Why India Needs Mental Health Friendly Workplaces

By Nilofar Sait (Head - Strategy Execution) & Ashika Jain (Consultant Psychologist), AmbrosianNilofar has a rich experience of working across diverse roles & industries in assisting corporates in India to successfully establish & drive mental health programmes at the workplace. Ashika’s expertise in helping individuals manage a variety of emotional & clinical concerns enables her to make a positive impact on employee wellbeing in the work place.

The death by suicide of actor Robin Williams in 2014 and fashion designer Kate Spade in 2018 shocked the world, highlighting the very real consequences of mental illness. The more recent death by suicide of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) owner, V.G. Siddhartha hit Indians closer to home; it shed light on the mental healthof a very large and important segment of the population - employees and entrepreneurs.

A recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) found that nearly 43 percent of private-sector employees in India suffer from mental health issues at work. Research by World Health Organization (WHO) indicates one in every five Indian employees suffers from workplace depression, that’s almost 137 million people - larger than the population of Germany or France.

Factors of a toxic work environment - in the form of a difficult boss, regressive people practices or excessive workload and lack of support - could contribute to these statistics. Besides, work environments of developing nations like India are synonymous with longer working hours, lesser returns and lower job security. Archaic labour legislation and restrained emphasis on welfare further add to the pressure on the working class. Hectic commute in Indian metros also triggers stress which is augmented by pending work tasks and high targets. Longer hours reduce sleep and leisure time and impact physical and mental health.

Mental health issues manifest differently at the workplace. They can range from absenteeism, low engagement, inability to meet deadlines to presenteeism (working extended hours with no impact on productivity), emotional dysregulation, frequent quarrels with colleagues and even burnout. Deteriorating mental health has a domino effect on behaviour, performance, work quality, and interpersonal relationships.

To illustrate this, consider X, a high
performer, suffering from depression. He takes longer to complete tasks and delivers lower quality work. His mental health, unaddressed, may worsen over time, straining a long-standing customer relationship and therefore revenue. Fearing the stigma of being labelled as incompetent, he may not speak up. His frequent altercations with colleagues, irrational decisions or fault-finding may set-off a chain reaction in others, dampen their morale or result in attrition if he is leading a team.

Since emotions have no place in the corporate world, companies overlook the close relationship between mental health and performance. In India, preventive care is nascent and most employers take a curative approach, i.e. address the manifestation of the mental health concern rather than the cause. For example take disciplinary action when an employee has frequent anger outbursts or is continually late to work instead of addressing the stressors that the employee isunable to cope with. It is like popping pills for a recurring fever, without understanding the cause behind its regular recurrence. A curative approach propels the fear of retribution, and employees do not feel safe to speak-up. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a person who can work productively, cope with normal life stressors, contribute to the community, and realize their full potential is in a state of good mental health.

Most companies need to formalise access to psychological care for employees beyond the statutory physical examination and insurance

Flexible work timings have become popular to offset work stress and allow for family time. Community give-back opportunities under CSR also raise the happiness quotient at work. However, most companies need to formalise access to psychological care for employees beyond the statutory physical examination and insurance. Company strategy can integrate a holistic approach towards health, encourage healthy lifestyle practices around nutrition, exercise, sleep, relaxation and ‘switching off’ after work to reduce stress and improve mental health.

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) has shown to promote mental wellbeing at work through confidential counselling support for employees and their family members. As a formal arrangement or a reimbursement allowance or a buddy system, the EAP can be used as a preventive approach to improve emotional hygiene in the work place. Renowned corporates have established mental health programmes under an EAP, some have even amalgamated it in their quality assurance standards under occupational health and safety management.

Best practices offered by progressive companies include counselling hotlines, free therapy sessions and first aid training to recognise common signs of mental illness such as withdrawal from normal activities, excessive irritability or low frustration tolerance. Such initiatives can defuse concerns before they become serious, alleviate cumulative misery caused by anxiety and stress at the workplace, and promote workplace wellbeing.

Raising awareness is as crucial as supporting employees with mental health conditions through open conversations. When peers, supervisors and leaders are comfortable to notice, name, normalise a concern and offer help, a culture of acceptance can be fostered and mental health destigmatised. Employees need safe spaces where they can seek professional support for a psychological concern as comfortably as they would seek sick leave for a fractured arm.

Everyone needs to take care of their mental wellbeing to fulfil their potential, not just individuals with mental health concerns because one in every five people may have mental health problems, but all five in five have mental health.