This browser does not support the video element.


Graeme Cowan is one of the creators of R U OK? I’ve gotten to know Graeme over the last few months as we’ve worked with his team to produce his podcast ‘The Caring CEO.’

I spoke to Graeme this week about how R U OK? came to be. I also asked him about one thing we can all do to make sure colleagues and employees are OK, and he shared a very simple, practical tool that we can all use.

How did the idea come about?

The founder, Gavin Larkin, lost his father to suicide about 15 years before R U OK? started. And it just had, of course, a profound effect on the family, not just at the time, but he found himself 15 years later having to explain to his son why the grandfather wasn't around. And so Gavin came up with this idea of having a day, which promotes social connection of people supporting each other. That's how it really evolved. It went from very, very humble beginnings of just four of us working on it in 2009.

Gavin tragically passed away from cancer in 2011, but it's a testament to his vision and the team that he put together, that it's just gone from strength to strength ever since.

So you were part of the original team working on it?

Yeah, I was. The first launch was in Parliament House in Canberra, I think it was September 2009, and Gavin spoke about his father dying and what they were trying to achieve. And I spoke about my suicide attempt and just my real relief that I didn't put people through that same experience.

Wow. So that's why you're so passionate about mental health?

Yeah, very much so. Very much so. Part of my recovery was writing a number of books - the 'Back from the Brink' series, and just trying to make meaning out of that very, very difficult five years I went through when I was just profoundly depressed and didn't work. That helped it make sense and still is a driving purpose in me now.

What's the main thing we can continue to do in the workplace to make sure colleagues and employees are OK?

Well, our theme this year is ‘Ask R U OK? No Qualifications Needed.’ There are still 40% of Australians that think that the best person to talk to someone struggling is a mental health professional. And while that of course is very important, it is just as valuable - in fact, I would argue more valuable - that you have a friend or a family member or a colleague to reach out, provide that support and keep you going.

So that's the big thing. Trust your gut and ask, if you are concerned about someone, talk to them. It's really important, I think to do it in a non-threatening place - like going for a walk in the park - and just make an observation about some of the changes you've seen somewhat, then ask, “R U OK? Is everything good?” And then just ask probing questions to get them to speak. If they feel understood, we have a much greater chance of influencing them to seek help.

The pandemic has affected things we just can't imagine. The World Health Organization said that around the world, depression and anxiety increased by at least 15%. In the workplace, research this year showed that one-third of executives and employees are constantly struggling with fatigue or mental health. And what was also interesting, is that the same research showed that leaders are feeling more overwhelmed, lonely, and depressed than employees.

So it's not just something for frontline, it's for everyone. And finally, Atlassian and PWC did some research that showed that mental health is the number one societal issue that employees care about. And if they see their employer doing something positive about it, it markedly increases their engagement. So it's not just a humanity thing, and doing the right thing and creating a culture of care, it's also about team capability. If someone's struggling, the whole team struggles.

With my team, what's one thing I can do to help them know that I care?

I talk about a 'moodometer' with green, amber and red zones. When we're in the green zone, we really positive, resourceful, energetic, grateful. In the red zone, we're depressed and anxious, etcetera. I think it's a good thing to be able to say "are you in the green or orange zone today?" People feel okay about nominating that because it's often very confronting to say if you're in the red zone. 

But knowing that someone's in a self-confessed amber zone really can lead to you reaching out at a later point that day, just to say "Look, let's have a chat - I just want to dig a bit further into things that might be a problem for you. I'm going to see if we can do something about it."

Credit: Graeme Cowan

So it really all comes back to asking the question, R U OK?

It does. Yeah, it does. It does.

Graeme is one of the founders of R U OK Day. He is also an author, speaker, and host of The Caring CEO podcast.

Abe Udy

Abe is the founder of Abe's Audio and started the business in 1998 from his bedroom with an old computer, fax machine, dial-up internet, and a microphone in his wardrobe. Today, he leads a team that provides audio production and voice overs to media, agency, eLearning, video & creative clients around Australia and beyond.

Similar posts you might like