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Beyond R U OK? Day: How to keep the conversation going

Last week, suicide prevention charity R U OK? saw Australians around the country rally together in support of R U OK? Day. Held annually on 12 September, the national day aims to raise awareness around suicide and mental ill-health by calling on us to ask our friends, family and co-workers one simple but important question – Are you OK?

Beyond R U OK? Day: How to keep the conversation going
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But one week on, as the hashtags begin to downtrend and the swell of discourse quietens in favour of new topics, how do we ensure mental wellbeing remains a priority? Post-R U OK? Day, how do we keep the conversation going?

Know the signs

According to research by R U OK?, approximately 41 per cent of people have refrained from asking someone if they were OK because they felt they didn’t know the signs of mental ill-health. For this reason, the first and most critical step is knowing the signs and being vigilant towards them year-round.

Signs of mental ill-health can vary from one person to another, but there are a number of common mental, physical and emotional signs to look out for. Mental signs include forgetfulness, confusion and indecisiveness. They may appear to frequently lose their train of thought or take longer than usual to complete ordinary tasks. Physical signs can include changes in eating patterns, irregular breathing, or sleep difficulty. In terms of emotional signs, the person may appear withdrawn, short-tempered or overly emotional, and may be prone to catastrophising.

In the context of the workplace, we should also look out for absenteeism and presenteeism, a lack of focus and engagement, and a decline in productivity. Importantly, when asked about their wellbeing, the person may avoid the question or respond with closed statements such as ‘I’m fine’.

Be prepared

If we’re to truly break the stigma around mental illness and make a difference for those suffering, we need to become comfortable with making mental health a topic of everyday conversation. In other words, we must feel empowered to reach out no matter what day of the year.

When you’re confident you’ve identified the signs, the next step is to consider your approach and its possible outcomes. Often, we reach out with good intentions only to find ourselves seemingly lost for words when we’re opened up to.

Avoid this by thinking ahead – are you prepared to have an effective and genuine conversation? If the person is in fact experiencing mental distress, are you equipped to provide them with valuable assistance? Are you aware of your boundaries and responsibilities? Your readiness to ask the question depends on these answers. Make sure you have a plan in place before starting the conversation to ensure you can provide meaningful help where it’s needed.

Be proactive

Whether it’s in the workplace, at home or amongst social groups, the best way to keep the conversation going is to make wellbeing a focus in everyday life by building resilience. Our Global Resilience Report found that an increase in personal resilience reduces symptoms of anxiety by an average of 32 per cent and depression by an average of 30 per cent.

Investing in wellbeing is the most effective way to build personal resilience so encourage them to make time for daily exercise and relaxation, committing to a nourishing diet, and prioritising sleep. Suggest a weekly yoga class with a friend or a walk around the block with a colleague before work – this not only promotes physical wellness but provides you an opportunity to check in with them on their mental health.

In the workplace, office culture makes a big difference. Is your work environment one that fosters positive mental health, or one that prompts a downward spiral?

If you’re a manager or leader, consider whether your workplace has a high-trust culture or whether employees are driven by fear of failure. If the latter, you’ll likely find that changing your workplace culture in turn increases employee wellbeing.

The reality today is that mental illness is not something we can adequately address with one annual day of awareness alone. The World Health Organisation states that approximately 450 million people around the world will experience mental ill-health at some point in their lives, which means ‘are you OK?’ is a question we must become comfortable asking – all 365 days of the year.

Stuart Taylor is the CEO of Springfox.