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Here in Australia, we recently celebrated RUOK day. Its an annual reminder to check in with friends and colleagues on their mental health. I think it’s a great initiative, bringing much needed awareness to mental health issues, in an attempt to reduce stigma.

And I always struggle with it too, because as a manager, if you are asking ‘R U OK?’, it’s quite possible that you are already behind the eight ball. It often means there’s a problem already and you’ve left it go on too long, to the point where now you’re noticing the signs that the person might not be ‘OK’.

Of course, if that’s the case, it’s a good idea to step in and ask the question, and respond accordingly of course. (Note: if you or your team don’t know what to do after asking the question, it’s a good idea to get some training in that).

But as good as asking that question is, and as good as it may feel to ask, as managers, we can do better. What can you do to help your team BEFORE it gets to the point of asking RUOK?

Let’s see:

Firstly, mental health problems happen in a context. That’s why people from lower economic backgrounds are more likely to be unwell. That’s why people under pressure tend to experience stress. That’s why staff without clear guidance and vision, falter.

Second, managers, whether we like it or not, we are in our team’s ‘public eye’. Our team member are watching us. And they watch for incongruencies, in what we say, what we do and how we respond to situations. It’s a bit like when parents who smoke tell kids ‘smoking is bad for you’. The kid registers ‘smoking has to be really good if you do it anyway!’. Most of this exchange is not happening at the tangible, physical level, it’s happening at the psychological, and mostly unconscious, level.

See you may think you have the upper hand. And in a sense, you do! You have a lot of power in the eyes of your staff. You are the one who appraises their performance, and makes the big decisions. But let’s not be deluded here. Our staff are appraising us every moment of everyday. And it is precisely because we have been given that power, by virtue of our job title, that people will start to watch us more, and even worry about us. You see, they are not necessarily appraising YOU, but how their relationship with you is traveling. ‘Does my manager like me?’, ‘Are they happy with my work?’, ‘How are we doing?’ ‘R WE OK?’. And the answer to that question will make all the difference to how your people interact with you, how they  engage with their work, and how their mental health and wellbeing is.

The smart manager will handle this question, not by asking RUOK? But by regularly reassuring your team members that ‘WE R OK’. For a mentally healthy team, this is now part of your job as a manager.

Of course, you don’t want to over do it, or under do it – you’ll need to get the balance just right.

So, what are some tips for spreading the WE R OK message?

  • Make sure you connect with all your reports regularly
  • Diarise at least once a month for an individual catch up with your key people
  • EXPRESS how important they are to you i.e. some managers use that opportunity to remember why the person was hired (as a positive experience)
  • Be human, share of yourself appropriately i.e. what you did on the weekend, something about your hobbies, or travels.
  • Don’t share inappropriately i.e. how terribly depressed/stressed/angry/lost you are at the new venture
  • Set a clear vision for your team and regularly talk about it
  • Continue to tell your people ‘WE R OK’

If you do these, you’ll see a remarkable improvement both in the mental health of your team and the levels of engagement.

Let me know your thoughts and how you went.

Author: Peter Diaz
Peter-Diaz-AuthorPeter Diaz is the CEO of Workplace Mental Health Institute. He’s an author and accredited mental health social worker with senior management experience. Having recovered from his own experience of bipolar depression, Peter is passionate about assisting organisations to address workplace mental health issues in a compassionate yet results-focussed way. He’s also a Dad, Husband, Trekkie and Thinker.

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