Smile, and say cheese!

Smile, and say cheese! 08/01/2010

Anne-Lie ThuvessonPassengers alighting at the railway station in the southern Swedish town of Hässleholm pass by a smart grocery shop with an inviting assortment of cheeses displayed in the window. ‘Anne-Lie’s Ost & Delikatess’, announces a cheerful sign. Inside, Anne-Lie Thuvesson smiles broadly as she greets customers and serves them from her range of specialist cheeses, fine teas and coffees, imported oils and biscuits and chocolate selections.

It is easy to see that the shop is Anne-Lie’s pride and joy. “I designed it all myself, with some help from my sister and friends,” she declares. The black-and-white chequerboard flooring, polished wooden shelves, rows of coloured tins – all testify to a perfectionist eye for aesthetic detail. 

Conveniently, the shop is situated next to the apartment that Anne-Lie shares with her two daughters, 17-year-old Hanna and 16-year-old Amanda, and a grey cat named Fritz. “It was just luck that I found it – as if it was meant to be! This is my dream. I feel very satisfied with my life now,” she says. 

The 52-year-old divorcée opened the delicatessen in July 2008. It was a bold move, after five years off work on sick leave suffering from 'burn-out' and depression. And what made it possible, says Anne-Lie, was a health and rehabilitation project designed for unemployed women who previously worked in care services, co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund.

Three decades of service

Anne-Lie left school at 16 and spent almost 30 years as a psychiatric care worker. She looked after recovering alcoholics and schizophrenic patients, before taking a job in Hässleholm’s new hospital department for dementia sufferers. In 1991 she married, and in the following years Hanna and Amanda were born. But the marriage did not go as she had hoped. Her husband was unstable and aggressive, says Anne-Lie. She moved to a new post in the nearby town of Bjärnum and after a painful and difficult divorce in 1994 she dedicated the next eight years to her work and her daughters. 

Then in 2002 the stress caught up with her. Working shifts and conflict with her manager added to the pressure. “It was too much,” explains Anne-Lie. She started to suffer from dizzy spells, crying fits, and became aggressive – shouting at her daughters. She took a month off work, but within a fortnight of returning was back on sick leave. “I stayed in bed for two days without doing anything. Doctors in Sweden call it depression, but it was hard for me to accept that diagnosis – I had been working in psychiatric care for almost 30 years. I wasn't getting any support in my job, but it wasn't just that. It was a period of crisis in my life. I was very sick. I couldn't read a newspaper, for example, and I had to hold myself up while I was washing the dishes. I was crying and crying, and I felt very angry. For the first year on sick leave I did nothing: I sent the girls off to school and then I slept.” 

Fortunately, Anne-Lie received lots of support from her family. She visited a councillor every two weeks, and was put on anti-depressants. “I didn't want to take medication,” she admits, “but my doctor explained that my brain was not producing a chemical it needed. I still take small doses; opening the shop has been stressful.”  

An offer she could not refuse

And then, after three years, came a letter offering her a place on the Sustainable Health programme. “I didn’t feel at all up to it,” admits Anne-Lie. “But I felt I couldn’t turn it down, so I said OK.” The scheme was designed specifically for former female care workers on long-term sick leave, giving them the tailored skills and knowledge they needed to find a new role in the labour market. Seven local communities took part in selecting candidates from among their former social and health service employees. 

“We didn’t have a predetermined plan,” says Coordinator Per Larsson. “We worked with each person as an individual, finding out what they really wanted to do. I’m convinced that’s why it went so well. As it developed, we saw it was such a good project that it should not exclude men, although the majority of people in these jobs are women.” From 2005 to 2007, it helped 200 people with a wide range of conditions both physical and psychological. “Our initial, ambitious goal was to get 70% back into work or studying,” says Per Larsson. “Our final figure was 69% – it was fantastic. Even if just one person had been successful it would have been worthwhile! It shows that people do have the power inside if they get the chance to develop it.” 

Per has since launched a new rehabilitation project. And one of the participants, Berith Eriksson, is now working in Anne-Lie’s delicatessen. She spent 23 years in healthcare before starting the retraining. “It’s a very nice shop,” she remarks. “We have been good friends, so I hope I get the chance to stay.” 

”It’s really a fun story,” adds Per. “Anne-Lie has done well and started a business, and now she is helping someone else in the same situation.  

Time heals

Anne-Lie is grateful that she was given the time to put her life back together. “Not everyone understands,” she explains. “There’s a tendency to rush people. But thanks to the support from the EU, the project leaders could take their time. That's why I'm here today, and feeling well.” Her strong religious faith also helped her through the dark days. She used to play guitar in the local Sunday school. “I said to God, I put all this in your hands. And it all worked out.” 

Starting with very small steps – one thing at a time – she put together her business plan. “Even before I was ill I was thinking about cheese,” smiles Anne-Lie. “It’s an idea I’ve had for a very long time.” Raising half the capital from an organisation that supports small entrepreneurs, she was able to secure an additional loan from her local bank. For over a year she worked in another cheese shop in the town of Kristianstad, learning the ropes from owner Tom Persson. He helped her set up a network of suppliers and make contacts. 

The shop is already turning a profit. “In the weeks before Christmas there were five people working here,” says Anne-Lie proudly. Train passengers stop to buy a piece of cheese for the journey or to take home. “I get new customers every day. This is the only delicatessen in town, and you have to travel a long way to find similar products elsewhere. I wanted to create a nice place where customers feel welcome, and that’s how it is. 

“I feel so happy now, and I enjoy being my own boss,” says Anne-Lie. “I have lots of friends who have been in the same position as me. I wish everyone could have the same opportunities I have had. The project had helped me so much I would like everyone in Sweden to know more about it.”