Make coffee. Check email. Ask workmates if they’re OK
R U OK? Day is with us again today, challenging us to reach out to others with compassion. The R U OK? concept is simple but potentially profound for several reasons.
One in five Australians will personally experience clinical depression or a bipolar disorder over their lifetime. If not touched personally, we encounter the so-called Black Dog through family members, partners, close friends or work colleagues.
Despite being common, mental illness is still stigmatised, perhaps reflecting our innate tendency to reject anything that is ‘not us’ or to view depression as a character flaw.
I still hear stories of those admitted to psychiatric units with a mood disorder and who never receive visitors, support letters or flowers, while if in the general hospital they would have visitors aplenty and overflowing vases. Yet such stories are decreasing.
I observe an ever-increasing willingness to talk about mood disorders and, with understanding helping to replace such negativity. Every time we reach out to somebody with a mood disorder, not only is stigma reduced but our empathy is increased.
By encouraging people to talk about mood disorders, more Australians are seeking help and getting assistance. Such a process has contributed to the distinct decrease in suicide rates in Australia over the last decade.
The R U OK? message seeks to start a conversation, but behind that deceptively simple question are some important messages – that someone genuinely cares, that they want to listen, and that they are offering generosity of spirit.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is a testament to the life-saving potential of the R U OK? message. For years, a motorbike policeman patrolled the bridge, and whenever he observed somebody looking distressed and perturbed, he would stop his bike, approach the individual slowly and ask “What are your plans for tomorrow?” before suggesting they have a cup of tea or a quiet chat.
Similarly, for decades the Sydney-sider Don Ritchie would approach distressed people at The Gap and offer an invitation to have a cup of tea or coffee and a chat. These two people literally saved hundreds of lives with just a simple question that prioritised a future and muted the bleakness of the present.
Opening such a conversation with someone troubled is not crossing a line and it does not have to be intrusive. If responded to, it does not mean that the enquirer is required to offer specific advice or even say too much. It is more important to listen and “be there”.
The R U OK? message – and the actual question – is especially relevant in a workplace environment. In supporting organisations through our workplace education programs, we have seen first hand how the pressures and stresses of the modern workplace can lead to or worsen depression, with employees feeling isolated, unable to make eye contact, losing the light in their eyes and seeking refuge in the office bathroom.
Depression-associated disability costs the Australian economy $14.9 billion annually, with more than six million working days lost each year. Workplaces in denial and/or unable to accommodate staff needs predictably face high staff turnover and lost productivity due to absenteeism - and presenteeism, where employees are present but unable to work effectively.
To better understand how effectively Australian workplaces are responding to this challenge, the Black Dog Institute created a ‘workplace wellbeing’ questionnaire for individuals to assess their own work environment that is available on our website.
Many organisations offer programs to assist workplaces struggling with these issues. Our own programs build on our research and clinical expertise, provide staff with the knowledge and skills to deal with stress in the workplace, build resilience, lay out responsibilities of employers, build workplace wellbeing and resilience, and offer relevant positive psychology strategies.
The R U OK? message is multi-layered. It is empathic, it reaches out, it allows the recipient to respond in their own way and offers hope as well as support. The author and academic Leo Buscaglia wrote:
“Too often we underestimate the power or a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring – all of which have the potential to turn a life around”.
The poet John Donne reflected that no man is an island, yet to be depressed is to feel alone and isolated, insular and island-bound. To ask “Are you OK?” is to be open, to send a message advancing connection.
If you need to talk to someone, visit Lifeline or call them on 13 11 14.
Professor Gordon Parker, Executive Director, Black Dog Institute
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