If you ask 'Are You OK?' Be prepared for the answer

Topics Mental Health

Australia’s R U OK day falls on 9 September, and World Suicide Prevention Day follows on 10 September 2021.  

Both are an opportunity to champion suicide prevention efforts, provide a message of hope, and bolster public awareness of suicide and associated complex mental health issues.  

To participate in this incredibly important conversation, DCA has spoken to Mental Health First Aid and SANE Australia. So that when employers ask Are You Ok, they are genuinely prepared for the answer.  

Below, Kathy Bond, Workplace Engagement Manager at Mental Health First Aid offers a professional perspective – and suggests how you can start the conversation.  

The starting point

In Australia, we face an ongoing mental health crisis. Suicide remains a leading cause of death, accounting for an average of 8 deaths per day (ABS, 2018) and a reported 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness in any 12-month period (AIHW, 2018). When we factor in the number of people who miss formal diagnosis due to stigma, access issues or disadvantage, then the problem is greater still. 

‘Statistically, every person reading this will know several people impacted by mental ill health. Yet despite the commonality of mental ill health, many people still don’t know how to talk about it or feel equipped to support someone experiencing a mental health problem. Talking about mental health doesn’t need to be daunting, and there is a place for open, genuine discussions in every workplace. 

‘Indeed, we cannot have any discussion without mentioning the events of the past year-and-a-half; the global pandemic has opened up even more conversations about the importance of well-being – amidst changes to our home and work environments. As we continue to find new ways of living and working, there is a renewed focus on the importance of mental health. For businesses, this means taking time to review their mental health strategy and consider how it connects with workplace health and safety. This goes beyond the ‘nice to do’ and should be considered a critical element of HR management in every workplace. 

‘If you are a manager or business owner, then you are probably thinking about the financial benefits of introducing mental health well-being in the workplace. Yet there is a more obvious and pressing reason to act  – people. Every employee in every role, possesses strengths, weaknesses and a different set of risk factors for mental ill health. Supporting people is the right thing to do, and it can be transformational and even lifesaving.’ 

So where can workplaces begin? 

  1. Review your mental health policy and practice in your workplace. Raise it with your senior management and take action to introduce or improve wellbeing initiatives. 

  1. Get staff educated. Developing knowledge and skills around common mental health topics, positive conversations and pathways to support can give your workplace an edge. We recommend Mental Health First Aid as a starting point, but applaud any steps towards positive mental health education. 

  1. Keep the dialogue open – encourage open discussion, keep mental health on your HR agendas, and appoint people within your office who can champion the cause. If they have lived experience and can bring a personal passion as well as professional care to the table, even better.  

Going deeper than depression and anxiety 

The pandemic has started conversations about issues such as anxiety and depression. But they are not the full story. Rachel Green from SANE Australia has this to say about going deeper, and creating structural change to support those with complex mental health needs. 

‘We've got much greater acceptability socially of depression and anxiety in workplaces, but complex mental needs are less understood and these are still subject to significant levels of discrimination. This must change because these are the people who potentially have the most to gain from attaining and keeping gainful employment. Reaching these people requires us to think about structural changes, beginning with the recruitment process.  

  1. Recruit inclusively: One of the things people often look for on CVs as a ‘red flag’ would be gaps in employment or short-term periods of employment; an ‘ideal’ employee starts their job at 25 and stays there until retirement age. You need to see that paradigm through fresh eyes, and broaden your perspective if you are to truly welcome talent with complex mental health challenges. They may not have a typical CV.  

  1. Build an inclusive culture, where people feel safe to share if they are experiencing mental ill health: With trust established, foster a culture of communication and disclosure. The number of people who disclose having some level of experience with mental health themselves usually meets the population average. And on top of that, the number of people who say that they are playing a caring or supportive role is always incredibly high. This is underreported nationally.  

  1. Make adjustments: Think of approaches to reasonable adjustments and ongoing flexibility. Have some practical conversations around the table with HR about what it would actually mean to apply those to someone with a complex mental health issue.  

As a final thought Rachel says ‘Ultimately: the loyalty and productivity you get from people who feel supported in maintaining work-life balance, and maintaining their support roles, creates an unstoppable bond. Start building those bonds today.’  

Key resources for employers  

For information on supporting someone you work with go to: 

Beyond Blue: Supporting someone returning to work who has attempted suicide 

HeadsUp, Suicide Prevention - Information for Managers or Supporting someone with a mental health condition to stay at or return to work 

 Other Resources  

SANE: Workplace mental health  

Suicide Prevention Resources Centre 

The mentally healthy workplace alliance  

DCA’s events on

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