How to reach out to a work colleague

Let's be honest. Sometimes we feel like we spend more time with our work colleagues than our loved ones. And that might not be wrong. But are we looking after each other at work the way we should be?

According to a 2017 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Australian's ranked 27th out of 35 of all OECD countries when it comes to achieving a healthy work/life balance. Data showed that 20% of men and 7% of women worked 50 hours or more per week in 2015. Consider also that a 2014 report by TNS and beyondblue, State of Mental Health in Australian Workplaces, indicated that only 52% of employees believed that their workplace is mentally healthy and only five in ten believe their most senior leader values mental health. It was also reported that one in five (21%) of Australians have taken time off work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy; this statistic was more than twice as high among those who consider their workplace mentally unhealthy.

This tells a dangerous story. Not only are we spending more time at work, but workplaces can actually be a huge cause of our stress, or at least don't provide a safe place for their employees when they are stressed. 

An ABS study tells us that 45% of Australians between 16-85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. This number is huge. And we're spending over half our waking hours each week at work, it's so critical that we create workplaces that promote wellness, both physically and mentally. Clearly this is not something that is working. But it is changing. Just this month I have had meetings with some inspirational and passionate people trying to improve the wellbeing of their employees by implementing programs and offering tools specifically relevant to them, empowering them to take better control of their health. It's a corporate focus shift that is so pleasing to witness and be a part of.

But what about you? What role can you play?

Whether you share your life with your colleagues or not, you know them better than you think. Even the person that you don't speak to often, or at all. You're around each other every day, usually over an extended period of time. Other than family, or their close friends, you're someone who would notice a change in their behaviour the most.

We need to use this as leverage to be more connected. We need to feel more confident that it is our business to check in with the people we work with. This is the beginning of a cultural change in your workplace. By showing you care about each other and that you notice if someone is struggling, you are creating the change that workplaces need in becoming healthier, safer spaces.

With RUOK? Day approaching this month, you'll start to hear about this more and more. Their focus is on suicide prevention through empowering people to ask a simple question, "Are you okay?" And this is critical. It is predicted that in the year 2020, approximately 1.53 million people will die from suicide based on current trends and according to WHO estimates. Ten to 20 times more people will attempt suicide worldwide. This represents on average one death every 20 seconds and one attempt every 1-2 seconds. And whilst it is reported that only 3.2% of suicides have no mental illness diagnosis, I suspect that the number of individuals suffering silently is enormous.
It's a great initiative and has excellent resources and tools for you to use to help you reach out to someone and check in with them. But it shouldn't just be a day - which I'm sure is the message that RUOK? wants to spread too. This should be a way of living every day. 

What I want to see is people asking someone if they are okay, on any day, simply because they have noticed that something doesn't seem right. I don't want to see people asking because the day tells them to. So here are some of my suggestions and points to remember:

  • Don't ambush someone - chat to them first, catch up and then ask "Hey, I've noticed you seemed ... lately, is everything okay?"
  • Be private and discreet - some people may not want their whole office to know that someone is worried about them.
  • Give someone space, but follow up - they may say they're fine, because they feel caught off guard and don't feel ready to talk. But check in again, once they've thought about it, they may want to talk.
  • Be prepared that someone might say they aren't okay. This can be scary because you might not know what to say. Here are my suggestions: Ask if you're someone they want to talk to, ask if they want to talk about it, remind them that you are trustworthy and will not judge - you are a safe space, LISTEN to them and give them a chance to speak, ask them how long they have felt this way and whether they would consider outside help to manage it.
  • Be patient and acknowledge their pain without judgement.
  • Decide whether you think it is appropriate to offer your own personal story - don't make this about you though.
  • Ask what you can do to support them.
  • Check in regularly. 

This is why I created my check in cards. They are designed for workplaces, to be used like a business card. They can be handed over discreetly and privately, yet they show someone that you're concerned and want to check in. The cards prompt you to organise to meet them at a later time to chat, giving both you and them time to consider what you want to say to each other, if any thing. If nothing else, the cards encourage a support network and create accountability when asking someone, "Are you okay?"


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