How to ask, “R U OK?” at work

12 September 2017

R U OK Day (September 14) is the perfect reminder to look out for those around you.

You are with your work colleagues for up to one-third of your day, so it makes sense to keep an eye on each other and provide support when times are hard.

The reality is every person you work with will go through some difficult experiences, and for one in five people this will include a mental health challenge. Helping each other through those times can make a real difference, and it all starts with the question, R U OK?

This is a simple question, yet it can be one you might struggle to ask.


When to ask, “R U OK?”

At work, you’re seeing the same people for long periods, within the same context. This means you’re likely to notice when people are acting differently, and it’s this behaviour, mood or demeanour change that can be a sign things aren’t going well. “They might be withdrawing more, acting quieter or don’t seem quite themselves, they might be fatigued, irritable, arriving at work later or leaving earlier, or they might be making some errors at work that they don’t usually make,” says, R U OK Day’s workplace expert and Centre for Corporate Health psychological services director Rachel Clements.

It’s these uncharacteristic behaviour signs that can alert you to potential issues with those you know well. It’s important to act on these observations within a reasonable timeframe, with an enquiry about your colleague’s wellbeing. “Don’t leave it too long,” Clements advises. “People can travel from the beginning stages into being unwell fairly quickly. While you don’t want to be pouncing on someone if they’re just having a bad day, you don’t want to leave it longer than two weeks.”

An early conversation can help prevent someone from waiting until their struggles reach crisis point, and instead help them seek the support they need sooner.


Asking the question at work

Many people automatically respond dismissively to the question, “R U OK?” and this is even more likely to be the case at work. “In the workplace, your role is very much about problem solving, troubleshooting and having solutions to everything, so in some ways that mindset actually holds us back from having the confidence to check in with others,” Clements explains. “People feel that if they ask someone at work how they’re going, then they’ll need to then have all the answers.”

This can lead to an avoidance situation — that is, if you don’t know what to say then say nothing at all.

Instead, you need to forget you’re at work and get back to human interaction basics. Clements says: “You almost have to remove your professional persona and interact as human to human.”

While it can be difficult to get around the fear of having to know all the answers if someone says they’re struggling, once you do you can make a real difference. “I really encourage people to ask the question and just listen to the response and really be present for that person,” says Clements. “You don’t have to have the solutions, and you don’t even have to know what to say. It’s more about the fact that you took the time to ask and express concern, and you’re there for that person.”


How to ask “R U OK?”

In theory, you might see the benefits of asking how someone is. In reality, it can be tricky to actually say those words. Clements says it’s about being specific in your approach. “If you just ask, ‘how’s everything going; are you okay?’ you often get a masked response or avoidance,” she explains. “What works better is a more assertive approach like: ‘I wanted to check in with you to see how you’re going because I’ve noticed a change in you in the last couple of weeks and you don’t seem to be quite yourself’.”

In giving a reason for asking after their wellbeing, you might start someone down a positive path to help. “Many people on the recovery side of mental health say it wasn’t until their manager or colleague said they’d noticed a change in them, that they realised they needed some help,” says Clements.

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