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Image Credit: Ben Houston Photography for R U OK? Day

R U OK? A more important question than ever in 2021

With the disruptions caused by the pandemic and the isolation of lockdowns taking a toll on many Australians’ mental health, this year’s R U OK? Day may be the most important since its inception in 2009.

R U OK? Day is being held on Thursday, 9 September, a day dedicated to checking in with those around us and supporting them in their mental health struggles.

This year’s theme, “Are they really OK? Ask them today”, encourages all Australians to think about how the people in their world are really going.  The message comes in response to new research which found 22 per cent of Australians aren’t reaching out to ask, “are you OK?” because they haven’t felt someone needed their help.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures on the effects of the pandemic shows people around the country are struggling. The statistics were gathered in June 2021, before the latest round of lockdowns, and the key findings on emotional and mental wellbeing showed:

  • One in five (20 per cent) Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the last four weeks
  • Almost one in three (30 per cent younger Australians (aged 18 to 34 years) experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, compared with 18 per cent of people aged 35 to 64 years and 10 per cent of people aged 65 years and over.

“In a time when so many of us are feeling fatigued by the pandemic, we want to remind and reassure Australians that there is something we can all do to support those in our world, and as those closest to them we are often in a position to do so,” says R U OK? CEO, Katherine Newton. 

Research conducted by Kantar Public has found 80 per cent of those who have recently spoken to someone about something that’s troubling them feel more supported and cared about, and 72 per cent say it helped them feel better about themselves and their situation. 

Suicide has been identified as the leading cause of death for 15–44-year-olds in Australia, and R U OK? Day also puts the spotlight on suicide prevention.

Celebrate community and connectedness

Lauren Hateley, Clinical Psychologist and Co-founder of Spend with Us (Shop with us- unique gifts and experiences – buy from the bush), says the impacts of COVID-19 are especially felt across the Australian rural small business community.

“Small business owners across the country continue to face many additional Covid-19 related stressors that can significantly impact on mental health,” says Lauren. “The short- and long-term mental health consequences of pandemics are yet to fully be known. 

“While there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that stress and anxiety levels increase after disasters such as bushfires, floods and drought, the COVID-19 pandemic has the added burden of loneliness and isolation through social distancing measures. Add rurality and remoteness into the mix; the consequences could be calamitous. There is a level of vulnerability within many Australian communities with increased experiences of isolation and disconnection.

“With many small business owners focusing on trying to get their business through this difficult period and looking after their staff, they might not have prioritised their own mental health.”

R U OK?  A more important question than ever in 2021
Lauren Hateley, Clinical Psychologist and co-founder of Spend With Us

Results from a recent mental health survey of rural and regional small business owners affirm the importance of checking in with those who own small businesses. The survey revealed that:

  • 67 per cent of small business owners said running their own business had directly impacted feelings of anxiety, and 10 per cent reported feelings of depression 
  • 38 per cent of all respondents reported that feelings of anxiety were largely caused by financial and cashflow concerns
  • 33 per cent of business owners being most worried about attaining and retaining customers
  • 54 per cent of business owners seek emotional support through their family

Lauren believes that with millions of Australians in state-wide lockdowns, feeling an overwhelming sense of disconnect, we need to find ways of coping with aspects of our lives that we cannot control; to minimise our general mood and demeanour and build resilience within our communities. 

“It’s also more important than ever to be having honest and open conversations with others about our emotional experiences amidst so much uncertainty,” she says. 

On R U OK? Day Lauren encourages people to pick up the phone or walk next door and check-in with a friend, partner or family member and see how they’re going because often, they’re just waiting for someone to ask.

Tips for supporting tradies’ mental health

Dan Pollard, founder of  Fergus says that for those in the trades industry, tight lockdowns and a construction shutdown, coupled with the rising costs of materials, has made an already tough year that much harder. For business owners, the added challenge of supporting staff while managing business uncertainty can take its toll. 

R U OK?  A more important question than ever in 2021
Dan Pollard, Founder, Fergus

As we approach R U OK? Day this year, here are Dan’s tips and considerations for supporting your employees without compromising your own mental wellbeing.

Encourage support rather than awareness

Awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing is at an all-time high. Rather than aiming to raise awareness for a cause we already know to be important, find ways to create a more supportive workplace all year round.

