Asking R U OK at Work

Survey findings released on World Suicide Prevention Day (last week Sep 10) indicate that Australians have mixed attitudes and behaviours towards people who die by suicide, and an inaccurate understanding about suicide and its prevention.

The national survey of more than 1200 Australians, conducted in August 2017, asked respondents to answer two sets of questions relating to suicide prevention – the Literacy of Suicide Scale (LOSS) and a short form Stigma of Suicide Scale (SOSS), both of which have been validated through a range of suicide prevention research, programs and trials.

Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Sue Murray said the survey results showed that stigmatising attitudes result in people being less likely to get help or give help.

“If we don’t speak up about persistent stigma, we are at risk of perpetuating a society where we remain reluctant to reach out for help for ourselves or others,” she said.

The survey also showed that most respondents knew that seeking professional help (67 per cent) or disclosing suicidal thoughts (70 per cent) could be beneficial.

“It shows we are willing to help others. We are willing to listen. I am also encouraged by the finding that increased knowledge about suicidal behaviours and how to manage them seems to correlate with a lower level of stigma. This tells me that as well as reflecting on our personal attitudes and behaviours, we must continue efforts to improve every Australian’s understanding of suicide and its prevention,” said Ms Murray.

So how does this apply in the workplace?

Although talking to an employee about their state of mind and mental health may not be as easy as approving a leave request, it is of paramount importance, and creating a workplace culture where it is acceptable to ask R U OK, or the equivalent, can drive great improvements in wellbeing.

It is understandable that managers may feel overwhelmed and slightly fearful about taking on this responsibility, but there is plenty of support available to workplaces and the R U OK Day website is one of the most prominent sources of information.

The R U OK Day website has a range of free resources available to workplaces wanting to improve their procedures around starting a conversation about mental health, which can empower managers and staff with the tools and language necessary to take the necessary steps and follow through.

Another important element is establishment of a workplace culture free of stigma, where employees are encouraged to check in on each other, and where managers take a proactive role in talking to staff members, when they notice worrying changes in behaviour.

R U OK has developed a practical guide to support people wanting to more effectively and regularly initiate conversations in the workplace, which recommends the following steps:

Identify people who may need support

Approaching someone you are concerned about isn’t always easy, however, if you have recognised two or more of the following persistent changes in the last couple of weeks then it might be time to check in:

  • changes in a person’s physical appearance, such as tiredness, eating more or less and more fidgety/restless
  • changes in mood such as irritability, anger, inability to cope, anxious and worried
  • changes in behaviour such as difficulty concentrating, more withdrawn, withdrawing from social activities or performance issues
  • changes in how thoughts are communicated such as negative thought patterns, confusion, increased complaining, tendency to catastrophise.

If you notice dramatic changes in any of these areas then you should consider starting a conversation. R U OK recommends the following steps:

Getting ready to ask

  1. Be ready – ensure you are in the right mood and allow sufficient time
  2. Be prepared – accept you may not have answers, listen carefully and be prepared for emotion
  3. Pick your moment – choose a good time and a quiet place say you want an informal chat, be flexible if the time doesn’t suit the other person

Starting a conversation

  1. Ask R U OK? – be relaxed, explain you noticed changes and are concerned for them
  2. Listen without judgement – take their concerns seriously, don’t interrupt or rush, encourage them to elaborate and stay calm if they become angry or emotional, confirm your availability to support them
  3. Encourage action – ask “where can we go from here and how can I help?”  Encourage them to use EAP if available and or approach a GP, friend or family member
  4. Check in – follow up in a few days and regularly after that, ask about the situation and whether they have found a way to manage. Don’t be judgemental if nothing has changed, be patient and consider other options for support. Be prepared to keep listening and try and stay positive and upbeat.

The workplace is the ideal forum for starting a conversation and can build connectedness and a sense of belonging. When was the last time you took time out of your day to ask R U OK?


Further reading and more information

R U OK Day

World Suicide Prevention Day