A few months ago, Sameera Singh noticed that one of the most creative and enthusiastic people in her team at a marketplace for accommodation, an online community-based marketplace for people to list, discover, and book accommodations, was disengaging during meetings. The person stayed silent and rarely participated. She suspected her colleague was mentally exhausted, and started having conversations with the person to identify the problem. Singh says it was a course on emotional first-aid that she’d done a few months earlier that helped her identify the early signs of burnout and help her colleague tackle it.
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Singh had signed up for the online course conducted by Mindfully Sorted, a mental health startup working from IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Bangalore’s incubator NSRCEL, in June, after seeing a post about it on social media.
“I understood that everyone is experiencing prolonged stress,” she says, adding that she wanted to connect more deeply with her colleagues. “Each of us is so caught up with our own work that we forget to connect with the others.” What drew Singh to the course was its framework—how to identify and support people showing signs of grief, anxiety and emotional distress. She says the course has helped her spot the right time to start conversations and establish safe environments for people to open up.
Singh signed up for the course on her own steam but some companies have started training their employees to provide basic emotional support to one another before directing them towards professional help.
In the past two years, companies have started employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to provide mental health support such as therapy and counselling but it’s not always that an employee understands what they are going through or has the self-awareness to reach out for help. That’s where these “mental health first-responders” come in—they’ve been trained to spot the signs of emotional distress, mental exhaustion, anxiety or grief that a colleague is going through and prod them towards the right avenues for help.
Earlier this month, consumer goods conglomerate Proctor & Gamble said it had set up a “task force of certified mental health first aiders”.
Employees across the company have been trained by Mental Health First Aid India, a Chennai-based organization that’s part of an international programme to train people to provide basic support to those showing early signs of mental illness and guide them to get professional help.
“We often hesitate and do not know how to initiate a conversation with someone who is struggling. The training provided a systemic framework on initiating a supportive conversation with a colleague, encouraging them to seek help where necessary,” says Sanika Gokhale, director, human resources, P&G Indian sub-continent, who underwent the training. One of her takeaways has been identifying the non-verbal signs of distress, whether at work or in her social circle of family and friends.
Since the pandemic started, there’s been a spike in issues related to stress, anxiety and burnout, and learning coping mechanisms as well as knowing how to identify signs of mental health problems are a practical skill, believes Erinda Shah, founder of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) India.
“Despite awareness and training, EAPs are underutilized. Workplaces need to work on prevention and intervention, and the peer group or team leads can play a crucial role here,” says Shah, whose organisation received its licence from MHFA International in 2017. She likens the course to physical first-aid training but for emotional health. The MHFA training courses were developed in Australia in 2000, and are now used in 25 countries.
While these are important skills to have, especially while dealing with a pandemic and its related stressors, it’s important that employees who attend these sessions understand that they are not counsellors and convey this to people who approach them for guidance. “This is an essential capacity building exercise, where people can pick on the early signs and encourage the person to seek the right kind of help. More than what to do, the course teaches you what not to say,” says Mumbai-based Avinash D’Souza, a psychiatrist who consults with Mindfully Sorted.
Agreeing with him, Kolkata-based Arpita Agarwal, national head of partnerships and alliances at Dineout,clearly mentions that she’s not a psychotherapist or a certified counselor when a colleague or an acquaintance reaches out to her. A mental health proponent, Agarwal got certified as emotional code healer, which focuses on helping people identify and release negative emotions, in March, this year. “I have realized that just having someone to talk to makes all the difference. The biggest fear people have is being judged. I help them with identifying their trapped emotions but more deeper issues need therapy,” says Agarwal, who herself had been going for therapy for anxiety attacks. Since her course, Agarwal has helped three of her team members to seek out therapy after they sought out to confide in her.
Over the past 18 months since it was founded, Mindfully Sorted has had to revise its content to simplify the language. “We thought we would not have to touch upon the basics like the definition of grief, mindfulness and so on. There’s so much mental health content floating around and so we assume there is high awareness. But people use the right words without really understanding the meaning, or use the right words in the wrong way—it was an eye opener for us,” says Sarmistha Mazumder, founder of Mindfully Sorted, which engages clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to conduct the training sessions. Her team went back to the basics and started with courses that explained everything. A former human resource professional, Mazumder’s interest in behavioural change and emotional wellness led her to quit her job and start a company to focus on wellbeing.
Singh says finishing the course did more for her than just being able to help others—it also helped her understand herself better. “You need to understand how stable you are, and how much help you can give others,” she says. “If you are not ready, your help may be counterproductive. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me.”
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