September 2015

Asking RU OK could make all the difference

Are you okay? I remember the first time a colleague asked me that question, about five years ago on RU OK day. I replied with a breezy, “Yes thanks, I’m fine” – but it was a lie, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

Are you okay?

I remember the first time a colleague asked me that question, about five years ago on RU OK day. I replied with a breezy, “Yes thanks, I’m fine” – but it was a lie. I had been feeling quite strained with a particularly stressful time at work, family issues and the pressure of finishing a thesis – and I suspect these tensions showed on my face and in my body language.

My colleague then asked me again, which let me know they were asking earnestly. I was incredibly touched, and felt that I owed them at least some openness – so I confessed that I felt brittle and edgy. In their taking time to listen and respond, brief as it was, I came to realise I was not alone in some of my feelings; our team was sharing a lot of stress. The subsequent solidarity of my colleagues helped prevent any further sense of feeling overwhelmed and isolated at that time.

Even if an individual is near breaking point, a sense of belonging may be critical to their feeling able to continue. Many of us are not always so lucky as I was at that time. Many may experience or perceive a lack of care from those we see regularly. This can lead to withdrawal, separation and even exclusion, which can compound a sense of neglect and disconnection. In turn, it can become a horrid spiral: when someone is withdrawn, others may feel less comfortable to ask them to join in with something, which can be interpreted as rejection – and the spiral repeats and intensifies.

Asking if someone is okay is a way to alter the course of the spiral. Even so, asking the question is not necessarily straightforward for some.

One barrier may be that the ‘asker’ may feel uncomfortable asking what can be, for some, a personal question. It may be a bit awkward, especially if this kind of question has not been asked before. But to paraphrase a former Prime Minister, life situations are not always easy. Connection with others is the substance of life – and what an opportunity to build a bridge to another person.

A further obstacle may be that the ‘asker’ might not feel equipped to deal with someone’s response when they ask, “Are you okay?” This kind of fear is natural, but it need not be a reason to avoid engaging with someone else. The person might not want to share with you anyway, particularly if it’s asked in a work setting, or if you are not close.

Depending on the issues at hand, they may be helped by some counselling. Sometimes the reason people might not be themselves is not simply because of things happening in the present, which may appear unremarkable, but because of things that happened years ago that have resurfaced in their life. Pointing someone in the direction of a person who can help may go a long way.

Over the years, RU OK day has grown and is now recognised by many in the community. This year, RU OK day (September 10) was bigger than ever, with events in workplaces and communities throughout the country. Staff at my own workplace organised a lunchtime barbecue when the RU OK bus came to town, and the RU OK team presented stories of their bus tour along with the stories of individuals who knew from personal experience the importance of asking family, friends and colleagues, “Are you okay?”

The theme of this year’s RU OK campaign is “Thanks for asking”. The campaign shares stories of people whose lives changed after being asked “Are you okay?” The campaign encourages people to thank those who have been there in a difficult time, whether to ask the question, to be available, to spend time, to listen, to encourage, to help, to support a decision, to follow up, or a combination of these actions.

As a side benefit, an attitude of gratitude has positive effects of its own. So this year, I took the time to thank my husband for his unfailing support and love in my own dark days.

In the course of my workplace RU OK event this year, I explained to a colleague how much I appreciated this year’s theme. In my view, even the simple act of asking if someone is okay helps, even if they don’t want to talk about it. For me, it is one way of feeling a sense of belonging and being cared for – so I try to do the same for others.

On RU OK day itself, a number of people in my immediate workplace wore gold or yellow for the occasion. While I didn’t hear anyone specifically ask “Are you okay?” on the day, there was no need. In a team of collegial and caring people, it’s something we ask each other as necessary, on a regular basis.

And that’s the ultimate message of RU OK day. Asking the simple question, “Are you okay?” is not something just to ask on a certain day in September, but something to ask throughout the year. We may never know the difference it may literally make to someone’s life.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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