Mental Health and the Workplace: Time for Indian companies to take employees' well-being seriously

Editor's note: When President Ram Nath Kovind delivered the 22nd convocation address at NIMHANS in December 2017, he pointed out that the number of people in India suffering from mental health issues "was greater than the population of Japan". He warned that India could soon be facing a mental health epidemic — one it doesn't have the resources to adequately address. Previously, a 2015 ASSOCHAM study indicated that 42.5 percent of employees in the private sector suffer from depression or general anxiety disorder.

The stresses of the modern workplace can both cause or exacerbate mental health illnesses among employees. But just how well-equipped are modern workplaces to deal with these very side-effects they seem to be creating or exacerbating in their employees? In the second of this two-part series, we look at the specific measures taken by organisations to ensure better mental health care for their employees.

Read part one of the series — in which young professionals discuss whether or not their workplaces offered them support and understanding for their mental health issues — here.

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A WHO report from 2017 states that India is home to an estimated 57 million people affected by depression — 18 percent of the total number of people worldwide who suffer from the condition.

One might conjecture that a significant portion of those 57 million people are part of the Indian workforce.

A 2016 survey of 200,000 professionals employed across 30 Indian firms found that 46 percent reported suffering extreme stress as a consequence of their work. Pressure related to their jobs had caused at-risk individuals to contemplate suicide. A recent ASSOCHAM study conducted on a smaller scale found that professionals reported experiencing workplace fatigue, sleeping disorders and a generally feeling like they had 'poor health'.

With numbers like these, one might also conjecture that Indian workplaces are taking strong measures to ensure the mental well-being of their employees.

Think again.

In the first of this two-part series on 'Mental Health and the Workplace', young Indian professionals told Firstpost that aid and understanding from employers about their mental health issues was rare. Supervisors were either unaware of how to respond, or outright insensitive; companies did not for the most part have well-articulated policies regarding employees' mental health (indeed, this information was rarely sought at the time of hiring, even though physical ailments were to be disclosed). Many-a-times, the work environment, pressure or supervisors' and peers' behaviour would exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues on the part of vulnerable employees, and their attempts to seek medical help had to either be couched in euphemistic terms (being sick with "viral fever" instead of anxiety) or kept hidden.

To find out the other side of the story, Firstpost reached out to workplaces — HR professionals who do the actual hiring, and mental health practitioners.

The modern workplace

A Wall Street Journal report from 2016 found that Indian millennials spend more time at work than their counterparts in 25 other countries — an average of 52 hours a week. The work environment is competitive, and there is little sensitivity for those who cannot 'carry the load'.

"Many companies openly say they are 'sink or swim' — which means that if you sink, it is your problem," says Asiya Shervani, an organisational effectiveness, diversity and social inclusion professional. And while "diversity" may be a buzzy word to aspire to, it doesn't translate into hiring practices when it comes to individuals with MHIs.

"There will be very little interest from a hiring manager in recruiting candidates who reveal that they are facing (mental health) issues," Asiya says. "People often cite reasons such as 'seems unstable', 'seems mentally unfit', or 'will be unable to handle stress' when they reject a candidate while having no proof or official record about their mental health. Imagine what would happen if such recruiters know that a candidate has an MHI for sure!"

A 2016 survey of 200,000 professionals employed across 30 Indian firms found that 46 percent reported suffering extreme stress as a consequence of their work. Image for representation only. Photo courtesy Reuters

A 2016 survey of 200,000 Indian professionals found that 46 percent reported suffering extreme stress as a consequence of their work. Image for representation only. Photo courtesy Reuters

Mental health and the workplace

Indian employers are not very different from the rest of society in how they perceive mental health. If they are unaware of/unwilling to respond to their employees' mental health issues in a positive manner, then they're mirroring Indian attitudes in general. In a column for Firstpost titled 'Our silent relationship with mental health — Stigma is still strong in India', Mumbai-based counsellor Divya Srivastava wrote:

"Can one say with certainty that stigma surrounding mental health has reduced? Perhaps, yes; but to a very minuscule extent. True, people are not shunning topics related to mental health; conversations are now taking place more in the open. But it is an issue that is still trivialised."

Srivastava touched on the lack of mental health practitioners in India (one psychiatrist for every four lakh people), the pervasiveness of mental health issues (50 million people suffering from some form of MHI), the high rate of suicide (11 people in every lakh, every year). Srivastava further noted that while a term like 'depression' was used loosely by most people, there was little understanding about other mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder.

In this context, not only do employers not understand the full range of mental health issues or what they entail, but also, the idea that someone with an MHI can be productive and good at their job is almost entirely absent from the conversation.

"I think there are very few companies who even acknowledge mental health issues at all," says Mumbai-based psychologist Sonali Gupta.

To reveal, or not to reveal?

