RU OK Day is a national day of action to remind us all to ask the question “Are you OK?”. While the ultimate goal of the initiative is to make every day RU OK Day, this year the national day is being held on the 13th September and presents a great opportunity for us to remember that mental health is as much a workplace health and safety issue as working at heights and dealing with dangerous machinery. Work health and safety has traditionally focussed on physical risks but problems relating to psychological health in the workplace are significant and can be just as damaging.
What’s more, managing work-based risks to mental health in the workplace is a responsibility under the Work Health and Safety Act. The Act requires that workers and other persons be protected against harm to their health, safety and welfare and that a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must ensure that that they eliminate or minimise such risks as far as is practicable.
Comcare reports that the majority of psychological injury claims are not due to big traumatic events. Rather, they are the result of the work environment and are classified as relating to work pressure or harassment and bullying. Other risks to mental health in the workplace can include:
- Restructures and redundancies
- Uncertainty around job security
- Inappropriate or poorly implemented performance management and discipline processes
- Interpersonal conflict
- Fatigue which can reduce emotional strength and resilience
- Return to work processes following injury
Mental health issues can affect anyone in any industry though some industries do appear to have a higher rates of mental health distress. For example, recent reports commissioned by suicide prevention charity MATES in Construction show that the suicide rate for men in the industry is about double the rest of the male working population. A 2014 PWC report found that 25.1 percent of construction workers had experienced mental illness over the previous 12 months. The average rate for Australian men is approximately 18 percent.
There are a variety of stresses in the industry – not one single cause for these tragic statistics. Chris Lockwood, CEO of MATES in Construction explained to Vice Media that there are a variety of stresses in the industry, not just one single cause for these tragic statistics: “The work coming in blocks, long working hours in the industry, projects running behind time… higher drug use in the workforce. The combination of these factors, including the difficulty in having a health work-life balance, can create a spiral of problems and a dire predicament.”
RU OK Day is a reminder that sometimes asking the question of a friend or colleague or employee can make all the difference. The RU OK Day coach sheet available on their website explains why asking is so important. Asking if someone is OK can:
- Provide the space or opportunity for a person in crisis to reach out
- Let the person know that you have noticed them
- Let the person know that you care
- Let a person know they aren’t alone, despite what they might think
RU OK encourages us to listen without judgement and to employ the USA strategy – understand, support, act. Understand how the person is feeling, talk about ways in which you can support them or help them find support, agree on a plan of action to help them figure out their next steps.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to mental health struggles which can make it even more difficult for workers to reach out for help. While the tide is turning on how we as a society approach mental health, for many sufferers it is a source of shame, embarrassment and confusion. By making it an integral part of a safe and healthy workplace environment and embracing initiatives like RU OK Day, employers and workers can help people not to suffer in silence.
We are all likely to suffer from challenges to our mental wellbeing at some point in our lives. Often work, or a combination of circumstances including work, will be a contributing factor so it is essential that workplaces have the resources and the willingness to destigmatise mental health issues and deal with them appropriately, effectively and compassionately.