On R U OK? Day we’re reminded that leaders play an important role in safeguarding and supporting the mental health of their teams. Asking after the mental health of a team member is the first step, and a very important one, in creating a more mentally healthy workplace.

However, what we’ve noticed over the years in our training and consulting work, and what we’ve read in studies from the major world economies, is that employees are reluctant to open up about mental health concerns to their leaders.

A study we completed recently confirmed what we’ve been hearing. We reached out to our community of managers and everyday employees and asked them two questions:

‘If a friend asked R U OK?, and the answer was ‘No’, would you tell them?’

‘If your BOSS asked R U OK?, and the answer was ‘No’, would you tell them?’

And, anticipating the response we might receive, we asked another question:

What advice would you give management to make it easier for their people to say ‘I’m not OK’?

We asked respondents to leave comments on the first two question if they wished, and we asked about their gender and age group so we could look for basic trends.

The results were pretty interesting.

Results

 

RUOK day blog image

 

Consistent with what we’ve seen and read, managers are a lot less trusted by employees when it comes to disclosing their mental health state. 29% of people said they’d hold back from telling a friend if they have a mental health concern. But that figure jumped to almost half when asked if they’d tell their manager.

 

RUOK day blog image

Gender differences

What did surprise us was that women were less likely to disclose than we expected, and actually less likely than men. Is it possible that women feel less secure in their employment than men, and feel a greater need to keep up appearances? This is an area we’ll be looking into with future research.

Age differences

We received low numbers of respondents under 35, so didn’t include them in age comparisons.

We noticed that males aged 35-44 were the least likely to disclose to friends or a boss. Perhaps with these years being the phase were men start to move into senior leadership and take on significant responsibility, that giving the appearance of ‘not handling it’ would be detrimental to their forward progress and so they stay quiet.

The other trend that stood out was respondents aged over 55. Again, it’s possible that older workers are concerned about job security, and perhaps it’s a generational thing: with older people in the main valuing their privacy and separation of personal life from professional life.

Comments

Would you tell a friend?

Of course, many people said it depends on who the friend is, citing things like:

  • How close they are
  • How easy they are to talk to
  • Whether they had the strength to deal with their reaction
  • Whether they were good listeners and would give their opinion
  • How supportive they are
  • If they thought they could help
  • If the friend has past troubles and perhaps could empathise

For many people, factors like timing, choosing the right setting and how bad things are, were also important.

Reasons they wouldn’t tell a friend included:

  • Not wanting to burden others, especially if they have their own struggles
  • Concern for privacy
  • Not wanting to be seen as a ‘whinger’ or ‘wimp’

But the news was not all bad. There were some strong arguments for telling a friend, a stand out one for us was, “I’ve learned the lesson of when you try to ignore it.” Seems like the message is getting through that asking for help is the best course of action.

Would you tell your boss?

Again, not surprisingly, most respondents said it depends on the person in the big chair.

  • I have faith or trust in my boss
  • It may help them to understand their situation too
  • I work in a supportive organisation
  • I’ve had good personal experience

…were all reasons people said they would and have told their boss.

But the news was not all good. Reasons given for not telling the boss ranged from concern about what might happen:

  • Stays on your record and impacts promotion opportunities
  • Don’t trust the boss
  • May be used against me
  • They may doubt my ability to do the job
  • Blurs boundaries – there are other options available
  • I work in mental health, we are expected to be ‘above that’
  • Fear about being performance managed
  • Don’t want to come across as not having it all together, weak or underperforming

To being once bitten, twice shy:

  • Had a bad past experience
  • Telling my boss complicated the situation
  • Boss avoids me now and I’m discounted
  • It was used to fire me

It’s clear a strong stigma remains around disclosing mental health concerns in the workplace. Alongside asking ‘RUOK?’ which is a noble and very important first step, we need to be giving managers better support. Specifically, we need to do two things:

  1. Help managers break down the stigma attached to mental health issues to create an environment where it’s ok to say, “I’m not OK”
  2. Give them the tools and training to respond and to help an employee who tells them they’re not OK. Sometimes a manager won’t ask because they don’t what to say if the answer is not ‘I’m fine, thanks for asking.’

In doing so, we’ll be creating confident, psychologically safe managers, capable of engaging teams to perform at their best.

Are you a psychologically safe manager? Take the test to find out.

Advice to managers

But don’t just take our word for it. Below we’ve listed verbatim all our respondents’ suggestions for how managers can make it easier for them to disclose a mental health issue without fear of repercussions.
  • Be genuine and authentic, care and empathy – all the time, too late when it comes to R U OK
  • Show interest in the whole person
  • Be available
  • Listen not problem solve
  • Talk about the subject at work, normalise it
  • Peer support group, EAP, resources
  • Discuss options without going down workcover route
  • More conversations
  • Culture of being your whole self at work
  • Open minded and honest
  • Confidential
  • Stress leave, reduced hours, duties, RDOs
  • Better education for managers
  • Let them know re good work too
  • Mental Health and Stress Management Policy
  • Safe that it’s not going to impact job
  • Suggestion boxes for anonymous feedback
  • Ensure privacy
  • Clear open policies promoted
  • Leadership skills for managers
  • Modelling from managers on how to deal with hard times, be vulnerable, take leave etc
  • Don’t doubt the answer when you get it
  • Do something – not just lip service to employee mental health
  • Ask more often not just once a year’
  • Be OK with uncomfortable
  • Treat worker as a human, not a number
  • Get others with a good experience to share it
  • Context – some want to be asked and to talk about it others won’t.
  • Recognise needs of carers (of people with mental illness, elderly, children etc)
  • Ask but also express that work need not be involved as long as performance ok
  • Managers need skills – don’t just pass it off to HR or EAP
  • Know how to follow up the question
On R U OK Day, and every day, let’s ask the question. But let’s go a step further and actualy equip our managers to create the productive and mentally wealthy work environments that we keep asking them for.

If you’d like to know how you can build the capability of your leaders in this space, consider inviting us to run a private Workplace Mental Health Masterclass for Leaders for your managers or team.

Author: Pedro Diaz
Pedro-Diaz-authorPedro 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, Pedro 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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