It was over five months ago that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and experts are worried that the resulting financial stress and government restrictions will add to the long-term rate of suicide, which is already the leading cause of death among people 15 to 44 years old.
R U OK? Day was born out of a son’s wish to protect other families from suffering the same pain he had suffered when his dad committed suicide in 1995.
Gavin Larkin’s question “Are you OK?” has since ignited a successful awareness day that aims to encourage meaningful conversations between friends, families and peers.
But, with suicide predicted to surge across all age groups by 40 per cent in the next decade due to the aftermath of COVID-19, experts are asking business leaders to consider what role they can play in suicide prevention ahead of this year’s R U OK? Day on 10 September.
“As a place of social connection and a source of structure and purpose for employees, workplaces have a unique role to play in starting the conversation and making sure the conversation is continuous. This is particularly relevant when so many people are feeling isolated and still working from home,” said Marcela Slepica, clinical services director at AccessEAP.
She explained that R U OK? Day allows businesses to become involved in addressing better mental health and suicide prevention, building trust between employer and employees alike.
“Throughout COVID-19, people who might have never experienced mental health issues may now be struggling with ongoing pressure and stress,” Ms Slepica said.
“It’s important to remind these people that it’s OK to not feel OK, and also to let people know that support is available and accessible.”
To ensure suicide prevention is a part of safety culture in the workplace, employers are encouraged to bring their workforces together, to offer support and connect with those experiencing difficulty or emotional pain.
Below we bring you some of Ms Slepica’s tips aimed at increasing awareness and easing the pressures of COVID on employees.
Run an R U OK? Day session
Leaders and supervisors often feel anxious to have conversations with team members about potential mental health concerns, so it’s important to provide them with training.
Ms Slepica suggested hosting a day session where staff members can be informed about the signs that someone may be at risk and the steps to deal with it.
“This will help break down the stigma around the topic and create a culture of safety. Managers can learn how to offer support; they do not need to solve the problem.”
Establish a circle of support
A circle of support doesn’t have to be large but could include family, friends or colleagues who provide friendship and reassurance to a person who needs it.
According to Ms Slepica, many organisations are introducing peer support, where employees learn how to have conversations about mental health and how to help.
“Encourage activities where staff members are taught to open up and listen to each other, breaking down barriers. If people share personal experiences, it is a powerful way of enabling others to share.”
Don’t make assumptions — ask!
“Each person’s background is unique, so it’s important not to assume anything about how employees are coping,” Ms Slepica said.
Leaders, she suggested, should adapt their communication to meet team members’ individual needs.
“When discussing difficult topics, such as mental health and suicide, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a conversation which encourages asking questions to allow for understanding between all staff members.
“Culture informs communications, so employers should facilitate a respectful and curious discussion about this in the workplace.”