The Dish

R U OK? 4 tips for having hard convos at work

Family Meal
11 min read
This Thursday, September the 8th is RUOK Day – a national day of action where Aussies are reminded that looking out for the mental health of those around us is an important part of being a great colleague, friend and ally.

Did you know that 80% of Australian hospitality workers say that mental health issues including clinical depression, types of anxiety or mania are a challenge facing those in the industry?

Not only that, but 50% of these hospo workers said that they wished, when they were exhibiting mental health issues – including short term or long term symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, mood disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and more – that someone at work would have asked them if they were okay.

This Thursday, September the 8th is R U OK? Day – a national day of action where Australians around the country are reminded that looking out for the mental health of those around us is an important part of being a great colleague, friend and ally and an evidence-based way to support those in hospo and other industries experiencing suicidal thoughts.

As a proud supporter of the Australian hospitality industry, mental health support of people with anxiety and people with depression is a cause close to our hearts at Doshii.

So we spoke to Rachel Clements, Co-Founder and Director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health about what we can all do to take care of the mental health of those around us, and how we can have difficult conversations to show how much we care.

DOSHII (D): Hi Rachel, thanks so much for sitting down to talk with us about such an important issue within Australia’s hospitality industry and beyond. Can you give us a brief overview on what R U OK? Day is all about?

RACHEL CLEMENTS (RC): So, RUOK’s founder Gavin Larkin’s father died of suicide, and Gavin was in advertising and PR. And he thought, “if we could just get better at asking one simple question, we could help prevent suicide.”

Sadly, Gavin passed away of a brain tumour two years after starting the organisation, but his legacy lives on. Now we’re in R U OK’s eleventh year and it’s got a huge amount of reach.

This year’s theme – that I love – is “No qualifications required.” Because you don’t actually have to be an expert to ask someone if they’re okay. This is the whole message Gavin Larkin was trying to promote all those years ago, that you could be anybody. You don’t have to be an expert.

D: What do you think has prompted this corporate shift, even in restaurants, bars and cafes? It seems companies are treating depressed workers very seriously and taking mental health as a whole more seriously as well.

RC: There are a few things, and I think sadly this has particularly impacted hospitality.

There have been some high-profile suicides in the industry. You’ve probably heard of some of the chefs that have died by suicide. It has unfortunately reached that critical point that enables people to sit up and think, “if this keeps happening in our industry, we have to do something.”

In 2011 there was a change in Work Health & Safety legislation that meant an employer now has responsibility not just for physical health and safety, but for psychological health and safety.

This promoted the idea that employers have a moral, legal and ethical obligation to be respectfully curious in regard to mental health in the workplace. All employees have responsibility under this legislation, but the higher up you go in an organisation, the more responsibility you have.

We are also now looking at prevention, especially in hospitality. Before that mentality was, “oh I’ll intervene when there’s a problem. I might know there’s stuff going on, that someone is not okay. But I’m not going to do anything until someone puts in a claim or whatever.” Whereas now, people are investing in prevention to stop those mental health issues from arising in the first place.

Hospitality has been great for this. You can’t remove the fast pace, or the finishing work at unsociable hours, but we can change the landscape in this space, so all leaders are trained up to realise when someone is not tracking so well and to respond to it in an R U OK way. I do think it’s absolutely shifted the dial.

D: Is there a reason that hospitality work is particularly prone to high incidents of mental health crises? Aside from the fact that they often work unsociable hours and it’s a high stress environment.

RC: Yeah. One in three hospo employees will experience a mental health issue within a 12 month period, so it’s quite high. It’s also a casualised work-force; a large amount of the population is casual.

Look at how they’ve been impacted in the last couple years – and even prior to the pandemic, there’s often work around in the summer months when things are busy, but that means that during the winter months there’s not as much around. I think around 60-70% of the hospitality population in Australia is made up of a casual workforce.

One in three hospo employees will experience a mental health issue within a 12 month period. – Rachel Clements, Co-Founder and Director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health

It also does tend to employ and attract a younger population. The ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) released statistics on mental health a few weeks ago that showed that a high-risk group was 16-24 year old girls and women. 39% have experienced a significant mental health issue in the past 12 months. Young males as well – and hospitality really encompasses those age groups.

They also tend to rely on unhealthy coping strategies. If I’ve finished a hard shift at 2 or 3am, there’s no one to talk to. So I’m socially isolated, and how do I cope? Often with alcohol or drugs or blocking things out.

