Why asking if someone is okay doesn’t count as employee wellbeing

7 October 2022 | 5 min read | Careers
Meg Palmer

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We are living in strange times.

The positivity and buoyancy felt as we emerged from the pandemic has been dampened by the unceasing news cycle of the war in Ukraine, an incoming recession, the rising cost of living and then on top of it all, the loss of our longest-serving monarch.

Regardless of whether you are royalist or not, the above have collectively added to a sense of the floor shifting under everyone’s feet. Each element might be very manageable individually but the building feeling of uncertainty for the future is not so easily quelled.

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Unease is not helpful for our mental wellbeing or for our ability to navigate the usual ups and downs of daily life. Even during normal times, situations that on most days you can easily take in your stride, such as constructive criticism from a colleague or your washing machine breaking, can tip the scales towards feeling out of control.

Unsurprisingly, whatever you are feeling will seep into your work life.

And even with the increasing awareness around the importance of workplace wellbeing and the value of a work-life-balance, it can be difficult to shake the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mantra for several reasons.

For one, if everyone else seems to be coping well under difficult circumstances, you don’t want to feel that you are the only one bringing down the morale of the team or ‘moaning’, although they likely wouldn’t see it that way and may, in fact, be feeling the same.

Or perhaps you don’t want to show that you are struggling because you don’t want someone to ask you about it. Many of us, me included, would much prefer to stick our heads in the sand and deny anything is wrong so that we don’t have to face it.

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Whatever your reason for keeping a calm façade, the point is that it you may not be explicitly communicating that you are struggling. Employers and managers should keep this in mind and avoid merely asking if a team member is okay, and if they answer ‘yes’ washing their hands of the matter, safe in the argument of: “well, I asked if they were okay!”.

This has never been an accurate gauge of how someone is feeling, even outside of work. Think about the number of times that you have said that you are fine when you aren’t.

As a manager or colleague, you are spinning many plates, and nobody is expecting you to add ‘mind-reader’ to your list of responsibilities. There are only so many hours in a day, and you can’t fill it with constantly trying to decipher how someone else is feeling. But behavioural signals can tell you a lot, without you even needing to search for them.

Warning signs that a person may be struggling might present themselves as changes in body language, such as putting your head in your hands, slumping, not making eye contact or simply looking upset; changes in attitude, for instance being irritable or withdrawn or, most noticeably, working habits like staying late or working through lunch.

Of course, you cannot possibly pick up on every signal a person is giving out and everyone reacts differently to stress. But much of it isn’t rocket science, it’s common sense.

Think about it the same way you do with a friend or family member.

You can tell when your partner or friend is down or feeling out-of-sorts without them having to tell you, right?

Okay, so maybe you know their personal stress-induced habits which make it obvious – reaching for the ice-cream is a tell-tale sign, in my experience – but most importantly you know how they usually act, so when they aren’t behaving in that way, the contrast is obvious.

While you may not know every team member well, the ones which you manage, communicate with frequently or sit next to, are a big part of your everyday life. You don’t spend hours and hours with someone without picking up on some of their mannerisms, habits or personality.

It’s breaks in the norm that you are looking for – perhaps someone who is usually chatty is uncharacteristically quiet, or a colleague who is patient is suddenly being short and snappy or being more self-critical than usual.

Humans are empathetic beings – often sensing if something feels ‘off’.

We can easily harness these abilities in the workplace, simply by paying closer attention. I’m by no means suggesting watching a colleague’s every move, but don’t assume that they are fine just because they said so.

Naturally, there’s no need to second guess everything either – your team member may in fact be absolutely fine. But if there are warning signs pointing the other way – don’t ignore them.

Even if your team members don’t want or need support, they’ll be reassured to know that you care enough to dig a little deeper.