Two employees sitting having a coffee in park

Checking in with the check-in

How leaders can meaningfully ask “R U OK?”

7 minute read
Two employees sitting having a coffee in park

Since its launch in 2009, R U OK? Day has become more than an annual one-day event – it is a powerful force for change, urging us to swap polite chit-chat with meaningful conversations about mental health, especially in the workplace.

Mental health and resilience expert Graeme Cowan, who served as a founding Board Director of R U OK?, said the national initiative had never been more important, with new studies painting a worrying picture of employee wellbeing.

“According to Deloitte Insights’ recent Well-being at Work survey of employees in Australia, the US, Canada and the UK, 52 per cent of employees always or often feel exhausted, 49 per cent feel stressed, 43 per cent feel overwhelmed, 32 per cent feel depressed and 27 per cent feel angry,” he said.

“Other studies echo this sentiment, including a report commissioned by Atlassian and PwC Australia that revealed the top concern for Australian and US employees, across a wide range of industries, is mental health.

“Similarly Microsoft’s research found 66 per cent of Australian managers and 62 per cent of employees are battling burnout.”

Mr Cowan said mental health was once relegated to the background, typically dealt with through employee assistance programs, but those days were over.

“Considering these staggering statistics, it must be at the top of every chief executive officer’s agenda,” he said.

The vital importance of discussing mental health at work

Given we spend a large proportion of our lives at work, mental health and experiences within workplaces are intrinsically linked, according to The University of Western Australia Suicide Prevention and Resilience Research Centre Post-Doctoral Researcher Michael Kyron.

“Work is one of the leading causes of stress for adults, and job-related stress is strongly linked to poor mental health,” he said.

“Long working hours, poor social support, and unclear management and work roles tend to exacerbate poor mental health.

“While various initiatives have been implemented across Australia to promote discussions around mental health in the workplace, hesitation often remains due to fears of repercussions from seeking support, including social exclusion and being perceived as lacking in competence due to the impact of mental health difficulties.”

For genuine conversations about mental health to flourish in the workplace, Dr Kyron said it was vital to debunk leaders’ misconceptions.

“Some may believe mental health issues are due to personal reasons only and should not be present in the workplace,” he said.

“Others may think employees with mental health difficulties are weak or incapable of handling their responsibilities, which could discourage workers from seeking much-needed support.”

A step-by-step guide for leaders to truly ask “R U OK?”

As we approach R U OK? Day on September 14, 2023, leaders face a significant challenge – how can they ensure mental wellbeing check-ins go beyond mere formality and become genuine conversations?

Mr Cowan recommended the four-step ALEC approach – Ask, Listen, Encourage action and Check back in – as a framework for fostering sincere dialogues.

“Being outdoors, perhaps walking side by side with an employee through a park, can be far more effective than a formal office setting,” he said.

“Start the conversation by mentioning the changes you’ve observed in the person, whether it’s their decreased participation in social events, a drop in work quality or mood shifts, then ask ‘R U OK?’.”

During the Listen phase, the emphasis is on empathetic attention.

“Don’t try and solve people’s problems – instead, listen with empathy,” Mr Cowan said.

“The more people feel understood, the greater our capacity to influence them.

“That’s why this year’s R U OK? Day theme is ‘I’m here to hear’.”

The third step, Encourage action, could involve guiding the employee to consult their general practitioner, use the company’s employee assistance program or explore specialised helplines.

Finally, it is necessary to Check back in to assess whether the employee has acted on the advice.

Dr Kyron stressed the importance of a leader genuinely listening to their team member while acknowledging some might not be ready to discuss their challenges immediately, making a follow-up at a later time more appropriate.

For employees experiencing difficulties at work due to their mental health, or vice versa, he said it was crucial to discuss potential accommodations that could improve their wellbeing and job performance.

“Options might include flexible work hours, a temporary reduction in workload or a quieter workspace,” Dr Kyron said.

“More broadly, steps should be taken to evaluate the workplace environment, which may address current and future occurrences.

“It is important for leaders to understand that everyone experiences mental health challenges differently, so they should avoid making assumptions or judgments about the employees’ feelings or experiences.

