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What comes next after ‘Are you ok?’: Supporting staff in difficult times

Supporting staff in difficult times

By Pip Ahern

In recent years there has been a huge focus on supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. As leaders and managers there is an increased expectation that you are able to create a safe, inclusive culture, accepting of diversity and difference and with the resources to support all of your team through whatever life throws at them – including a pandemic!

There are ‘Wellness Wednesdays’, morning teas and RU OK Day.  But are you really ready? Do you have the words? When you ask one of your team if they are ok – do you know how you will respond if they actually say that they are not ok? Will you be able to listen, hear and respond with empathy?

Or will you, with the best of intentions, minimise or dismiss their feelings – or go straight into solution mode? Will you feel compelled to share your own experiences of a similar situation? Sadly, the chances are that you won’t need to work out how to respond, as the person will probably say ‘I’m ok’ even if this simple phrase isn’t the truth.

Many leaders avoid regularly checking in with their team because they feel ill prepared for the conversation that may follow.  This is completely understandable.  For all of the focus on workplace wellbeing and supporting employees, few of us have been trained to sit with difficult emotional conversations and respond in a way that assists the person in front of us.

As a leader and manager, I am sure that you want to support your team to thrive in a workplace where all conversations are safe and supportive.  I am also sure that there are times when the very thought of these conversations terrifies you. We have all been there.

The increased focus on wellbeing in the workplace is to be applauded.  However, it needs to be supported with a toolbox for leaders and managers to access so that you feel prepared and comfortable for whatever you may hear from your team members.

Some conversations will still be difficult and confronting, but if you have your toolbox with you, it can make all the difference. It really is important to ask – “Are you ok?” and to ask often, not just once a year. Before you do though, perhaps keep the following in mind:

  1. Choose your time and place. Are you passing in the hallway on the way to grab a coffee, or are you somewhere where the person will feel safe to tell you how they are really feeling?  Suddenly calling someone into your office, shutting the door and asking, ‘Are you ok?’ may not be the best option either.  Take the time to consider the person and the situation and how you can create a safe environment for what may be a difficult conversation for both of you.
  2. Ask open ended questions such as ‘How are you today?’ or ‘I’ve noticed that you seem a little down/distracted/sad (or whatever feeling word seems right to you)..what’s been happening for you?’
  3. Practice good listening skills. Actively listen, without interruption, even if this means periods of silence. With long pauses it may appear that someone has finished, but as soon as you interrupt with a question, you can stem the flow and it becomes easy for either of you to redirect the conversation.  This is not what you want.
  4. Don’t make it about you. As tempting as it may be to offer advice about what you did in a similar situation, or to jump in with information about how you felt when something similar happened to you, this won’t help the other person.  In particular, resist using well intentioned phrases such as “I know how you feel.”  When the conversation makes you uncomfortable it is easy to fall back on the comfort of our own experiences.  If you take a few minutes to prepare yourself before you ask, ‘Are you ok?’, and remind yourself of what to do and what not to do, it will be easier to just sit and listen.
  5. Remember to practice self-care. It is vital not to neglect your own emotional needs too.  Listening to difficult emotions may or may not cause you to experience an emotional response based upon your own experiences.  If this happens it is important to acknowledge this and take steps to nurture yourself after the conversation.  Maybe this will mean finding your own person to debrief with so that you are able to communicate your own feelings.

This may seem daunting, and you are not alone in feeling this way.  Many of us have not been taught how to listen to the feeling of others, or to talk about our own feelings honestly and openly.  We often lack the vocabulary to even communicate our feelings accurately. There is a toolbox available to you that will equip you with the skills to be able to sit with your team members and guide you through difficult emotional conversations.

You won’t learn how to ‘fix’ anyone.  You will learn how to listen with empathy.  You will also learn what not to say.

If you or your team would like to be better prepared to ask, ‘Are you ok?’ we’ve got the tools to support you. We offer bespoke workshops for your leadership team, or 1:1 coaching. Get in touch with us today to find out more.