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“Hope you were okay” – HR and mental wellbeing at work

By Alan J. McDonald

HR and mental wellbeing at work

Limiting workplace discussions about mental health to a single day was never the point of R U OK? day. But for some organisations that’s all it has become.

People I know have committed suicide. I say ‘know’ and not ‘knew’ because I am not comfortable referring to them in the past tense, and probably never will be.

I imagine most of the people reading this know someone who ended their life, and therefore understand the magnitude of suicide. So final and heart rending are its results that it seems impossible that any single conversation could have prevented it.

While it doesn’t really solve our problems, genuine interest from people we know, colleagues included, does change us. Even if we try to ignore or push back against the question – “are you okay?” – it can still breach our isolation, and drop a one sentence lifeline into our spiralling sadness. The word doing all the work here is ‘genuine’.

A day in the life

It’s because conversation and human connections matter – that they really can help prevent self harm – that R U OK? Day was invented. The charity behind it, also called R U OK, is focused on suicide prevention, and this week many organisations across Australia made an effort to mark September 12th.

Speaking for myself, I’ve been in workplaces where posters and stickers have come out on the day, encouraging us to open up to each other, and giving us a brief guide on how that conversation should happen. I’ve also been in workplaces where the conversations that did happen were stilted. Jokes were made at the poster;s expense. You didn’t know if your honesty would be heard by a caring ear, so nobody risked it.

Genuine connections can help prevent suicide, but they’re not that easy to have in certain offices. Humans are creatures of habit and nobody develops a habit after one day.

Unfortunately R U OK? day is too often an apt metaphor for how organisations approach positive mental health at work. It’s on the radar, it’s a nice idea, but only token efforts will be given to creating a culture that genuinely embraces wellbeing as a value. For some organisations, it really is just a day. And not even a particularly helpful one.

A leader who cares

“To be frank, if an organisation is not interested in strengthening peer-to-peer support and staff looking out for one another, you’ve got to question the value of something like R U OK? day,” says CEO of R U OK? Brendan Maher – their theme this year is that every day is R U OK? day.

“That being said, sometimes holding a mirror up and getting involved in something like this can be an opportunity to start a shift in the way we think,” he says. “Doing something rather than doing nothing is a good thing.”

As almost anyone will tell you, the key to becoming a workplace that values mental health is leadership buy-in. “It’s always important that whoever is championing a movement like R U OK?, that there is a values alignment at the leadership level,” says Maher.

For HR, getting that buy-in often means making a business case. A good place to start would be this 2016 report on psychosocial safety climate (PSC) in Australian workplaces, which says low levels of PSC are costing employers $6 billion per annum in absenteeism and presenteeism.

A simple, practical step to making mental health a priority in any workplace is establishing that it’s okay to take leave for mental health reasons.

Mental health leave

There is no formal legislation in Australia to allow for employees to take mental health days as part of their personal leave. But McDonald Murholme principal lawyer Andrew Jewell says that employees should take sick leave when needed, regardless of reason.

“Employers need to make a conscious effort to ensure there is no disparity between the importance of physical and mental health, and that sick leave is utilised in both instances.”

Jewell says that it’s not enough to allow for the leave though, other processes need to be in place to make sure people feel okay taking it.

“People are often nervous to open up about mental illness in the workplace for fear of discrimination, so employers should make every effort to create an environment in which employees are comfortable to discuss any issues and then provide support where needed.

“In some instances, that may include encouraging staff to slow down, provide assistance with workload or even taking a day off,” he says.

Reference: ‘“Hope you were okay” – HR and mental wellbeing at work’, HRM OnlineThursday 13th September 2018.