“Also, leaders may falsely think they can alleviate an employee's issues in a single sitting when in reality, mental health support is an ongoing process.”

Leading by example on R U OK? Day and beyond

Both Dr Kyron and Mr Cowan emphasised the transformative impact leaders could have on an organisation’s culture, particularly in the area of mental health.

Dr Kyron said leaders who shared their own challenges and effective coping strategies could set a new, healthier standard for the entire organisation.

“Leaders may hold the view that their own mental health difficulties may be inferred as weakness, potentially undermining their position,” he said.

“Yet, an effective way leaders can reduce stigma within the workplace is to be open about their own experiences with mental health and successful strategies for seeking support.

“Healthy work habits set by leaders, like taking leave and reducing weekend work, can also set the tone for others to follow suit.”

Mr Cowan said it was vital for those in leadership positions to be the first to share their own stories or experiences supporting a loved one, especially on R U OK? Day.

“When leaders go first, people feel safer sharing their stories and you can have some real conversations,” he said.

“In my opinion, the perfect R U OK? Day starts with a message from senior leadership – preferably a divisional leader or the chief executive officer – explaining why mental wellbeing is pivotal for the organisation.

“This can pave the way for a guest speaker, perhaps from the R U OK? Community Ambassador program or Beyond Blue, to share both their personal stories and actionable insights on how to create a more inclusive, psychologically safe workplace.

“The event may even include a panel discussion, but the key takeaway is that R U OK? Day is part of an ongoing commitment to prioritise mental health in the workplace – a commitment that needs our attention every day.”

Mr Cowan said some industry groups had launched specialised wellbeing initiatives, such as R U OK? Rail Week aimed at railways groups across Australia and Healthy Heads in Trucks & Sheds, designed for the transport and warehouse sectors.

These programs focused not just on mental health conversations but also on holistic wellbeing.

“For example, they may promote better sleep, or walking 7500 steps every day, which has been found to be just as helpful as taking antidepressants for mild to moderate depression,” Mr Cowan said.

“They might even teach mindfulness skills, which also contributes to a healthier person.

“The message I really like to convey is that self-care isn’t selfish – it is essential.

“Wellbeing encompasses vitality (physical wellbeing), intimacy (emotional wellbeing) and prosperity (a sense of purpose at home, work or in the community) – or VIP.

“You must treat yourself like a VIP every day, filling each of these wellbeing glasses for a holistic approach to health.”

Creating a workplace to foster candid conversations about mental health

Dr Kyron said employee education about mental health was crucial not only for reducing stigma but also for empowering individuals to manage their own wellbeing and recognise issues in colleagues.

“Creating a judgement-free zone, which includes anonymity, can assist in providing an open environment whereby people can discuss their mental health problems honestly,” he said.

“More broadly, a safe environment can be promoted by building psychological wellbeing into the organisation’s human resources strategy, including mental health topics in organisational communications and materials.”

Mr Cowan stressed the importance of psychological safety as a cornerstone for authentic dialogue and innovation.

“A psychologically safe environment is one where people can truly be themselves, express doubts, voice disagreements respectfully and innovate without fear of reproach,” he said.

“In 2012, Google’s Project Aristotle analysed 180 teams around the world and found the best shared five norms, with psychological safety topping the list, followed by dependability, structure, clarity, meaning and impact.

“Interestingly psychological safety laid the foundation for robust discussions about the other factors.”

Research shows that the best way to improve employee mental health is to give them good managers.

In Mr Cowan’s experience, most managers want to help but don’t know how to – which is why he co-founded WeCARE365, which creates simple scalable training that helps managers prevent mental health issues.

Dr Kyron said investing in employee mental wellbeing directly correlated with organisational productivity.

“Mental health difficulties are linked with absenteeism or diminished performance and investing in mental health can benefit productivity,” he said.

“In fact, over half of workers say they’d feel more motivated if the organisation they worked for promoted their employees’ wellbeing.”

Embracing the power of conversations

R U OK? Day is a prime opportunity for leaders and employees alike to embrace the power of authentic conversation around mental health.

However, it is not just about asking the question but creating a culture where the question can be asked safely, openly and genuinely.

It’s about letting those around us know that their wellbeing matters to us, not just on the day but every day.