Leadership Insight #9 / 2023: In asking ‘R U OK?’ Are you a colleague that people can talk to?

13 September 2023

Asking the question ‘R U OK?’ is a part of our leadership work. It is one of the ways that we enact our duty of care for our colleagues and build a healthy and sustainable workforce. In building our skills in this area, one important question we need to ask ourselves is ‘am I someone that my colleagues will trust and feel safe with to tell me when things are not OK?’

The message of R U OK? Day is a powerful one -  “to inspire and empower people to meaningfully connect with those in their world and lend support when they are struggling with life.”  The R U OK organisation extends this further by working to build the skills of the help-giver, to reach out and have meaningful conversations with others in their life – with family, friends, and colleagues.

It can be hard to find the time and space in a busy week to check-in with someone who looks like they might need it. But when we do check-in, how can we help ensure that people feel comfortable to talk to us? We can learn to ask the question R U OK? But will our colleagues respond honestly to this question?

The R U OK? Conversation is one that requires trust and care. These things grow over time – across multiple, intentional check-ins and conversations at work.

How can we show our colleagues that we care and can be trusted?

Here are a few pointers for ways that you can show that you care and that you can be trusted:

  1. Get to know a bit about your team / colleagues. It sounds simple, but it makes an enormous difference when you can get to know someone a bit more personally, than just their role and duties at work. Start with their name – make sure you know each person’s name, how to pronounce it, and then something about them – such as their interests, or something about their life and family outside work. it may be a hobby, a sport, what they like to read, watch, or listen to, or something about their family. The point is not to pry, but to have a way of connecting as people, as well as around the work.
  2. Let your colleagues know a bit about you. Just as it is important to get to know a bit about your colleagues – outside their role and work – it is also important to share a little bit of yourself. It does not need to be deeply personal. It can just be something that shares a bit about who you are – your likes, interests, hobbies, family – when you are not at work. it could be a TV show that you have loved, a book or article you have enjoyed or what you did on the weekend.
  3. Notice when something is not usual. When we have paid attention and got to know each other a bit, it is easier to notice when someone is not themselves – to notice that they are a bit ‘off’ or ‘different’ to usual in some way. This is often evidence that it is time to check in with them and ask, ‘R U OK?’
  4. Ask questions gently and ask again if needed. Of course, when you have noticed something may be up, you need to go gently. That is, if you do not think the true answer is ‘I am fine thanks. All good,’ then do not ask in a way that makes a quick positive response the only option. Ask gently, and follow up with a next question – e.g., ‘if you do want to chat later, do not hesitate to come, and find me. I am here all day / for the next hour / in tomorrow.’  
  5. Always make sure to listen. If someone does answer that all is not OK, stay comfortable with just listening. As a colleague it is not your role to step into a professional support role – you do not have to be a counsellor or friend. The first step is not to offer advice, give your own story or make a judgment, but simply to listen. Show that you have heard them and show empathy: ‘I am sorry to hear that. That sounds hard’ or ‘I am sorry to hear that is happening. That must be difficult.’

    A gentle follow up could be something like I am here if you want to say a bit more,’ or ‘would you like to meet up a bit later – it is busy around here now. We could talk somewhere quieter.’
  6. Respect confidentiality and privacy. To demonstrate that you can be trusted with sensitive matters and conversations is to always respect confidentiality and privacy. Be someone who does not share other people stories and does not gossip. Talk about work and issues and your own experience – not other people or theirs.
  7. Ensure that you also answer truthfully when you are not OK. It is important to role model the professional behaviour you ask of others. The point of asking ‘R U OK?’ is the acknowledgment that while most of the time we are ‘OK,’ there are times when we are not. We all have bad days, bad moods, sad and even tragic things happen to us and our loved ones. And while work is not always the place to share a lot, it is OK to say that you are not OK.

How do we do this professionally? Admit that we are not OK?

It is important to hone our skills in how to communicate a bit about our lives, while staying professional. This is about sharing, but not oversharing. It is also about making sure that when we do need support, we can reach out in the right time and in the right places. Our colleagues are not there to be best friends or therapists – but as professional colleagues it can be important for them to understand how you are going.

In her article Be a Colleague That Others Can Confide In, Deborah Grayson Riegel has some useful phrases for how to share that you are not fine, without oversharing:

“I must admit, I’m not having the best day,” or

“I wish I could say I’m good, but I have a lot on my mind,”

It is OK to say these things. We want a healthy and sustainable workforce. A team of people who, together, can weather the storms along the way. It is certainly more helpful to acknowledge this part of work life than pretend it is not happening.

By Dr Anna Clark (PhD)
Leadership coach and educator at AMAV

AMA Victoria’s Leadership and Career coaching sessions can support you to prepare for performance reviews. Whether the support is in strengthening leadership skills to engage in and run performance reviews effectively, or career coaching to support career planning or working on your CV or interview skills, there are several tailored offerings available.


AMA Victoria Preferred Suppliers