Why Leaders Need To Make R-U-O-K- Day Bigger Than A Day.

mentally healthy employees

On R-U-O-K Day I wrote a post on LinkedIn, sharing an article, published in the Guardian, by clinical psychologist, Dr Sanah Ahsan, titled “I’m a Psychologist – and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health”.

She addresses a concern of mine, shared by many others, given how widely read my post was and the number of times it was liked and shared. She gave us cause to pause and think on R-U-O-K Day when she said that

“society’s understanding of mental health issues locates the problem
inside the person
– and ignores the politics of their distress”.

In another lifetime I had, over 20 years, a counselling and psychotherapy practice where every day I sat with people who were not OK but handled their pain very privately within the confines of the counselling room, many times ashamed that they needed to seek help. I agree that someone’s mental health issue is not solely located within the individual. There is a social context to them.

What COVID has done has brought mental health into the public arena, opened up the conversation, with governments and organisations having to address it in a way they haven’t previously. And while funding is being provided for services and well-being and support programs, there is a sense that we are missing something here.

Therapy Is Not Enough.

The key issue in Ahsan’s article is that one-on-one therapy, anti-depressants, mindfulness (and presumably R-U-O-K Days) while helpful are not enough, that they avoid addressing the issue that our mental health is profoundly affected by the fact that “we are living in a traumatising and uncertain world.”

What became clear during COVID is that many people found their mental health severely challenged by the loss of a sense of belonging and community, being cut off from colleagues, friends and family, as a result of the restrictions to their way of life that was imposed on them by endless lockdowns. They were “traumatised” by not being able to be with family members as they died, not able to attend their funerals, or on another hand, having to live 24/7 with a violent and abusive partner. Many of these people had never experienced mental health challenges in their lives before. That, in itself, was a shock for them. Many are still trying to find a way back to who they were before COVID.

Sanah Ahsan says that if we are going to seriously address mental health in our community (and she emphasises it is a community problem not an individual one) we must address the social issues that profoundly impact people’s lives. “As a clinical psychologist”, she says, “some of my most powerful work has been not in the therapy room but in successfully advocating for secure housing, or working in the community…” with disadvantaged groups.

At the same time she doesn’t want to dismiss the value of one-on-one therapy which is part of her job. She does, however, believe that therapy must be a place where oppression is examined, where the focus isn’t to simply reduce distress, but to see it as a survival response to an oppressed world.” If we are going to address the mental health issues of people we need to seriously reflect on how the oppressions of our world are impacting their mental health and seek to eliminate or at least reduce them. What we also need to do is ensure that the environments where people spend their lives – their workplaces, families, organisations to which they belong, for example, support their mental health and enhance their well-being.

Individual versus Community Mental Health Support.

In 2000, having been defeated in the Victorian State Elections after 7 years as Premier of the State, Jeff Kennett was instrumental in establishing the highly regarded mental health organisation “beyond blue” and became its first Chairman. It has played an enormously important role in having mental health recognised as being as important as physical health, and while supporting the provision of services for the individual has also promoted in more recent years the importance of mentally healthy workplaces. The history says that he moved to establish “beyond blue” following a discussion with his daughter who had lost two male friends to suicide, so motivated by the need to improve the mental health of individuals.

The Closure of Community Support Services

I’ve always been intrigued about the kind of reflection that Jeff Kennett engaged in that saw his significant commitment to its establishment in 2000. How did he aligned that commitment to mental health with the fact that when he became Premier of Victoria in 1992, he closed down many, many support services for the most challenged and disadvantaged people in the community? These were small organisations, funded at minimum levels, managed by absolutely committed people. They were providing the kind of social services and social support networks to people that protected their mental health, giving them a sense of belonging and a feeling that there was a “community” that cared about them. They were performing amazing work and getting very good results and outcomes previously not achieved.

55,000 Public Servants Sacked.

He also sacked 55,000 public servants who specifically provided support to so many – teachers, nurses, front line workers from the welfare and human service sector – and then he amalgamated local government. OK there was a budget issue, but it was done in a rather ruthless way with no provision made for leadership training and development for those left to manage the far greater workloads in their organisations. He also seized the economic rationalist philosophy that was beginning to pervade the global scene to justify his action, a philosophy that these public servants saw as an attack on their very sense of purpose in being a public servant. They were left rudderless without focus and professional direction. (In fact, in retrospect, it was the beginning of the corporatisation of the public service and the human service sector).

