Why asking R U OK? in the workplace is important

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Having had a severe breakdown whilst working, I am convinced that having a culture that encourages people to ask “Are you OK?” to those that they are concerned about, is essential for an organisation to thrive through change.

Australians already work an average 42.56 hours per week which is the 5th highest in the world, and yet there is still a relentless drive to do more with less. In 2011 the R U OK? Foundation surveyed the Australian workforce and found that 40% of employees were typically stressed out every day, and 12% rated their stress extreme (8, 9, or 10 out of 10). These levels of stress manifest in different ways, with the 2013 Safe Work report Australian Workplace Barometer revealing that:

  • 33.8% of us reported being sworn at or yelled at, and
  • 22.8% have been humiliated in front of others

Mental stress leave accounts for 33% of all workers compensation payouts with the following causation:

  • Work pressure – 33%
  • Work related harassment &/or workplace bullying – 22% 
  • Exposure to workplace or occupational violence – 21% 

Since recovering from my own depressive illness I have been obsessed by discovering what is the best way to help people avoid going through what I did.

My research of 4064 people who live with depression shows that almost everyone can make a positive contribution towards improving the mental health of a person who appears to be struggling. Participants were asked to rate how important 60 different strategies were to their recovery. The desire wasn’t to find a definitive one strategy to help but to look at themes that occurred.  

Compassion or emotional support was judged the most important component of recovery by far. Emotional support contributed 4 out the top 10 strategies rated (of a possible 60 options). Employees say that when a supervisor or someone at work cares about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity. One of the best ways to achieve this is through learning how to ask “Are you OK?” We recommend a 4 step approach to build trust and help someone you are concerned about:

  1. Breaking the ice – and asking “Are you OK?”
  2. Listening without judgement
  3. Encouraging Action
  4. Follow up

Free resources can be found at www.ruokday.com

Many workers are paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing, and opt for saying nothing. I guarantee that if you approach the conversation with a genuine effort to “put yourself in their shoes” your intent will be felt and appreciated.

As we are approach our 5th R U OK? Day on September 12, we have countless stories of how someone asking “Are you OK?” to a stressed colleague has made a profound difference.

I am also convinced that we also need to regularly check in with ourselves and ask the same question. It’s common to beat ourselves up at work for faults big and small, but according to psychologist Dr Kristin Neff, that self-criticism comes at a price: It makes us anxious, dissatisfied with our life, and even depressed. According to research by Neff summarized in her book Self Compassion, it appears that self-compassion offers the same mental health benefits as self-esteem, but with fewer of its drawbacks such as narcissism, ego-defensive anger, inaccurate self-perceptions, self-worth contingency, or social comparison.

We can only help others if we have something to give, and the only way to ensure that we have those reserves is by making sure we do the activities that build our own resilience and mood.

Graeme Cowan is an author and speaker who helps people to build their resilience and mood to thrive through change.

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