Pay it forward: the benefits of asking R U OK?

Article3 mins09 September 2020By Amy Cooper

On R U OK? Day 2020, workplace mental wellness is in the spotlight like never before.


For more than a decade, the R U OK? movement has been encouraging Australians to ask each other the simple but powerful question: are you OK?

In 2020, that question has never been more important. With workplaces on the frontline of endless change and challenges, Australia’s annual R U OK? Day is inspiring organisations to talk honestly about mental health – all year round.

“Managers can sometimes feel they need to provide a solution straight away, but a lot of the time, someone just wants to feel heard.”

Mitch Wallis Heart On My Sleeve
Bringing heart to the workplace

On R U OK? Day, employees at Dexus will tune into a live webinar hosted by mental health advocate and trainer Mitch Wallis, founder of the Heart On My Sleeve movement. 

The event highlights an ongoing program of joint initiatives by Wallis and Dexus to reinforce a safe, supportive workspace. Its positive effects, says Wallis, reach far beyond R U OK? Day.

“R U OK? Day is the launch pad, but this conversation should not happen on one day only,” he says.

“Mental health should be talked about year-round.” 

Wallis’s work starts at the top. Through a new program called Real Conversations, he’s training the Dexus Board and Executive team in how to better connect with their people in their teams, improve emotional intelligence and embed mental wellness across the workplace culture. 

Wallis’s training delivers crucial but accessible skills - such as the simple art of listening. 

“Managers can sometimes feel they need to provide a solution straight away, but a lot of the time, someone just wants to feel heard,” he says. 

Heart on My Sleeve also upskills individuals across the organisation to support their peers as accredited ‘mental health champions.’

The results are consistently positive, says Melanie Bourke, Chief Operating Officer at Dexus. 

“First, we’re creating a culture where people feel they can have conversations about their mental health, and then making sure our leaders have the skills to support someone that might be experiencing challenges.”

Getting real about mental health

Wallis’s approach emphasises authenticity. It’s no longer enough, he says, for organisations to ‘box tick’ mental health.

“People would forego perks like gym memberships and lunchtime yoga and bananas in the fruit bowl to feeling like they were truly supported and cared about as a human being,” he says.

“They would far prefer to know that their relationships inside their organisation are those of true connection. They want a culture that allows them to feel psychologically safe and allows them to bring more of their real selves to work.”

To this end, in 2019 Dexus introduced a ‘thrive goal’ for everyone. 

“It’s not a business goal; it's something you need to do to thrive as a person,” says Bourke.

People’s goals ranged from fitness objectives, to reading a book every month, to taking the kids to school one morning a week, to more adventurous ambitions such as learning to abseil.

“It’s a great lead-in to conversations about people’s lives,” she says. 

“Something like this, that’s embedded all the way up to the executive team, shows how you can really carve out time as an organisation for mental wellness.”

Prioritsing mental health during COVID-19

While enlightened organisations were increasingly aware of mental health, COVID-19 has made it a priority.

“In my view, COVID-19 has introduced many people to mental health issues for the first time. Many have been feeling more anxious and depressed possibly than they ever have before,” says Wallis.  

He adds: “It’s so much more than a health pandemic. It is an uncertainty pandemic and that's what's doing the psychological damage.”

But there have been positives. Lockdown conditions and working from home, says Bourke, encouraged a keener awareness of colleagues’ mental health. 

“In the absence of that physical contact, everyone had to be more compassionate and actively go out of their way to check in with people. It wasn’t the traditional workplace stress situation, and people were experiencing so many different types of challenges.” 

“As we worked through what COVID-19 meant for our business and our customers, there was a really big push from the Board and the executive team to regularly check in on everyone’s wellbeing,” she says. 

“Even just little things like making sure your team was getting out and exercising, and still connecting with people.”

Mitch Wallis is optimistic that the challenges of 2020 will lead to more supportive workplace cultures.

“I have never seen this level of prioritisation towards mental health,” he says. 

“I really hope that beyond COVID-19, companies use this as an opportunity to put in place the necessary platforms to be able to handle future shocks – namely, leaders’ and people’s ability to connect and support each other.

“All the research tells us that these investments have massive long-term benefits - including on the bottom line.” 

“Ultimately the number one asset that a company has is their people.”

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