In any given year, one in five Australians experience a mental illness. It is highly likely that you are working alongside colleagues who display indicators of mental ill-health.
Many people believe it’s too challenging to hold a conversation about others’ mental ill-health out of fear they may say the wrong thing or even make things worse.
Follow these simple 8 steps to asking a workmate, R U OK?
- Asking someone is not as hard as you think.
It’s common practice to show concern for a workmate. For example, if you notice changes in their physical health, you might share your observations about numerous sneezes, watery eyes, or a nasty sounding cough.
Just as you show care for your workmate’s physical health, you can also share your observations and show concern about their mental health.
Here are some suggestions about how to ask someone at work if they are ok.
- Start with noticing the signs that someone might need support.
Look for changes in the person’s appearance, mood, behaviour and cognitive abilities over a two-week period.
Someone may appear:
- More tired or flat than usual;
- Complain regularly of headaches; or
- Be more fidgety and nervous than normal.
You may also observe changes in the person’s mood or behavior, such as:
- Them spending more time alone;
- Negative talk; or
- That they aren’t performing as usual and become easily overwhelmed by tasks that they had previously found manageable.
The key is to notice observable changes in the person. The person is different to their usual.
- Prepare to ask the question.
You need to consider when and where you will approach the person. A quiet space in private is ideal. Prepare for different responses and reactions, including “I’m NOT ok”, crying, anger, or signs of embarrassment. Also ensure that you are in a good headspace, ready to listen, and have allowed enough time to meet.
- Ask the question.
Start with your observations about the changes you have noticed and let the person know that you are coming from a place of genuine care and concern.
Here are some ways you can share your concerns.
- I’ve noticed you have not been as energetic as usual. For example, you don’t look well rested, and you haven’t been having lunch with the team like you usually do. I’m concerned about you, are you ok?
- You don’t seem to be your usual self; you’re not as talkative lately. I’m asking because I care, is everything ok?
- I have not seen much of you of late. How are you going? Is everything ok?
Sometimes it can take a few attempts at asking before someone feels ready and safe to share. Your workmate may not wish to disclose to you or may not be aware that they are experiencing mental ill-health. Do remind them that you are ready to listen without judgement and support them if they need.
- Listen to what they share.
Information shared by your colleague needs to be treated confidentially, unless there is an imminent safety risk.
Listen without judgement and no interruptions. Use active listening skills to show that you have heard what has been said.
After hearing about their difficulties, it can be tempting to go into problem solving mode or offer advice. Some problems cannot be easily ‘fixed’ and if they could, chances are your workmate would have already done so.
Sometimes listening to someone’s stories of hardship involves sitting with some discomfort or even sitting in silence, or you might say something like:
- “Sounds like there is a lot on your plate”;
- “This must be a very challenging time “; or
- “You have been dealing with quite a bit”.
- Support the person to take action.
After your workmate has shared what they are going through, encourage them to get support.
Here are some suggestions how to support the person to take action:
- What support do you need right now?
- Do you have someone you can speak to about this?
- Who can you speak with to help you through this?
- Would if be helpful to speak to your manager, EAP, HR, a psychologist?
- Is there anything that I can support you with?
- Things to avoid.
Avoid sharing your own stories and problems, or making statements, such as:
“I know what you’re going through.”
“Look on the bright side.”
“Focus on the positives.”
“It could be worse.”
Despite your good intentions or attempts to relate, these comments can leave the person feeling worse by invalidating or minimising their experience.
Follow-up to see how they are going and if they have been able to find support. If they have not yet taken any action or found the right support, encourage them to keep at it.
Asking a workmate if they are ok could make a huge difference to their wellbeing. Having the conversation shows that you are concerned about them and you care enough to ask.
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By Dr Kathryn Gilson – Clinical Psychologist / Facilitator
Dr Kathryn Gilson has a Doctorate of Psychology and over 10 years’ experience working in private practice. As a Clinical Psychologist, Kathryn assesses, diagnoses, treats and manages adult mental health issues, with experience helping clients who experience depression and anxiety (including generalised anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, phobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder), as well as many other psychological problems.
Kathryn holds additional qualifications in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), delivering CBT interventions to clients as a gold-standard form of therapeutic intervention. As a recognised expert in CBT, Kathryn also facilitates trainings and works with organisations to deliver CBT interventions and well-being seminars to professionals, employees and executives.
In her career as a Psychologist, Kathryn has worked extensively within the higher education industry as an adjunct lecturer; contributed to clinical trials by developing innovative treatment manuals for mental health problems; had her work published in peer-reviewed journals; presented at national and international conferences; provided expert opinion for magazine articles; and developed evaluation studies of private practice effectiveness using CBT.