R U OK? Day: How to save a life

"This is one area of leadership that should not be postponed - later can be too late"

R U OK? Day: How to save a life

2020 is more than halfway through, yet the drastic changes we’ve seen in our personal and professional lives – because of COVID-19 – make the year feel longer than it actually is.

In this period of immense stress and anxiety, “It is important to pause and ask others how they are doing,” said Dr. Melanie Peacock, associate professor of HR at Mount Royal University.

This is the powerful message behind ‘R U OK? Day’: a time to hit refresh and reconnect with others. Celebrated on the second Thursday of September, R U OK? Day is an Australian non-profit suicide prevention initiative, which encourages employers to reach out and enquire about the wellbeing of their workers.

A simple gesture, such as asking how things are going, can help those struggling through the pandemic break through the psychological barriers that social distancing imposes on our world.

Read more: R U OK? HR urged to invest in self-care

In a 2017 study, scientists found that “stressful and threatening stimuli,” such as the threat of losing one’s job or falling critically ill, can cause people to have a distorted time perception.

During a lockdown, for instance, people aren’t just literally locked up in their homes – they’re also locked up in their own sense of time. And this, in turn, is what leaves many of us feeling lonely and isolated.

“Checking in with others and showing a genuine interest in their well-being is critical,” Dr. Peacock told HRD in celebration of R U OK? Day.

“It is also important to ask others how their work is going. Do they have the correct resources and supports to do their job?” she said.

On the surface, the question seems practical. But beyond the logistics of work, the interaction allows the other person to examine what it is they need to regain control over their situation.

While stressful and emotionally charged events tend to hamper people at work, giving them a sense of control by letting them identify what they need can help them get back on track.

Read more: R U OK? Day: How can HR prepare?

Asking a colleague, friend, partner or family member, “Are you OK?” is never an easy conversation, Dr. Peacock reminds everyone.

“[They] involve courage and vulnerability. This said, when they occur, people understand that others care about them and this helps to increase motivation and engagement,” she said. 

When someone is not OK, however, it’s equally important for the person asking the question to know how to respond and keep the conversation going.

Katherine Newton, CEO of the suicide prevention group R U OK?, which started the movement, knows people might feel uncomfortable or awkward when someone says they’re not doing well.

“That’s an understandable reaction, and it’s why this year we’re reminding Australians there’s more to say after R U OK? and encouraging them to learn what to say next,” Newton said.

The group offers a wealth of resources on the many ways people can check in with others and go beyond the question of, “Are you OK?”

For Dr. Peacock, employers also have to step up and provide assistance to those struggling with mental health issues.

“The stigma of shame must be removed, and we need to support others at work and those returning to work after dealing with a stress leave,” she said.

So, how can HR leaders become more adept at handling mental health issues when they arise in their employee base? 

Howard Sloane, global CHRO, Fellow of the Australian Human Resources Institute and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, told HRD it comes down to taking the initiative and instigating these important conversations.

“It is not surprising to find that nine in ten people who experience mental health problems believe that there is a stigma and therefore discrimination to what they are dealing with,” he added.

“It may not be surprising, but it is deeply concerning. This belief unfortunately only serves to exacerbate the problems with mental health and therefore early, decisive, and wholly supportive intervention is a crucial part to helping employees. Having spent two decades practicing HR globally, I can say with certainty that it takes great courage to sit somebody down, who you believe to be struggling with mental health issues and offer help.”

So, what can you do if you suspect that one of your team is struggling with mental health issues? Make sure you allow employees the freedom to voice their own concerns in their own way. 

“As people can often find it difficult to talk about mental health issues, try using open questions that can help them talk,” Sloane told HRD. “Remember that this meeting is about them. So, give them your attention and try to spot the key words surrounding their mental wellbeing that can be used to play back to them in order to see if there’s a clear way to help.

“It should never be a rushed process. The importance of early intervention cannot be understated - this is one of those areas of leadership that should not be postponed as, in my experience, later can unfortunately be too late.”

To read more about on R U OK?, and make use of their helpful resources, visit the site here.


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