Organisations and individuals around the country teamed up this Thursday to spread the message: three little words can improve mental wellbeing. No, really – and here’s how.
R U OK? Day aims to raise awareness about mental wellbeing by reminding people everywhere that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Small gestures such as asking your desk mate “Are you OK?” might seem trivial, but as the saying goes: a problem shared is a problem halved.
“We have this perception that it’s inappropriate to ask people at work ‘Are you OK?’, but it’s really not,” says Rebecca Lewis, campaign manager for R U OK? “We spend a large chunk of our day at the office with our workmates, so businesses need to encourage employees to reach out to one another.”
It’s a symptom of modern life that online relationships sometimes feel more real than interpersonal ones. A national survey by R U OK? found that people are more connected to their screens than real people. Around half of Australians spend less than two hours a week talking with friends, family or co-workers.
The survey also revealed that while Australians want to spend more quality time with loved ones, distance, lack of energy, packed schedules and long work hours get in the way.
However, those eight-or-more hours a day at work are prime time for workplaces to strengthen the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees. “Beyond the human imperative of caring about the wellbeing of others, it’s good business practice as well,” says Lewis.
Not only that, workers have come to expect it. A 2012 study found that 78 per cent of employees believe their employer has a responsibility to provide support for mental health issues. A further 64 per cent said they think workplace support programs encourage people to address mental wellbeing issues.
There are some key things workplaces can do to promote a culture of mutual sharing and openness, says Lewis. As with most initiatives, it starts at the top.
“Leadership needs to be on board, otherwise it won’t take,” she says. “Employers should create opportunities for employees to bond and have time together, whether that’s going out for coffee, work drinks, team activities – whatever.” Peer-to-peer connections are the most effective way to create a culture where employees feel safe to speak up about mental wellbeing issues, she says.
Lewis adds that human resources and other company leaders should role model these behaviours and, if possible, ask individuals to share their experiences. This normalises the behaviour, and helps break stigmas about being intrusive, or feeling like no one really wants to know your problems.
When someone does open up, the best thing you can do is to listen, not judge and not try to “fix” the person. Always ask questions to understand what they are going through, and identify the next steps. This might mean talking to a manager or seeking out employee assistance programs, says Lewis.
In an age where we are all glued to our computers or binge watching Netflix, popping your head over the cubicle wall is a simple – yet effective – way to reconnect. Who knows, you might even make a new friend.