Five minutes with Mandi Barnao, Program Manager, Transport for NSW

Published 30 January 2023

Mandi Barnao is a Program Manager at Transport for NSW. She lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.

Mandi features in a newly launched podcast which is part of ADNSW’s Workplace Adjustments Series. In Episode 1: A conversation with Mandi Barnao about workplace adjustments, Mandi talks about living with an invisible disability and the workplace adjustments she has in place for herself and her team members. 

Woman looking at camera smiling on orange background

We spoke with Mandi to learn more about her journey and the importance of workplace adjustments.

Can you tell us about yourself and your disability?

My name is Mandi Barnao, and I have worked in the public service now for 14 years in a variety of operational and non-operational roles. 

My current role is Program Manager for the Fixing Country Roads program where I lead and develop my team so they can do their best and deliver for the people of regional NSW. 

Due to significant trauma, I live with PTSD and severe depression, which puts me in the category of having an invisible disability. I didn’t always put myself in that category – in fact it took me a long time to do so – but living with PTSD and depression impacts my life and I manage my symptoms daily.

About five or six years ago, I recognised that what I was experiencing was a disability and it was something that was significantly impacting my day-to-day life. It required medical intervention, and after that, I came to accept that I do have an invisible disability.

The impetus was my son passing away from a mental health issue. I realised that I needed help and that I was in a unique position to be more out there, raising awareness and challenging the stigma around disability. 

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I’m a bit of a nerd – I love researching family history, and I’m into gadgets and the latest tech innovations. I am always amazed at how clever people make fun stuff for the rest of us.

During COVID, I took up gardening, along with a lot of other people. I also love going to the beach and playing with my new cat, Cosmo, who also came along during COVID and helped me cope with such a change to the world.

What workplace adjustments do you need?

The main adjustments I need are flexibility and understanding. I generally start a bit later and finish a bit later than my colleagues – and I might take a couple of breaks throughout the day because I have trouble sleeping. If I’ve had a particularly bad week, I may need to take a day off, but this is rare and something I avoid. 

I also need the freedom to manage my day. If I’m having a shocking day, I won’t turn my camera on for meetings. If things get overwhelming, I may need to take a short break. It’s vital that I’m allowed flexibility and that my leaders know I will get through the work.

I enjoy working remotely and it’s much better for my mental health; I don’t have to ‘perform’ all the time or always be ‘on’. 

When I was in the office, I was always told I looked tired; I was tired, and a full week in the office was exhausting. The anticipation of having to go into the office can make me anxious and unsettled, so I’m thankful that in my division, there is no real urgency or push to return and if I am not feeling up to it, I can go in on my own terms, which I know is a privilege non-operational people have. We still live under the cloud of COVID and, from what I’ve gone through, I’m more aware of the risk of losing people and that scares me.

As a leader you may feel the pressure to be seen, but it’s important to also be seen as human and vulnerable. I show my staff that working flexibly does work if you demonstrate you can deliver what is needed and you can foster relationships online and support your team.

You are involved in the Enabled Network. How does this network support employees with disability?

I’m one of the four co-chairs of Transport’s Enabled Network. It’s a group for people with disability as well as people with carers responsibilities. Instead of just having two co-chairs, we have four because we acknowledge that people with disability and people with carers responsibilities often face hurdles and don’t have a lot of time. 

We've been working to boost the numbers and get people comfortable with identifying as a person with disability or carers responsibilities. 

If people have questions or need assistance, we point them in the right direction. We explain when it’s best to go to their HR business partner and we can also go on their behalf. 

I’ve been involved in the Enabled Network for four years now. My role is to help and guide people and I have a strong focus on mentoring. I encourage people to join the steering committee and find their voice. It doesn’t matter if they have an intellectual disability, speech impediment or learning disability; we are patient and give everyone the chance to be heard and learn new skills.

Transport for NSW has acknowledged that the Enabled Network and other employee networks are really important and, as a result, we have a high level of executive support.

How did you become involved in the Workplace Adjustments Series – and what was it like being filmed and interviewed at SBS studios?

The opportunity came about through DENconnect – the cross sector disability network of which I’m a part of. 

I wasn’t actually meant to be in the videos or podcasts. I had suggested a number of people who would be great talent, but as it turned out, not all were able to be involved so I ended up being included by default!

Morlai and Debbie from Anti-Discrimination NSW were wonderful. They made everyone feel welcome and included and they had such a collaborative approach. 

On the day of filming at SBS studios, my hair was styled differently, and my make-up was applied by a professional. When I returned to remote working, the reaction from my colleagues was hilarious: ‘That’s not the Mandi we know!’ 

On set it was really relaxed and enjoyable. The person interviewing me was lovely and made me feel very comfortable. It was a seamless experience and such a lovely project to be a part of. 

What is your advice to people with disability who need workplace adjustments?

Have trust and take a leap of faith. It can be daunting, and you might be fearful about looking different, but in the end, it's about being able to do your work in the best possible way.

If talking with your manager doesn't work for you, then go to the next level and ask your HR business partner for help. Explain why you need adjustments, what they will do for you, and what your situation is without them.

I took a leap of faith and explained that I don’t want to take time off work for my PTSD and depression – as I know if I do, it's much more difficult to get back on track – but I do need flexibility. I work much better when I have it. It's less stressful, I'm more productive and I don't have that fear. 

What is your advice to employers and managers? 

It’s not always going to be easy to deliver flexibility and workplace adjustments to the people who need it. Sometimes you're going to have to think outside the box. Sometimes you're going to have to find new ways of doing things. 

Flexibility and workplace adjustments don’t have to be fair across the board. Just because you give something to someone, doesn’t mean you have to give it to everyone. It’s like knowing when someone needs a ladder and when someone is tall enough to reach things for themselves.

If one of your staff members is involved in an accident or is seriously ill, reach out. Let them know that when they are ready to return, you will work together to see what changes are needed. 

There is this misguided view that if someone is on sick leave they shouldn’t be contacted. But the reality is they will be worried about their future and wondering if they have a job to return to. 

Reaching out and being human is a much better approach. 

If this interview has raised personal concerns, you may wish to contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Listen to Episode 1: A conversation with Mandi Barnao about workplace adjustments


Last updated:

31 Jan 2023

Was this content useful?
We will use your rating to help improve the site.
Please don't include personal or financial information here
Please don't include personal or financial information here

We acknowledge Aboriginal people as the First Nations Peoples of NSW and pay our respects to Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the ongoing connection Aboriginal people have to this land and recognise Aboriginal people as the original custodians of this land.

Top Return to top of page Top