If you suffer from an MHI, should you inform your current/prospective employers? And should your employer seek out that information about you?

That's one of the questions at the heart of the mental health-at-the-workplace discussion.

Jasdeep Mago, a Mumbai-based clinical neuropsychologist, recommends that companies should ask their employees to reveal these details if the latter is/are comfortable doing so, especially because so many physical ailments stem from mental health. However, she warns that employers should seek this information only to know of and preempt risks, not to discriminate.

Sonali Gupta views this aspect gravely too. "My worry is that such a practice will lead to probing. It is important to know the intent behind it. If a company doesn't have its own counsellors but is respectful of an individual's decision to visit a counsellor or psychiatrist, then asking such a question is effective. But if it results in particular employees being labelled and refrained from taking up demanding roles, or if it will impact the way they are perceived, then it is harmful," she warns.

If workplaces are serious about promoting employees' mental well-being, however, then knowing about MHIs can help them design a more hospitable work environment, adjust task-related pressure, and generally address factors that put vulnerable employees at risk.

Shivangi Sripat, senior manager of HR and recruitment at Mazkara Internet, says that knowing about employees' MHIs can help make bosses more empathetic. "It helps employers to better prepare for situations that may arise; to understand the thought process and reactions of employees and not take decisions based on their reactions," she says. Bhagirathy, head of operations at the Book Lovers' Program for Schools, concurs, "Travel is part of the job profiles at my company, so knowing about employees' health issues helps the rest of the team to be better prepared, in case any of us is having a tough time."

Creative and compassionate solutions

While many workplaces do not have a formal policy about dealing with employees' mental health issues, some do come up with creative and compassionate solutions.

Bhagirathy's company maintains a record of the psychiatrists/counsellors its employees visit, and they are also trained in administering calming exercises if one of their colleagues is having an attack. Asiya says that at her company, managers in their own capacity do exercise sympathy towards those individuals who are having a tough time. "We make accommodations for those team members who feel stressed out by certain situations. For example, one employee would get nervous and sick before presentations, so I would make the presentation on her behalf but ensure that she got visibility and could share her insights while being seated with the audience, rather than being on stage," she explains.

Sonali narrates the story of one of her clients, whose initial counselling sessions were paid for by her boss: "My client's boss realised she needed therapy and that she wasn't in a position to pay for it. Some of my other clients have told their employers that they will need to go for counselling sessions twice a month, and the employers don't object."

Shivangi Sripat says a lot of emphasis is laid on listening to those employees who have MHIs, at her firm. "We hear them out, give them clarity in case they are stressed. We give them solutions and even accompany them to meetings if they are worried about reaching targets," she says, of the approach Mazkara Internet has adopted.

What needs to be done

Workplaces may be taking steps at an individual level, but there need to be more comprehensive guidelines. Asiya emphasises the need for the Indian government to put a framework and suitable legislation in place, that gives legal and systemic recognition to MHIs. Shivangi, on the other hand, stresses the importance of training team leaders and HR managers in recognising different kinds of MHIs and how to handle them.

Beyond such training and awareness, Sonali says that it is imperative for companies to have in-house therapists — a requirement that most do not fulfill. "It is helpful to have therapists in house or on call, because even if the company is not paying for these services, the employees can still seek help. At least they have a resource list of people they can go to," she says.

The issue is a bit more complex when it comes to those who have blue-collar jobs. White-collar employees, because of their level of education and the positions they hold, are more likely to be vocal about MHIs, and possess the vocabulary necessary to express that their mental health is at risk. Sonali says that the solution to this is that companies should actively build a narrative about mental health at the workplace. "They should organise sessions and workshops by therapists which deal with emotional self care. I have seen that people benefit immensely by attending such workshops because they realise that mental health can be spoken about, and that they are not the only people who may be facing these issues," she explains.

"There should be annual surveys taken to ask what is bothering employees and what should be changed," suggests Jasdeep Mago.

Other suggestions? Regular 'stress buster' sessions at work, employee engagement activities, a good work-life balance policy, and 'alpha teams' that can take care of the blue and white collar employees under them, so that each person has someone to approach in times of difficulty.

The way ahead

Asiya says that the key to becoming more sensitive is to acknowledge that everyone is susceptible to MHIs. "We are all looking for ideal employees who are mentally, physically and in every other way, fit and productive," she points out. "We don't acknowledge that this is an impossible goal; that it is our emotions and our vulnerabilities which make us more complete, more creative and more desirable."

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If you need help dealing with a mental health issue, call: 

iCall (Mumbai) - +91-22-25521111

Sahai (Bengaluru) - +91-80-25497777

St Stephen's Hospital and Emmanuel Hospital Association (New Delhi) - +18-60-2662345

Lifeline Foundation (Kolkata) - +91-33-24637401


Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 13:11 PM

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