You have disrupted sleep cycles as well, and sometimes quite complicated personal lives too. It’s a time in your life when you are sorting out stuff. And also just the environment – the pressure points. They’ve been so short-staffed the past couple of years, people are often pretty burned out.

There’s also an enormous amount of constant pressure to perform, especially in top restaurants.

Sometimes historically as well, the culture has been a bit, you know, “toughen up”, or “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Traditionally that type of culture has been more prevalent, whereas we know that cultures that foster positive mental health outcomes are more of the R U OK?-type culture.

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D: What can hospitality venue owners and managers do right from the get-go to ensure that their staff are happy, healthy and thriving in the workplace – so focusing on prevention rather than dealing with mental health problems only when they become an issue?

RC: The thing in hospitality is, you know, there are those psychosocial risks we’ve discussed. Finishing work at 3am, or doing a long shift, or being around a lot of noise – and some of those things you can’t change.

In some of those industries, demands are high and employees have very little control over those demands. So it’s low control, high demand. But in a role where you can increase the support, that changes the picture completely.

High support completely changes the wellbeing picture for employees. They can be thriving and finding the environment stimulating and exciting, all because of supportive leadership. The second biggest factor is supportive collegial relationships, so being in an awesome team. That’s why peer-to-peer support is so important to train people up on.

D: Even beyond checking out the R U OK? website, what is something someone in hospitality can do today if they are concerned about a colleague or employee? Maybe this person is exhibiting symptoms that depression can include, like a loss of interest in work or life – what can a colleague or employer do right now to address that?
1. Have the courage to ask

RC: The first thing is, have the courage and the confidence to lean into the conversation. You absolutely do not have to be an expert. All you need is the courage and confidence to ask. You do need time, so don’t do it in between tasks, make sure you’re giving someone the gift of your time.

You absolutely do not have to be an expert. All you need is the courage and the confidence to ask. – Rachel Clements, Co-Founder and Director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health

2. Listen without judgement

The second step is just listening without judgement. You don’t have to have the answers, to troubleshoot, to problem solve, because you most likely can’t anyway. All that person wants is to be heard.

3. Give gentle guidance to the next step – reaching out for help

Third stage, if you think it would be useful, gently guide that person to some action and next steps. It might be, “why don’t we jump on the internet now, search up somewhere where you can go and have a chat with somebody?” Or maybe, “it might be useful to have a chat with your GP. I’m happy to go along with you, if that’ll help you feel better.”

Maybe it’s, “I know we have a counselling service in our organisation, I’m happy to jump on a call right now with you, if you like.” You know, being an active connector. As a peer, you’re very powerful to get that person to the next step.

4. Check back in and follow up with care and empathy

The final step is to check back in. Follow up. Always keep that person on your radar until you feel as if they’re back on track, and they’re back into their life again.

That’s the bit that people miss out on, but that’s what makes the difference.

A little text message – “you’ve been on my mind, I’ve been thinking about you, just wanted to see how you’re doing,” or “haven’t heard from you in a while, did you want to catch up for a coffee?” You’re making that extra effort to be proactive and to initiate the check-in. You can’t wait for the person who’s not doing so well to be proactive – you’ve got to do it for them.

D: That seems to be one of the biggest cultural changes in hospitality and beyond – realising we’re all responsible for taking care of each other when it comes to mental health.

RC: Absolutely. We’ve got to get better at noticing, better at connecting, better at having authentic conversations. There is a little bit of skill in R U OK?. Sometimes it can be used as a greeting – “Hey, what’s up, I haven’t seen you in a while, are you okay?” That’s not going to get you anywhere.

The skill in having an R U OK? conversation is to set it up intentionally for a more meaningful conversation, which is leaning into it with your ears, and your eyes and your body language and your empathy. It’s a whole body experience when you ask someone “are you okay?” It’s not a greeting.

It’s a meaningful conversation, but you’ve got to ask it – they are three little words but they change completely depending on how you ask it.

D: Thank you so much for your time Rachel, do you have any closing thoughts to leave us with?

Work can be a wonderful source of positive wellbeing. But it can also be where people are bringing their whole selves to work – so it has a massive impact on people. In a positive way, but also sometimes in a negative way.

I think that’s the biggest shift I’ve seen. R U OK? is now much more ingrained in the Australian psyche, everyone knows about it, organisations celebrate it every year.

The challenge is, how do you just make R U OK? Day the 8th of September, but how do you make it every day? That’s the challenge.

To get your office involved in R U OK? Day, visit their website at www.ruok.org.au.

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