#1 How to ask your boss, “R U OK?”

In this blog series, I take common challenging scenarios in the workplace and give you my insights on how best to handle them from over 25 years of experience in workplace mental health and wellbeing.

You may be under the impression that it is your boss’ responsibility to look out for you, and it is not your ‘role’ to look out for them. But what happens when they are not travelling well? What can you do? Is there a way that you can check in with them that is appropriate and respectful?

Research estimates that one in four individuals will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life. This means it is highly likely that not only your team members, but potentially also your boss, will at some point be going through a difficult time or will be managing a mental health concern. The question then might become, what do you do? If you notice warning signs in your boss that they are not travelling well, should you, and if so, how should you, ask if they are okay?

Considering this line of thought, the first thing I would ask you to think about is what are the warning signs that your boss is not travelling so well?

There are a number of warning signs that can be present. However, it may be even more difficult to identify in your boss as they may be more likely to try and mask them and hide them from their employees. A quick tip to keep in mind is to think about whether there are any evident changes in behaviour or moodCan you identify when these changes first occurred? And what they are? They may manifest in a range of domains of functioning. These can include a drastic change in mood or affect. Is your boss indicating a sense of hopelessness, or appearing as more aggressive or irritable than usual? Perhaps, they are arriving late or spending less and less time in the office, or maybe it’s the opposite, and they are over doing it, working longer hours and never giving themselves a break. Do they appear exhausted and poorly slept? Has there been a drastic change in weight? Do they seem to be struggling to concentrate or keep up with their regular responsibilities? Bear these in mind and consider what they may mean.

The second thing I would suggest is to reflect for a moment on how you can approach your boss. Every workplace is different and every boss-employee relationship is different. What are the dynamics? What are you comfortable with, let alone what would they be comfortable with?

If you think you are the person to directly check in with your boss as you have a good relationship with him or her, I would suggest adopting and adapting some tips from R U OK? Take some time thinking about whether you are ready to have this conversation – are you in a good headspace to listen and show concern? Are you comfortable with maybe hearing that they are not okay, while at the same time knowing that it is not your responsibility to “fix” their problems? What about where you will have the conversation – is it somewhere where you have enough time and where it is private, yet informal and comfortable?

If you are still okay to proceed with having the conversation there are a few steps you can follow. After identifying a suitable time and location for having a chat, start the conversation by asking something such as “how are you going?” Remember to be friendly in your approach, while noting explicit examples of why you may be concerned, such as them working extra long hours of late. If they don’t want to open up or respond, respect that and tell them you are here if they need. If they do decide to open up to you, remember to be patient, non-judgemental, respectful and supportive. You could then reflect that it sounds as if things have been difficult or that it seems like they have a lot on their plate and it’s understandable that they may be stressed. If it seems appropriate, you could discuss options such as them seeking support, or taking some time out for self-care. After this conversation, you could check in in a couple of weeks, indicating your care and concern and making sure they are alright.

Another thing to consider is that if you can’t go directly to your boss – which may not seem feasible in some contexts – you could seek support from HR or from another manager. You could have a confidential chat with them, discussing your concerns, and asking how they – or you – could best assist. In this way, you are indicating your concern, but are appropriately handing it over to someone who may be more suitable to intervening.

I would also suggest that you ensure that you are doing okay yourself. It can be emotional and challenging being the person on the other side of things. Keep your wellbeing in check but understanding the boundaries, not taking on too much and looking after yourself by adopting self-care activities. You could also speak to a family member, friend, or health professional (including EAP) if you are feeling overwhelmed or distressed.

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