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Mental Health at the Workplace in India

A person spends considerable amount of time at their workplace. In this context, it is important that the physical and mental health of a person is maintained well. Poor mental health has serious implications on the employee and the organisation as well. While, I will try to keep the narrative to a general workplace, but having worked in a law firm for a long time, my observations may tend to be from that point of view.

Also, as an aside, I have to be frank that after finishing this piece, I think this is more of an article, than a blog post. Somewhere while writing this piece, I got influenced by my law school research paper writing that the post leaned more towards being an article. While the initial sections are basis literature available online and survey analysis, the conclusion is largely based on my personal experiences.

Stress at Workplace

Before I got diagnosed with bipolar, I was with a law firm in Mumbai. The doctor diagnosed that professional stress is one of the reasons why the mania was triggered. Mental stress can be generated because of external factors and can be self-inflicted as well. The all-or-nothing attitude I had discussed in my previous post is an example of generating stress by one-self. External factors can be a demanding and unreasonable work environment that consists of an unreasonable and demanding boss, fake timelines, uncooperative colleagues etc.

A woman can find her workplace stressful if there is unequal treatment/discrimination meted out to female employees. There can be scenarios where the senior management is male dominated, and that makes it difficult for a mid-tier employee to approach the higher rung to discuss her concerns. Therefore, lack of adequate female representation can also be a stress point for a woman employee.

Mental Stress can also be aggravated if a person does not have an outlet in the organisation to open up and share his or her feelings. Due to the stigmatisation and work pressure, the mental stress will be bottled up which can lead to serious mental health concerns.

How to identify early signs of stress related mental health issues

In my case, the consequence of the stress had manifested before we could identify the stress. But when we look back, we had noticed that I was facing exhaustion, lack of sleep and anxiety (difficulty to go back to work). It can manifest in different forms in different people. If a person is overly tired, tending to make uncharacteristic mistakes, finding it hard to motivate oneself, temperamental, or staying aloof etc., these may be early signs of high stress at work. There can be a situation where a person is procrastinating a lot or working very very hard. In extreme cases, there can be sudden outbursts of anger or emotion, absence from work, or not taking care of their appearances as one would normally would.[1]

In such scenarios, it is advisable to approach the colleague, and openly enquire and discuss the issues concerning the person. For such a step to be taken, there are various factors that need to be established in the organisation. These points will be dealt with me in the next sections.

Destigmatised and Safe Work Environment

An employee who is feeling mentally unwell may feel conscious to discuss this with his or her colleague due to shame or fear of discrimination. The Indian Journal of Medical Research reported that nearly 2/3rds of employees with depression said that they faced discrimination in their jobs or while looking for one.[2]

Therefore, it is important that the work environment is conducive enough for the person to openly discuss their mental health issue. In order to achieve this, the work environment should encourage people to express themselves without fear and reach out when they need any support.

Discussing mental health issues should not be considered as a taboo at the workplace, and an employee should feel safe to approach their colleague or boss to discuss their problem. Colleagues should be empathetic to each other and should not judge if a person approaches with their mental health concern. Workplaces should be a safe environment for a person to discuss their mental health concerns.[3]

Supportive Senior Management

A precursor for a destigmatised work environment is that the senior management is empathetic to the mental health issues of its colleagues. If a person is unable to perform or continue with work due to mental health concerns, such issues should be given equal weightage as any physical ailment. Further, the relevant person should be given all the institutional support as possible to address the mental health concerns.

When I had my breakdown in 2017, I had to abruptly leave work and move out of the city. At that time, my reporting partner was very understanding and supportive so as to reduce any burden that I would face on the professional front. I was given ample time to take a call on how I would like to proceed, and the handing over and resignation was completely hassle free.

Further, as a preventive measure, the reasons for such mental health issues should be seriously looked into, and measures to alleviate it must be taken. For instance, a lot of law firms have yoga, Zumba classes as avenues for their associates to de-stress from their work.

Empathetic team leaders/immediate superiors

The distinction I am trying to make between “senior management” and “team leaders” or “immediate superior” is that a person might not be working closely with the senior management, but will have interactions on a daily basis with his or her team leader or immediate superior. Given that one works closely with their team leader, it is important that the team leader is approachable, if a person faces any mental health concerns related to the workplace. The mental wellness of the team members or juniors should be a matter that is being given due importance by the team leader/immediate senior. If a person shows any signs of excess stress (the symptoms have been mentioned in the second section of the article) or similar mental health concerns, their work load should be reduced and be directed for due medical attention (if need be).

Mental Health of employees during Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced employees to work from home. The inability of personal interaction with colleagues has caused mental stress to a lot of the workforce. “In a recent interview with The New York Times, Satya Nadella gave a similar warning. While talking about the serious consequences of permanent remote working on the mental health of workers, the Microsoft boss said virtual video calls cannot replace in-person meetings.”[4]

According to a study shown by the Indian Psychiatric Society, after the lockdown was announced, the reported case of mental illness in India rose by 20%. The reasons include fear of job loss, salary cuts, unemployment and indebtedness.[5]

A common issue that I hear from my friends is that working from home leads to a working schedule with no stop time. In addition to the work related responsibilities, one needs to handle all the household chores (without any domestic help). Such a scenario, creates a lot of mental distress and anxiety.

