Is it enough to ask R U OK? Or should we be asking more?

With R U OK? Day coming up next month, Mandy Geddes, IECL’s General Manager, Education takes a look at mental health in our workplaces, and challenges if we as a society ask enough questions about our workplaces to check that they are safe places to work in?

R U OK? Day has been around since 2009. As Australians, we can still be embarrassed by any sign of weakness, but we are getting better at asking each other “R U OK?”. However, what about our workplaces? Is yours okay? Is it okay for a workplace to be dysfunctional? Is it okay for a workplace to have a culture of bullying? Or simply of very long and anti-social hours?

When Bistrode CBD Chef, Jeremy Strode passed away recently in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported that the culture of restaurant kitchens is such that people in that industry may not feel supported, may not have someone to talk to, or may not feel comfortable with expressing their feelings in their workplace. Is that okay? Do we accept that some industries might be like that? The media and advertising industries, for example, have been stereotyped as very hardworking and even cut-throat. Other creative industries that are difficult to get a toe-hold in may suffer the same reputation. And yet, I’m sure there are great company cultures in some creative enterprises out there.

As a society do we accept that there are good and bad workplaces, in terms of our mental health? Which industries have a bad reputation? Some end up on the front page of the newspaper more often, due to bullying, harassment, or even their ‘blokey culture’. Is that okay?  As well as asking R U OK?, should we also be asking “Is (y)our workplace okay?” Or is (y)our workplace unwell? Perhaps we should we be checking the mental health of workplaces?  Maybe it’s up to each of us to ask if our workplace is psychologically safe. We can remind our employers (if necessary!) that they actually have a legal as well as a moral obligation to ensure this is the case.

Mental health in the workplace is a thorny subject and for all the EAPs in the world, it’s often only when somebody that we all admire or love or appreciate finds that they cannot go on that we turn the mirror on our workplaces and ask is this okay? After Jeremy Strode’s death, the SMH reported that the Merivale Group, which owns Bistro CBD where he worked, has put into place additional measures to check in with all their people, across 18 restaurants and 28 bars in Sydney. Poignantly, Jeremy was a patron of R U OK? Day and had hosted a fundraising dinner for them.

Do we as a society ask enough questions about our workplaces to check that they are safe places to work in? Some may say that people just need to ‘man up’ to work in those tougher environments. However, if you have a chemical imbalance that causes depression you can’t simply toughen up; you need medical assistance from a mental health professional. Many people, especially in the hospitality industry, spend more time in the workplace than they do at home (and many more of the typical ‘waking hours’ between 7am and 11pm are spent at work).   So, does the responsibility then fall to that workplace – including their colleagues – to keep an eye on those vulnerable people (assuming they know who they are). 

In the tributes to Jeremy Strode, many friends and colleagues said “we knew he had up days and down days…we’ve seen him on that rollercoaster”. Many of them clearly felt a terrible guilt that they didn’t ask him if he was okay. Yes, we should all endeavour to ask each other – our loved ones, our families, our colleagues – R U OK? And could we also turn that mirror towards our workplaces? If necessary, let’s ask “is it okay” that this workplace is the way that it is.

R U OK? DAY is on 14 September 2017.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs support right now, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or beyondblue Support Service on 1300 22 4636.

Further reading: Are we facing a perfect legal storm? – Michelle Cornish Coaching

Mandy Geddes is IECL’s General Manager, Education and has been a key member of our team since 2002. She manages IECL coach trainings and our Alumni program of continuous professional development throughout the APAC region. She has been instrumental in developing (and now maintaining) our ICF accredited status. Mandy is a former yoga teacher and now enjoys being a yoga student again.