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Do workplace mental health programmes go beyond lip service?

Despite mental health policies and in-house therapists, why are employees still facing mental health issues? Because often, a toxic work culture can’t be changed with a few counselling sessions

Holistic employee mental health is integral to creating a thriving workplace

Dinesh Sahni had been working at a well-known Mumbai-based digital media company for over a year when the problems started. Workplace politics, a demanding and over-competitive work culture, which included long working hours and working during weekends, started to affect Sahni negatively. He could see his growth being stunted as his manager started to demean him and showed a distinct lack of empathy for his problems. Feeling overwhelmed, he signed up for the mental health and counselling services offered by his company. After a few weeks of being in the programme, however, he did not think it was helping him much.

Today, looking back at his experience, Sahni says: “A lot of companies are subscribing to mental health service providers and facilitating free counselling for employees. But I think a lot of it is just lip service as it takes a lot more to change the very fabric, the very essence of how an organization operates.”

“Organizations need to do a deeper examination and see what kind of people are being hired and whether or not they are empathetic and kind. Is the leadership team empathetic? If there are toxic people at the top level who are being backed and supported by the management, then mental health policies and programs will continue to be ineffective,” he adds.

Holistic employee mental health is integral to creating a thriving workplace. Everything from productivity, decision-making and engagement, to the overall work culture of an organization rests on the well-being of the employees. Employee happiness, though, depends on a number of well-being facilities. One cannot address well-being concerns in an organization by merely accessing counselling support or conducting the occasional mental health webinar. It’s crucial when thinking of employee well-being to take into account the virtues that help organizations flourish by creating the optimum work environment. Simply put, when companies put their people’s mental health first, it has a direct impact on the bottom-line as well. Something to note especially in the current context, is also how well-being services help build resilience over time. And in a crisis, this is one of the most valuable attributes for individuals and companies alike.

Chaotic work cultures

Jahnavi Nayak was working with an F&B corporate in Mumbai as a marketing professional. In a workplace with a so-called ‘open-door-policy’ she was unable to share any constructive feedback with her manager. In fact, her reporting manager would tend to be rude and condescending in every conversation and exchange they had to a point where Jahnavi would be terrified to call her or ask for help with work, when required. “I was either told to figure out things on my own or yelled at for petty mistakes. I would be yelled at even if I misplaced a comma in my copy,” says Nayak.

Nayak started having panic attacks and her mind was clouded with self-doubt. “I wasn’t able to perform well and I started making more mistakes under pressure,” she says. Attempts to resolve the issue with HR failed as her manager had already complained about Nayak. Escalating the issue didn’t help either as the senior management didn’t take the problem very seriously. Eventually, Nayak quit the job and sought help externally, by approaching a therapist. Would she have opted for counselling if the workplace offered it? “Yes,” says Nayak, “but wouldn’t it have been better if the manager was let go of? I doubt counselling would have worked for her either, if she wasn’t willing to change from within. In the end, a toxic work culture can’t be changed with just a few counselling sessions.”

Asif Upadhye, director of Never Grow Up, a work culture consultancy, sheds light on what can be done in such a case: “Build a platform where employees can speak up and voice their opinions, making them a part of the decision-making process. This will help organizations craft long-term well-being programmes that reflect the pulse of the company and that address wellbeing needs even in an industry-specific or role-specific manner. Sensitization programs, mental health workshops, and internal communications are solid ways to at least start a dialogue around well-being at work”.

The importance of empathy

While a ‘great place to work’ certificate is hung on the walls of multiple offices, it begs the question of whether it is also a ‘safe space to work’ in terms of employees feeling comfortable enough to be themselves and function at their own pace. “In my experience, workplaces have HR design activities for the employees so they can maintain 'well-being' like yoga, zumba, team games, etc. Some workplaces don't recognize it beyond the extent of 'we are a safe space, please do come and talk to us when you need to'. I think what a lot of organizations fail to understand is that merely saying the words safe space without doing what it takes to create and maintain a safe space is of absolutely no use,” says Lalitha Jayaram, a sales manager with an IT company in Bengaluru.

Jayaram has been suffering from anxiety for quite some time and in her career spanning seven years, only in one job was she “lucky enough” to have an empathetic boss. “A safe space at work for me would mean that I can be open with my team members about my mental health condition, I can tell my immediate boss actual details of it so she understands when I say I'm having a panic attack or a bad day or can't get out of my bed on some days,” she says.

A safe space could also mean there is a counsellor available who will maintain the confidentiality of any and all sessions. Such a space builds when everyone talks about their conditions openly. The leadership could share their experiences and show their employees why and how they truly understand the importance of mental health. It would mean empathy and actual sensitivity to how a person’s condition can also affect their productivity. But arriving at this level of understanding requires training employees in workplace sensitivity and this includes everyone—from admin staff to the leadership team. She adds, “It also requires that the employees understand why it is important—if they see no point in it, they’re just going to limit their empathy to leaving people with any condition ‘alone for a while’ when they have bad days.”

Getting the basics right

While a lot of issues might seem deep-seated and difficult to eliminate without peeling at every layer, there are a few organizations who have been taking the efforts to create awareness and deploy policies for mental health at their respective workplaces and have been seeing positive feedback coming in from employees.

A 24*7 Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that offers confidential counselling to employees and their families as per their requirement and convenience is something that L’Oréal India has deployed at their workplace. They have also tied up with Wysa, an app based mental health service that uses an AI coach to address anxiety, stress or other mental health issues. Roshni Wadhwa, director of Human Resources at L’Oréal India, says, “In our efforts to create a psychologically safe workplace, we encourage leaders to be empathetic towards teams and individuals expressing concerns/issues and manage difficult situations sensitively. We have, culturally too, built in mechanisms that help in alleviating any work related stress or anxiety through various forums, allowing for an open expression of issues and concerns and placing high importance on listening.”

While EAPs traditionally have assisted workers with issues like alcohol or substance abuse, most now cover mental health as well. However, it should not be that an employee can avail an EAP only when they are going through a clinical disorder.

Kanika Agarwal, founder of MindPeers, a mental health gym, shares her idea of an effective EAP, “It needs to be a proactive, preventive approach where details of the EAP are shared with all employees and there are EAPs designed for specific situations like everyday work stress, so that the situation can be corrected before it becomes critical.” She also recommends a digitally integrated EAP that can be easily accessed by everyone.

Invest, don't spend

Lastly and most importantly, organizations need to invest in the mental health of their employees and make them their number one priority. “Wellbeing at work has a direct impact on every single part of the employee life cycle and corporate India is on the brink of a mental health epidemic. While a handful of organizations are on their way to making mental health programs an indispensable part of the workplace, a larger chunk of organizations are only just getting comfortable with the idea of deploying wellbeing policies,” says Upadhye.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based writer, psychotherapist and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) counsellor

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