Promote open communication

As a male dominated industry, trades’ environments are often blanketed with a ‘macho’ persona that discourages people from asking for what they need to stay mentally well. Instead of letting this characteristic define your workplace, promote open communication.  Implement regular one-on-one check ins and give your workers a chance to express their feelings. Host regular toolbox talks to discuss behavioural and workplace safety and communicate strong stances on things such as workplace bullying.  After all, in the age of social distancing, finding ways to connect with staff is more important than ever.

Implement wellness aspects

Implementing wellness aspects with resources, company partnerships or access to counselling services can help ease personal stresses. Creating a strong, supportive foundation for your business in this way will help your staff feel valued and result in lower turnover and less absenteeism.

Educate yourself

There’s great power in educating yourself on the signs of mental illness, how you can respond affirmatively to anyone who opens up to you and where you can direct those that may need extra help. Organisations such as ruok.org.auBeyond BlueTIACS.org and Mates in Construction provide easily digestible information on the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to lend support to others.

How employers can help

Employers have a vital role to play in helping employees navigate these difficult times. They need to ensure their employees are supported during a time when there is financial pressure on the business to survive.

Simeon Duncan, Senior Manager, International Corporate Affairs, Intuit Australia, says the past 18 months have been incredibly challenging. “Small business owners and workers have had to navigate their way through the ongoing uncertainty of lockdowns, with many experiencing cash flow issues, reduced hours or excessive hours, and temporary or permanent closure, says Simeon. “This has caused immense financial and emotional distress.” 

“R U OK Day reminds us all that it’s more important than ever to stay connected and support those around us during these difficult times.”

R U OK?  A more important question than ever in 2021
Simeon Duncan, Senior Manager, International Corporate Affairs, Intuit Australia

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows one in five Australians reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. PwC research conducted for Atlassian reveals that mental health and wellness overtook the cost of living as the most important societal issue

Here are Simeon’s tips on how small business owners and colleagues can manage their mental health during lockdown.

Separate work and personal life  

Remote working has further eroded the barriers between personal and professional life, but it’s important to put them back in place where possible. This means minimising distractions and setting clear boundaries throughout your day. Try turning off your computer at the end of the working day, keeping your phone out of reach during dinner, or blocking notifications while exercising. 

Make time for what you love 

Many small business owners and workers feel the pressure to crunch longer hours in this new world of work. In fact, more than half (54%) of small business owners spend 6-7 days on their business. and a similar percentage works seven days a week. It’s easy to get sucked in and feel like work has overtaken your whole life, so be disciplined in scheduling time to exercise, cook, meditate or phone a friend for a chat. Breaking up the day like this makes a world of difference.  

Improve processes to win back time

Small business owners and workers should use this time to review processes and consider new ways of doing things. It’s a rare opportunity to win back time. Building digital capabilities and making use of software is a great way to get on the front foot and give your business an edge over the competition. 

Lean on those around you

Don’t be afraid to ask for help during these times. Intuit  Australia’s recent Advocating for Advisor research found that one in two small business owners were able to use their accountant for emotional support during the pandemic, with a further 15 per cent saying they provided a shoulder to cry on. R U OK Day is a great opportunity to check in and be honest with each other. How are the other people in your business doing? What about your suppliers or others in your business network?

Small business owners and workers should take some comfort from increasing vaccination rates and broader discussions about reopening our economy. But let’s use R U OK Day as a good reason to check in and support those around us.

Alex Hattingh, Chief People Officer of the people-management platform, Employment Hero, says that this is a time to lead from the front. “Have your CEO and leaders speak to the importance of taking care of your mental health during lockdown,” she says. “Remove the stigma. Have your CEO do this at your company All-Hands, or through a company video. Acknowledge everyone’s circumstances are different, and this lockdown is not easy for anyone.”

“Mental health impacts people deeply,” she continues. “You have to allow your employees to feel okay telling you they are burnt out, tired, overwhelmed, or at risk of burnout.”