Many companies are taking services of counsellors and psychologists to address concerns of their employees during Covid-19. Microsoft, P&G and Deloitte have roped in professional help to assist their employees facing distress due to social distancing. Deloitte has set up a counselling helpline where HR executives call and follow-up with its employees, and if required refer them to a professional counsellor.[6]

It is imperative that employers focus on mental wellness of their employees especially during such trying times. Webinars on emotional well-being, significance of yoga, meditation should be provided to the employees. Similar to the initiatives adopted by Deloitte, there should be a helpline that follows up on its employees, and recommend ways to deal with the emotional stress.

Survey on Mental Health at Workplace

I had conducted a short survey among my friends and family to understand a few aspects of mental health at the workplace. The questions pertained to the extent of support one will receive in an organisation if faced with a mental health issue, and the existing policies of the organisation. A bias in my survey is that my sample size was only 50 people. Nonetheless, I got a good overview of the existing scenario.

Majority were willing to discuss a mental health issue in relation to their work with their colleague, while a few said they will disclose it only to their friends and family. On the question of stigmatisation faced at workplace, 50% stated that their work environment is a safe place to discuss mental health concerns, while the other 50% stated that they would face stigma. However according to more than 80% of the sample size, their organisation did not have a counsellor or a wellness policy for its employees. Further, few of them were not aware if any policy exists or not.

It is good that people are willing to discuss their mental health concerns with their colleagues. But it won’t be fully effective to address the issues of the person, unless there is a counsellor to help the person. Therefore, it is important that organisations hire counsellors to assist their employees and ensure their mental wellness. In this regard, they should also have a wellness policy that will guide the organisation in cases of crisis and provide adequate support to the employees. The existence of such policies should be communicated to the employees.

Conclusion

Mental health is as important as physical health for the performance and productivity of an employee. Employees are reluctant to discuss mental health issues due to stigma and discrimination. In such a scenario, a supportive and destigmatised work environment with adequate mental health resources are the need of the hour.

While I was researching on this topic, I came across an interview of Chris Parsons. For those who are not in the legal field, Chris Parsons is the India head of a leading U.K. law firm (with offices across the globe), Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF). He was discussing about his alcoholism, anxiety and depression issues. I was firstly surprised that someone as successful as him was suffering from mental health issues. In his interview, he explains how the law firm life had taken a toll on his health, and to mask the mental health issue, the management of the law firm had said that he is burning out and needs a break. Chris states that the mental health landscape has changed now and according to Chris, “in HSF everyone from a partner to a secretary, talks about mental health issues. And they were willing to do it because a) they felt the culture was accepting of it, and I think most brave of all, to believe that it would not affect their careers.”[7]

After having read his interview, it made me think how our law firms or any organisation would react if a senior employee or a CXO suffers from a mental illness. Our culture should move towards the direction where mental health issues should be accepted and not viewed as a regression in a person’s career. Such an approach, would encourage people to come out and speak about their mental illness.

As I stated before, a supportive boss really helped me manage my professional expectations during the mania. After I recovered, my previous organisation gave me references and recommendations for future employments. The mental health condition was never seen as a taboo by them and my performance as a lawyer was never diluted.

Having said all this, I have still not disclosed that I have bipolar disorder in any of my interviews. While it does not define me, I am concerned if it will be held against me in my evaluation. I have also not published my post or blog on LinkedIn. The fear and stigmatization is real. We should collectively try to end it. If anyone out there faces a mental distress at/related to the workplace, I hope they are not alone and receives the adequate support.

[1] Mental Health Foundation, How to support mental health at work accessible at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/how-to-support-mental-health-at-work.pdf [2] Mental Health at Work: It’s time for a conversation, accessible at https://health.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/mental-health-at-work-its-time-for-a-conversation/70860122 [3] Mental Health Foundation, How to support mental health at work accessible at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/how-to-support-mental-health-at-work.pdf [4] Covid-19 Crisis: Working from home is causing mental distress, available at https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/business-of-life/covid-19-crisis-working-from-home-is-causing-mental-distress-11590077426488.html [5] Covid-19 Crisis: Working from home is causing mental distress, available at https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/business-of-life/covid-19-crisis-working-from-home-is-causing-mental-distress-11590077426488.html [6] Covid-19: Companies rope in psychiatrists, experts for emotional counselling of work from home employees, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/company/corporate-trends/covid-19-companies-rope-in-psychiatrists-experts-for-emotional-counselling-of-work-from-home-employees/articleshow/74819122.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst [7] “Wake up call to firm owners”: HSF India head, Chris Parsons talks to Balbir Singh about alcoholism, mental health and depression in the legal profession, available at https://www.legallyindia.com/lawfirms/wake-up-call-to-firm-owners-hsf-india-head-chris-parsons-talks-to-balbir-singh-about-alcoholism-depression-mental-health-in-the-legal-profession-video-20200511-11407

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