likes to turn his words into action, and if that helps others, then so much the better. Burt is the founder and CEO of SALT—or Sport and Life Training—a not-for-profit organisation that provides education, culture and leadership programs to businesses, schools and sporting clubs. SALT offers a range of courses—wellbeing and mental health, drugs and alcohol, equality and respect—all with the goal of encouraging a more positive and supportive environment for the people taking part. The concept started at the sporting club level but it works just as effectively in a workplace situation, provided there’s a positive response to the question at the heart of the presentation: is it possible for your organisation to function as a team?


The first workplace presentation was for a transport company, after the owner told SALT his employees had no idea of the concept of ‘team’, to the point where they wouldn’t even wear the shirts supplied by the company. “We had to really explore the issues behind why we come to work,” says Burt, “and then we looked at each person’s strengths and how each could lead within the company using their major strengths most effectively.” From there came calls from a financial planning company, a real estate group, and a quarry—all very different, but the sessions were equally successful. Burt puts that down to an excellent team of facilitators and programs that are highly interactive and fun, as well as informative and educational. Importantly, while the aim of the exercise is to make every employee feel safe and valued, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. “Within any team—and that includes the workplace—people play their roles and have their differences, and their reasons for being there,” Burt says. “Once they get past the fact they are paid to be there, they acknowledge it is also about connections, relationships, meaning and achievement. We still have to be contributing to something and growing as people, and becoming better, and more connected and more empathetic, and more able to see when our work colleagues aren’t coping. “We always modify the program depending on the group but we are moving towards doing far more in the wellbeing and mental health space and helping organisations set up sustainable systems of looking after each other.”


The idea of SALT started 15 years ago when Burt, who has been a teacher, sporting coach and chaplain for more than 30 years, was talking to people about the power of sporting clubs. He felt frustrated by the fact that what was happening off the field was far less positive than what was seen during a game. “At the time, there was still a tendency in many clubs to glorify binge drinking, negative attitudes towards women and macho attitudes to wellbeing and mental health. We introduced our kids to these unhealthy off-field cultures, and nobody challenged what was going on.” Beyond those negative aspects, Burt recognised there was a positivity and strength about sporting clubs that could be harnessed; they were part of the problem, but they could also be part of the solution. “The sporting club is a powerfully connected place. People go because they want to be there. The volunteers care about ‘their’ people for all the right reasons. The village mentality we knew in suburbs or churches or schools has largely dissipated, and now the sporting club is the community hub for many people. “Coaches and players demonstrate tremendous dedication to the sport and to each other. They’re on the same page because they value their game and their team. So the idea of SALT was to take the strengths that people use when they’re motivated—which is often when they are playing sport— and apply them off the field. All of us, if we can identify our strengths and apply them more widely, can become better versions of ourselves.”


As the idea took shape, Burt’s son joined a new sports club and Burt volunteered his services as chaplain and ‘welfare’ coordinator. He saw the teenagers struggling with issues around identity, self-esteem and wellbeing, and decided to create some programs to help. Other clubs called for assistance. Then the turning point. Within 18 months, Burt visited seven different clubs where there had been a suicide. “On one occasion, the coach introduced me to the young man’s teammates saying ‘boys, you know I love you, but I don’t know what to do so we have an expert to help’.” Not feeling much like an expert, Burt simply spoke to each lad. As he expected, most said they were okay. One said no. Burt asked the others if they would help him. As they said yes, they started admitting their own vulnerability. “I think they were willing to be real at the club because they felt safe. There were parents there too, and everyone was saying ‘we didn’t see it coming’. I think everyone realised if we could help before a suicide rather than after, that was very powerful.”


As Burt reached his own conclusions about the support sporting clubs could offer, Victoria’s La Trobe University released a study showing that men are potentially three times more connected in the footy club than they are anywhere else. SALT operates through the support of a number of sponsors, including CSS. Since 2015, the team has done around 1000 presentations. Until recently, most have been done with sporting clubs, but now more workplaces are calling for assistance, usually as a result of someone seeing SALT in action at their local sports club and realising the wider benefits.


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