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Caring for your colleagues on R U OK? Day


Caring for the mental wellbeing of work colleagues is not only decent, it’s good for business, writes Andrea Michaels.

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Sometimes it seems in this 24/7 world there’s so much time spent working, planning what’s coming up, and keeping our own heads above water, that we rarely give a thought to the well-being of those who work alongside us.

But watching the ABC’s Australian Story recently on the late Gavin Larkin, business owner and founder of R U OK? Day – which comes around today – made me stop and think.

Are we doing enough to promote positive, healthy workplaces? Has our fast paced, social-savvy, me-centred world meant a loss of community? Do we know how to connect with those around us any more? Are we concerned about the personal welfare of individuals beyond our own families?

A chance to get comfortable with caring

Years ago when people knew the names of everyone who lived in their street, reaching out when times were tough was normal and expected behaviour.

But today, we tend to keep to ourselves. Is it our business? I can see John or Sharon seems distracted or upset, but should I really ask if they are OK? After all, they’re only work colleagues – I might be overstepping the mark. They’ll get over it.

After listening to Gavin Larkins’ story, I believe that as business owners and work colleagues we need to get comfortable with saying “are you OK?” We should start reaching out on a regular basis, and ask other people to do the same, because we might be able to make a difference to a growing problem.

South Australian business owners can change workplace culture

Every year around one in five people will experience a mental illness of some kind. The Mental Health Commission estimates that costs Australia around $60 billion dollars annually. In South Australia, SA’s Mental Health Commissioner, Chris Burns, has called for workplaces to look at “mental first-aid programs” to stem costs to the economy.

I know we all spend time making sure our legal obligations are met and that our WH&S strategies are in place, but are we proactively looking after the mental health of our employees?

Ultimately, it’s a leadership issue. Not just for government, but for private industry and small business too.

As South Australian business owners, we have the power to change workplace culture and the experience of those who work for us.

Building “wellness” was something I was determined to address when I started my own practice because I’ve seen it missing in many other places. The legal industry in particular has a high rate of depression, with some surveys suggesting as many as one in three lawyers have suffered from a mental health issue.

How my team are managing personally as human beings is just as important to me as how they perform at work.

And it makes a difference. Not just because we’ve built a better and more supportive place to work, but because it’s also good for business.

Mental health initiatives mean better business outcomes

A 2014 PwC report, ‘Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace’, found for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an action, there was an average $2.30 in return. That means improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and lower compensation claims.

Corporate wellness programs are not “perks” – they demonstrate the positive culture of an organisation and they lead to a better bottom line. Stress management programs, yoga classes, sponsored gym memberships, team bonding sessions and personal counselling or psychology sessions are all valid initiatives aimed at creating happy, supported workers who are more productive and make better team members.

Above and beyond those programs, showing you care can be very simple. Asking how someone is doing, a chat, a walk together, or coffee at lunchtime might make all the difference to someone’s life.

Get connected

I want to call out to business owners, managers and team members this week to reconnect with people and stay connected.

Ask about and listen to concerns. Plug-in to your emotional intelligence to recognise when someone might be struggling.

Are your people spending too long at work, drowning in a stressful or unmanageable workload, do they just need someone to talk to, or some time off to cope with the pressures life can throw at all of us from time to time?

I fully support the shout-out that Gavin Larkin started: we should all get comfortable with asking R U OK? on a regular basis in our workplaces because it’s the responsibility of all of us to make a difference for a better society.

Andrea Michaels is Managing Director of NDA Law and a tax and family business specialist. Twitter: @michaels_andrea

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