The last two years have seen a significant shift in the perception and belief about mental health and mental well-being in the Indian workforce. From deploying employee assistance programs (EAPs) to conducting stress management seminars, Indian workplaces have become slightly more aware of how mental health is crucial to the company’s bottom line and employee retention.
Inclusivity has become the new buzzword, going hand-in-hand with mental health awareness and work culture enhancement programs. And while workplaces are inclusive of those with physical disabilities, genders, races and religions, the larger question is whether or not workplaces are inclusive of those with mental health issues. We speak to industrial psychologists and therapists about the attitude of Indian workplaces towards those with mental health issues and what steps management can take to bring in inclusivity.
The current scenario
Throwing light on the current scenario of Indian workplaces and their stand on mental health, Asif Upadhye, Director, Never Grow Up, a work culture consultancy firm, comments, “Ten years ago, mental health at work was a topic that was often shoved under the corporate carpet, let alone acknowledged in the first place. Conversations around anxiety, stress and depression, for example, were avoided simply because of the stigma attached to them. The idea of seeking support in the form of therapy was still far off. Today, however, the scenario has changed and for the better!” He reveals that LiveLoveLaugh’s (LLL) mental health study (How India Perceives Mental Health – 2021) reported that a heartwarming 92% of people are both open to seeking therapy and are willing to support someone else looking for mental health treatment. “With 65% of people believing that individuals with a mental health condition can lead wholesome lives and excel at their jobs, I would say that Indian workplaces have come a long way from where they used to be,” he asserts.
His view is supported by Samriti Makkar Midha, co-founder and partner POSH at Work and a clinical psychologist who also believes that Indian workplaces have come a long way when it comes to conversations around mental health over the last 2 years. “The pandemic has spotlighted the importance of mental well-being and how there needs to be a discourse around it at workplaces, not only for employees but also because it impacts productivity and, in turn businesses,” she says. However, she observes that mental health policies are designed with the right intention, but the systems haven’t evolved as yet for implementation or giving the tools to peers and leaders to manage their unconscious biases. “Consequently, we don’t see employees availing these benefits as much for the fear of judgement or professional repercussions,” she remarks.
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Sanika Tillway, a burnout management coach & founder, Forests of Freedom, elaborates on the gap in understanding of mental health at workplaces.“Organisations have run webinars on meditation, taking breaks, incorporating mindfulness, work-life balance and more, but these appear to be prescriptive in nature and do not engage employees in any way. On several occasions, employees turn off their cameras and continue to work, defeating the purpose of the webinar itself.”
Envisioning mental health inclusivity
Midha recalls an episode that one of her clients shared, “My client had confided in their manager about their heightened distress levels stemming from situations back at home. They were aware of its impact on health and drop in productivity levels. They had a candid chat with their manager and shared that they are working with a mental health professional to work on building their skills to manage the situation and the stress they have been experiencing,” Unfortunately, Midha says, the information shared by her client, influenced the manager’s decision when a growth opportunity arose, and another person was chosen even though her client was the one with the required skill set. “The manager did operate from a place of concern where they felt newer responsibilities could add to the stress levels. The opportunity entailed a change of location, which would have been very helpful for the client given how the situation was at home, but they were not invited in the decision-making process,” she remarks.
Midha, therefore, believes that the journey of mental health inclusivity is a long one for Indian workplaces. She strongly affirms, “We can talk about the inclusivity of those with mental health concerns only if we are able to create a safe space for people to be vulnerable and share their mental health concerns as an experience and not as a judgement on their ability or inability to handle situations that make them view themselves as a ‘failure’. From my experience, I have seen that some organisations and people leaders have embarked on this journey, and there are others who are in a state of preparation.”
Tillway states that the fundamental understanding of mental health needs to change in workplaces. She explains, “One, leadership in every organisation that seeks to make a difference when it comes to employee well-being needs to sensitise and educate itself on the subject of mental health. Second, mental health is not one-size-fits-all; both conversation and action on mental health need to be nuanced and intersectional. This means understanding that every individual will come with their own unique life experiences, accompanying challenges and/or pre-existing mental health conditions. Organisations, therefore, need to formulate policies that factor this in and prepare to accommodate concerns that they may not have experience in addressing.”
Upadhye is of the opinion that driving inclusion top-down opens the door for employees to talk about their own experiences too. “Modelling healthy behaviours such as setting clear boundaries when it comes to working hours or making time for self-care even in the middle of a busy day will contribute to normalising the conversation about mental health issues and the social stigma associated with it,” he says. He adds that before developing a program to support people with mental health issues at the workplace, employers need to understand how mental health impacts their employees in the first place. “Organisations automatically perform better when their employees are happy and productive. And therefore, creating a culture that acknowledges and supports mental health is a step in the right direction. The benefits of championing inclusivity of those with mental health issues or pre-existing conditions are plenty,” he shares.
The benefits of inclusivity
Upadhye, who works with multiple organisations, has observed that businesses and workplaces that prioritise mental health and take concrete steps to create a supportive environment always fare better than their competitors. He reveals that there is tremendous evidence that shows the connection between strong mental health policies and reduced employee turnover. “From a culture perspective, workplaces that acknowledge and support employees with mental health concerns tend to also perform well on job satisfaction and employee engagement surveys,” he shares.
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Zahabiya Bambora, Psychologist & EAP Coordination Manager, Hopequre.com, reflects that if all organisations were to roll out EAPs in the coming future, there would be a significant change in people’s perception of mental health issues and that it is normal to have them and fight them. “The by-product of implementing such well-being programs is that it enforces a reciprocal behaviour. It allows employees to give back to the organisation with their increased productivity and loyalty in return for providing help in times of their need,” she says. “A positive mental health workplace can boost productivity, increase motivation, reduce and handle workplace conflicts, better work results, enhanced employee confidence and agility,” she adds. Bambora furthers, “Management and leaders need to learn how their work culture looks, not just from the outside, but more from the inside. They will need to be open to constructive feedback about the work culture faced by executive-level employees. They have to first be open to give chances and opportunities to people who are currently suffering from mental health issues if the employees are available for it.”
Three steps towards making your workplace more mental health inclusive
Samriti Makkar Midha, Co-founder & Partner - POSH at Work and a Clinical Psychologist, shares three important steps organisations can take toward mental health inclusivity:
Using inclusive and person-centred language
It would be helpful to hold onto the idea that a person living with a mental illness is a person first and is not defined by their illness. it could help us to neither allow the illness to define the person nor allow decisions to be influenced regarding their capabilities and competencies. The use of externalized language can further separate the person from the mental health concerns or illness, which can further diminish the stereotypes, prejudices and covert forms of discrimination and microaggressions that bring in an experience of exclusion and marginalization for people experiencing mental health concerns, and build a culture of acceptance and sensitivity to differences. Example: A person suffering from depression and not a depressed person; a person suffering from schizophrenia and not a schizophrenic person.
Deconstruct long-held ideas around mental health
It would be pertinent to do this, especially with leaders and decision-makers, to be aware of the unconscious biases at play by having conversations with people who have lived with mental illness and are functioning well with appropriate support and interventions. Inviting people into decision-making that impacts them could help counteract bias.
Take constant feedback
Any initiative on inclusion is successful if we have buy-in from leaders and is an initiative that is taken across the levels of the organisation because it's feasible and sustainable, such that it becomes part of the organisational culture. Thus, seeking constant feedback on the implementation of the initiative from those who are impacted by it would be the key.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist