Mental Health in the Workplace: Being Okay with Asking ‘Are You Okay?’

Most of us spend a good chunk of our lives working for the man. According to some stats, we actually spend more than 90,000 hours working over a life time (assuming a full adult working life is from 18 – 67 years of age). This means that we’re often spending more time with our colleagues and peers than what we do with our partners, husbands, wives, friends and children. So when one of our usually dependable, reliable and hardworking colleagues starts to miss deadlines, isolates themselves at lunch, seems cranky and unapproachable, and just isn’t themselves in general; we are going to notice. When working with people for a long time, it is natural to become attune to their behaviours, their strengths, their abilities, and also any changes they may exhibit. And if we do notice changes in behaviour, it is natural to wonder what is going on. But do we ever actually ask the question?

Mental illness is the leading cause of long-term workplace absenteeism in most developed countries. According to a recent survey conducted by TNS on behalf of Beyond Blue, 1 in 5 Australian employees report that they have taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell in the past 12 months. Considering these stats, it is time to ask ourselves some important questions about mental health in the workplace, and what we can do to recognise the signs and be okay with asking ‘are you okay?’.

What Can We Do?

So here’s the big question, how can we support someone at work without putting on the old Psychologist hat? Well, first thing’s first; before we can look out for others, we need to look out for ourselves. By this I mean that if we as individuals are not okay or feel as if we can’t bear someone elses issues on top of our own, that is okay. It’s okay to look after ourselves. Try to think of someone else who could talk to and support the person in need. It could be their supervisor or a close mate at work. The important thing to remember is that it’s about starting the conversation.

It’s also important to understand our own behaviours and how they may be impacting on those we work with. It can be easy to get caught up in how we feel, what we think; but self-awareness and an understanding of how our actions impact others, are great tools when it comes to addressing and managing mental illness. When you are self-aware, you will have a better ability of addressing the challenges of others and will be able to show compassion and be respectful of their needs.

Is It Time to Talk?

Knowing when to start the conversation is a great skill to have, but certainly not easy. Sometimes the person you’re trying to reach out to may not be in the right headspace to talk and have that ‘kind of conversation’, and that’s okay. There will come a time when they are ready to talk and we need to ensure we are ready to listen when they are.

What Can We Say?

Knowing what to say can be tricky, but finding a safe and comfortable place, and simply asking ‘Are you okay?’, is the perfect starting point. By sharing some of the changes that have been noticed and showing concern for their wellbeing shows that they matter and that someone cares. Most importantly, we need to listen without judgement, this can be the hardest thing to do.

We live in a world where so many things can be fixed in an instant. It can be tempting to jump in and try to push someone’s worries away and make it all better. Hearing that someone is in pain or struggling can be hard, but we need to try and sit with the discomfort and remind ourselves that the support we offer is invaluable. Having a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on can make a world of difference.

I challenge you to start the conversation about mental health in the workplace today. And don’t be afraid to tell someone else how you’re feeling. The truth is, it’s okay to not be okay. We’re all human.