The office I’m looking at through my camera is saturated in a dazzling canary yellow, but the occupant who steals the show is a brown dog with melting eyes. This is seven-year-old Penny. She’s an adopted indie, who is the chief fun officer of YourDOST, a Bengaluru-based online counselling and emotional wellness platform.
Penny belongs to Richa Singh, 35, the co-founder and chief executive of YourDOST, and spends the day in a beanbag in Singh’s cabin, on a seat outside her office, or running around the workspace, which combines open-plan desks with meeting rooms for private counselling sessions. The seven-year-old startup has raised $1.6 million till date from a range of investors.
“We found her on the street in October 2015 when she was four weeks old and it was raining heavily. We gave her milk and thought we’d put her up for adoption, but no one ended up adopting her. My team members said we will all take care of her. Now we have systems to feed her and take her out for breaks,” says Singh. “She greets everybody who’s entering the office. When people want to talk to someone, they sit with Penny. She even sits in on interviews. At night, I take her home.”
Started in 2015, YourDOST is one of India’s largest mental healthcare service providers, having served over two million people, working closely with colleges and companies in particular. Sessions are offered by close to 1,000 counsellors, in more than 20 languages, over online chats, phone and video calls, and face-to-face interactions.
Most of these YourDOST counsellors work remotely, while some work from the office as well as client sites.
Although Singh does not disclose financials, she says the business has been profitable for the past three years. The pandemic has accelerated interest in mental health services, insists Singh.
India’s mental health burden is invisible, but enormous. Research shows 150-200 million people suffer from mental health disorders, with a majority being untreated and stigmatised. The pandemic amplified rates of mental distress significantly, owing to anxiety, depression, bereavement, financial insecurity and isolation.
“I think the entire nation is paying the hidden psychological cost of covid-19,” says Singh. “Approval cycles at companies, which were much longer and complex, have shortened. Even though some companies are struggling with costs, and a few have a tickbox approach, I strongly believe it’s here to stay.”
A metaphor for mental health
Penny serves as a four-legged metaphor for Singh’s passionate and focused approach to mental health in three ways.
First, the decision to keep Penny parallels Singh’s decision to start YourDOST.
Both were acts of empathy and kindness. Singh gravitated towards mental health while studying at the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati, seeing the impact of stress on her classmates. She was especially moved by the tragic death of a hostelmate, who took her own life because she was struggling with placements. “I’ve been on this idea since 2008. It took six-seven years to start YourDOST, after he (co-founder and now husband Puneet Manuja) and I started working on it.”
Second, skepticism. While office pets are more common in some parts of the world, this is the first time I’ve come across one in nearly 15 years of writing about Indian workplaces. The decision to keep a puppy in the office is pretty unconventional and can be met with fear in some cases. “There have been a lot of people joining who are scared of dogs or maybe a dog has bitten them during childhood. Within a short span of time, they get so comfortable with Penny that not only do they start petting her, but they also start thinking of adopting one for themselves,” observes an HR executive at YourDOST, who wishes to remain anonymous. Several employees at the company have indeed adopted puppies, the executive informs.
Singh encountered even more skepticism when she wanted to branch off as a mental health entrepreneur, in a country where therapy continues to be stigmatised or misunderstood. Her parents came to live with her for a month to try and dissuade her from leaving her job in the technology sector, before sensing her commitment to the mental health space. “Many people told me, you’re a woman, you’re doing something good, it should be an NGO, it’s not a real business. But Puneet and I kept saying that doing good and doing business should happen together. We felt we could hire the best of the best, and create something that is sustainable if it’s a business, otherwise all we would be doing is looking for donations,” she says.
Finally, I believe that mental health is a team sport. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community of allies to heal a mind. In my own experience of living with a serious mental health condition for over 20 years, I know how important it is to have allies on one’s team, and to be an ally, like Penny, offering support and comfort to whoever needs it.
“I think YourDOST would have been in a different dimension, not in a very good manner, if Penny had not been there, because she’s the one who’s a stressbuster for everybody. We have two floors, first and third. The third-floor people who want to take a break, they come to the first floor just to give belly rubs and play with Penny. And she’s a wonderful dog, more like a family member to all of us,” says the HR executive.
Similarly, Singh emphasises the need for YourDOST to collaborate with teams at companies, not just individual office workers. “Apart from 1:1 counselling, we also do a lot of work at the team level. I might be wanting to be emotionally resilient right, but if my manager or my team has not supported this, then it’s not enough. So, we do a lot of training for managers, on areas such as: how do you give feedback? How do you be a supportive first-time manager? How do you identify if someone in your team needs help? What should you say and what should you not say? Also, to leaders on how do you communicate the importance of emotional well-being? When high performance and empathy comes together, that’s when the magic happens,” she explains.
Mental health is gaining ground in the Indian workplace. Penny’s calming presence makes me curious to see if more founders like Singh will adopt a puppy, as a way to build a more empathetic and effective workforce.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.