September 13 marks R U OK? Day, and with the majority of our waking hours spent at work, employers are being urged to reach out to anyone potentially at risk of suicide, or ask for help if they themselves are struggling.
In 2009, Gavin Larkin founded the national R U OK? Program in a bid to encourage all Australians to reach out to someone who may be struggling, in a bid to avoid the grief he struggled with following the suicide of his father in 1995.
Adding prominence to the issue of mental health in the business world was billionaire James Packer, who bravely announced his resignation from Crown Resorts in order to address his own mental health.
Yet suicide remains an epidemic in Australia, with figures from the Black Dog Institute showing that some 65,000 people attempt suicide each year, with more than 2,500 of them successful.
Business consultant Angela Henderson claimed that common phrases and practices in business, such as “hustling” for sales, set a dangerous precedent for mental and physical health in the workplace.
“It is time to reframe how we do business. The drive to hustle, grind and push ‘til you drop is not healthy — mentally or physically,” she said earlier this year.
How to reach out to someone in need
Identifying when someone may be at risk of suicide is not cut and dry, and then reaching out to them can be a very difficult thing to do.
Marcela Slepica, clinical director at AccessEAP, suggests there are five steps involved with identifying someone who may be at risk of suicide and how to reach out to them:
1. Know your team
“Ensure that you maintain regular contact with your team and get to know your employees. Greet them, have interactions with them,” Ms Slepica said.
“This helps develop important connections, but you will then also be in a position to notice if there are any changes in their behaviour, for example, withdrawal, irritability, unexplained absences or a drop in performance at work.”
She said that changes such as these can be clear indicators that something is wrong.
2. Have a conversation
“A simple conversation will clarify your concerns with the employee and may be a first step to helping them find support. Make sure the conversation occurs in a discrete and private place,” said Ms Slepica.
“Be clear that you are concerned. Give specific examples.”
She suggested asking affirming questions such as “Are you okay?”, “Is something concerning you?”, “Do you want to talk about it?” and “Can I do anything to help?”
3. Listen carefully
Rather than trying to offer advice straight out, it is important to simply shut up and listen. Then, as you may do in any meeting, summarise what has been discussed to make sure you have fully heard and understood what the person is telling you, Ms Slepica explained.
“If you’re unsure about any comments they have made, clarify with an open question that allows the person to talk in more detail about their issue, rather than providing a simple yes or no.
“Do not make judgements or assumptions about what they have said.”
4. Explore options
Having done all of this, you will be in a better position to raise possible options that could help to resolve or reduce their distress.
Ms Slepica said that, for employers talking to a staff member, this may involve offering choices to change aspects of their work. But she cautioned against trying to counsel someone.
“Remember you are their manager and not their counsellor. Offer empathy, but at the same time, know when to stop and offer professional help,” she said.
5. Know when to escalate
Where someone directly references suicide or self-harm, Ms Slepica said it is important to ask them directly, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”
“Unless the answer is a direct and clear ‘no’, immediately escalate to an appropriate person,” she said.
This may be the business’ HR manager, an existing support person such as a family member or their GP, or take them to the local emergency department for assessment.
If you are suffering from depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, or you’re worried about someone else and feel that urgent professional support is needed, contact your local doctor or one of the 24/7 crisis agencies below.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
beyondblue: 1300 22 4636
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.