R U OK?  A more important question than ever in 2021
Alex Hattingh, Chief People Officer, Employment Hero

Alex recommends:

  • Have an Employee Assistance Program or provide access to free resources if you don’t have one
  • Send out a wellbeing survey to check-in on your employees. If you don’t have the budget for what they may be asking for, acknowledge that.
  • Ensure your managers are asking their employees how they are coping every week
  • If you have the budget, a care package is appreciated, or even a hand-written card
  • Up your reward and recognition program. This doesn’t have to cost you money. 
  • Make sure the human connections are still there through virtual events
  • Provide tips for coping

Graham Moody, Chief People Officer at JobAdder says that now more than ever is the time for businesses to walk the talk about how much they value and care for the people in their team. 

“Even if there is pressure to perform in the business, it’s crucial that leaders make workplaces a safe place to talk about and prioritise mental health,” he says. “Leaders have a big role to play and by demonstrating vulnerability and sharing their own mental health stories, it can help build deeper trust, connection and all-around psychological safety so that people feel OK to ask for help.

“It’s also a good idea to encourage managers and workers to regularly check-in on how people are feeling, especially while working remotely. It’s important to take that extra step to get past the default response of ‘yeah, I’m OK’. 

R U OK?  A more important question than ever in 2021
Graham Moody, Chief People Officer, JobAdder

“For this reason alone, now is not the time to ignore and carry on as normal. If your team is struggling, piling the pressure on is going to lead to burnout and turnover, adding further pressure to the business and other teammates. These are highly unusual times with isolation, homeschooling, risk of job losses and fear of the virus, so we need to recognise that people are in survival mode, not top performance mode. Even in the best of times, putting mental wellbeing as a priority is an opportunity to optimise the environment in which people can give their best on a more consistent basis.” 

Pinterest promotes positive messages

 Over the past year, Pinterest has seen a 5x increase for ‘quotes about anxiety’, while searches for ‘how to support someone with depression’ have doubled. Throughout September, Pinterest Australia is partnering with R U OK? Day and The Indigo Project to feature inspirational content on the Today Tab in Australia.

“At Pinterest, we believe in providing a positive and inspiring corner of the internet for people to feel empowered, especially when it comes to their mental health,” says Annie Ta, Product Lead for Inclusive Product at Pinterest.  

“This month, we’re excited to spotlight inspiring content from creators such as The Indigo Project throughout September who are actively aiming to encourage Pinners to look after their mental health with engaging tools designed to find avenues that will support users during a difficult time. Take for example, ‘5 ways to de-stress in 5 minutes’ or self-compassion exercises designed to improve moods.” 

As a visual medium, Pinterest has also been proactive in sending positive messages around the challenging issue of body image. “From banning weight loss ads, to our hair pattern searches and skin tone ranges, we’ve been continuously ensuring that our platform is one of inclusivity that ultimately leads to stronger mental health messaging and affirmation for our Pinners,” adds Annie.

Going yellow to raise awareness

Just Cuts encourages clients and stylists across Australia to add yellow to their hair this R U OK? Day to raise awareness and funds for the cause.

Australia’s largest hairdressing company aims to donate $5,000 to the non-profit suicide prevention organisation through sparking digital conversations across social media. 

Anyone can get involved by adding yellow to their hair on September 9 and uploading their photos using tags #justcutsRUOK and/or #justiceRUOK. Just Cuts will donate $1 toward R U OK for every tag.

“Times are tough for many right now, whether it’s our small business owners in lockdown or our clients missing our salons,” says Amber Manning, Just Cuts CEO. “However, all our Stylists were still keen to contribute to R U OK in 2021.”

“You don’t need to dye your hair, you can use beanies, ribbons, headbands, hats and berets. Have fun with your photos and start a conversation using the tags #justcutsRUOK and/or #justiceRUOK.”

To learn more about the 2021 R U OK campaign, visit.

How to ask the question

Asking about someone’s emotional state can be daunting, but R U OK? makes the following suggestions when you want to approach someone you are concerned about:

Getting ready to ask

  1. Be ready
  2. Be prepared
  3. Pick your moment

Four steps to navigate a conversation

  1. Ask
  2. Listen
  3. Encourage action
  4. Check in

In partnership with Yellow Pages, R U OK? has published a mental health handbook for small businesses. To download your, copy click here.

For more information on how to become a R U OK Workplace Champion and how to build a R U OK? culture, click here.

Read more: New mental health resources provide support to business owners

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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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