There is an issue here, however, that is core to this discussion. It is that there are still too many leaders who, while giving their people support to resolve their individual mental health issues, will, at the same time, lead in a way that undermines their mental health, devalues their contribution and leaves them questioning their expertise and experience.

I Know All This Because I Was In The Midst Of It.

It was a turning point for my professional work because many of those leaders ended up in my counselling rooms, feeling they needed to resign so stressed were they by their changing roles and their new workloads and not knowing how to manage the lack of support and the unrelenting expectations with fewer resources. None of these leaders and managers needed counselling, but back in 1994 if you wanted to talk individually to someone counselling was it. “Coaching” was not well known here in Australia, certainly not in the regional town in which I worked. Without really knowing the word, however, or what it entailed I “coached” them, some years later realising that’s what I did.

These were all highly competent leaders and managers who had taken the initiative to seek help, many of them meeting my fee from their personal resources. They realised they were highly stressed and unable to perform to the usual high standards they had previously held. “Stress” was the defining word back then. We never referred to what they were experiencing as a challenge to their mental health and well-being, even though it was. Very definitely back then it was a private coping problem of the individual. I, however, had a social work background and I knew that the personal was political and the social was structural.

Creating An Empowering And Psychologically Safe Space To Improve
Mental Health and Well-Being.

I created an empowering space where they were psychologically safe to explore what had just happened to them. It was important to give them the opportunity to talk about what they were feeling, to express their frustration, disillusionment, vent their anger and sense of overwhelm and failure to cope. They also needed to re-discover purpose and meaning within an economic rationalist environment.

The turning point for most, however, came when I gave context to what was happening, taking it out of the personal and individual and placing it in the structural and the societal, an approach I still use today.

  • Instead of pathologizing what they were feeling and experiencing, we normalised it as a natural response to a very challenging situation. That was the first step in empowering them to think differently.


  • We reframed what they were experiencing as a leadership challenge, rather than a coping failure. More empowerment.


  • We examined the changing work environment and the leadership of those who had made these changes because there was a sense that this was the future.


  • Most importantly, however, we “recovered” and restored their previous leadership skills, the ones they believed they had lost in the turmoil of change, and revamped them for this new environment.

Most of these leaders and managers committed and engaged fully, having no more than 4 sessions with me. They left feeling empowered to return to and lead the workplaces with which, merely a few weeks previously, they had been unable to sustain engagement.

“People Empowered” Was Born.

Eight years later my work with leaders and managers overtook my counselling and psychotherapy work and I chose to close that practice and establish a new consultancy working with leaders and managers. It was to those leaders and managers right back at the beginning that I looked for advice on what shape that consultancy should take and People Empowered was born.

Correcting The Disconnect
– The Challenge R-U-O-K Presents to Leaders and Managers.

Not only, as Sanah Ahsan says, is people’s mental health negatively impacted by living in a “traumatising and uncertain world”, it is also being impacted by working in organisations where leaders treat their people as mere “human resources”. They then manage them in similar ways to the ways they manage other resources, seeing them as a cost rather than an investment, constantly trying to reduce the cost rather than enhance the investment.

There is a profound disconnect when leaders strongly promote R-U-O-K Day, encouraging staff to look after one another’s mental health and well-being but then adopt a leadership style that threatens and damages the mental health and well-being of those same staff.

When the culture of the organisation, “the way we do things around here”, is not recognised as a contributing factor to employees’ mental health and well-being, there is a disconnect.

When the policies, procedures and operations of the organisation do not take into account the importance of protecting and enhancing employees’ mental health and well-being, there is yet another disconnect.

Is it any wonder that the “great resignation” is now a reality?

I have, over the years, assisted many clients to improve their mental health by empowering them to leave their unhealthy organisation and move to one where they can thrive.

It is, however, surprising that so many leaders wonder why they can’t get staff but seem to have no awareness in many cases that people are now prioritising their mental health and will not work with organisations that don’t reflect that priority.

Leave a Comment