Supporting your employees’ by recognising the mental health issues they are likely to have and having systems in place to carry forward this endeavour is an integral part of the well-being agenda. While policies continue to be set up by companies, some key values such as intersectionality and the importance of mental health therapy continue to not be accounted for. In a recent interview with People Matters, Richa Vashista (she/her), Chief Mental Health Expert, Lilac Insights emphasises on the need for inclusivity and intersectionality in mental health policies, the critical role that senior management plays as well as the need for stringent policies on paper to enable employees to have a better work life balance.
Richa leads AtEase, an inclusive mental health platform with a special focus on cis-women, transwomen and non-binary individuals. She has a postgraduate degree in Clinical Psychology, SNDT University, and has been working as a mental health professional for the last 7 years.She works at the intersections of gender and sexuality and her worldview is queer-affirmative, intersectional and towards social justice.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Q. From your years of experience being a mental health professional, what are some of the pressing issues related to mental health and wellbeing that you have witnessed in the workspace?
When it comes to workplace and mental health especially in a country like India where we’re all into the hustle culture, it is not surprising that we reach a level of burnout without having realised how we got here and how it affects us. This definitely tops the list of workplace challenges wherein we find employees who had once loved their jobs now wanting to leave it.
Companies have to be designed to understand what a burnout is, to support their people and engage in proactive rather than reactive behaviour. We also have to understand what a burnout looks like. It could be an employee who once loved their job now having difficulties in carrying out their tasks, sometimes taking longer than they ideally would or calling in sick too often. It is a sign of complete mental and physical exhaustion.
The gendered aspect also needs to be accounted for because the gender with which an individual identifies also has an impact on the way they are treated in the workplace. We also have to look at this on an intersectional level because individuals carry multiple identities and those facets may have an impact on the way they are treated in the workplace and subsequently their mental health.
Q. Given how we are slowly and steadily shifting towards a hybrid work model, what are some of the signs HR leaders and managers must be on the lookout for when it comes to their people going through a difficult time?
When you’re working in a hybrid model, one of the signs could be a change in mood. Employees who had earlier been jovial, talkative are now having mood swings or having more arguments, breakdowns, even anger outbursts. A drop in the energy levels or employees withdrawing themselves from situations or as I had already mentioned earlier, difficulties in performing tasks are also some important signs that leaders must lookout for.
Q. The wellbeing agenda has become top priority for organisations globally who are set to take care of their workforce. What are some of the strategies by which wellbeing policies can be more holistically operated into the workplace?
Some of the things that I feel can be carried out from a policy point of view is firstly, looking into whether the workplace policies are inclusive of someone with a mental health illness which is almost never the case. If an employee is going through a depressive episode, would you give them some time to rest or tell them that you have targets to meet?
Inclusion of mental health leaves as part of the system is an integral step. Defining the kind of work hours that are a part of people’s workspaces is also important because even when we say it’s a 9 to 5 job, the hours extend to 9 or 10 in the night. A stricter work-life balance can be made possible when employers are stricter about work hours and do not let their employees work overtime. When Portugal came up with the law that employers can’t text their people after office hours, it revealed the necessity of having protocols in place. All of these policies have to come up from the senior management level because they are the ones who will be able to make a difference.
Additionally, people need to have a better understanding of what mental health means. This can be carried out through regular training sessions or workshops to cover a range of topics from the different mental health illnesses to even understanding how someone diagnosed with a mental health illness might face difficulties in the workspace and how they can be supported better. We use a trauma informed approach at At Ease and such training at the workplace tends to help people support their colleagues better for instance, supporting someone who finds giving presentations anxiety inducing.
We also have to note that mental health policies are often incorporated from a cisgendered perspective so an intersectional lens, a social justice lens becomes very important. Having queer support groups or disability support groups can be a critical step because it helps people gain the feeling that they’re not alone and they have people around with similar experience within the same organisation.
Q. There is no doubt that challenges are bound to come up within the office when it comes to implementing any HR initiative. What are some potential challenges that leaders must take account of?
The biggest challenge is that a lot of people don’t understand what mental health is. There continues to be a lot of stigma around therapy so if you’re trying to start a conversation about mental health, what is important is to see how people are also responding to it. People tend to have very extreme ideas about mental health issues so the biggest problem is people not wanting to accept that there are mental health issues and how it can have an impact on the workplace. I truly believe that if you want to create change, it has to start from the leadership positions.
If mental health continues to be stigmatised, the attrition rate will increase because people are not going to be satisfied with their jobs, they won’t be happy coming into work everyday and their productivity levels will fall.
Q. D&I initiatives have become critical to employer branding and employee experience but one thing that must be recognised is its strong ties to wellbeing and mental health. Following this, what are some gender based issues that HR leaders must be wary of and recognise?
At Ease primarily works with cis-women and LGBTQIA individuals in workspaces because of the importance of gender issues. With the inequality that continues to persist in the country for instance men taking up more leadership roles, there is this constant struggle from mansplaining to unequal pay. Gendered roles at home and then balancing it out with professional roles also has an impact on women’s mental health especially. At Ease also works with reproductive and perinatal mental health and those in leadership positions also have to recognise the role this plays on their employees. When it comes to LGBTQIA individuals, they might face open acts of discrimination and acts of microagression. Another instance could be how trans people experience dysphoria and if on a certain day, this dysphoria is really kicking in, the individual might find it very difficult to function. Closeted people would have to encounter using their dead names and wrong pronouns and the fear of coming out is associated with potential acts of bullying or harassment or even asking to leave the organisation. The absence of gender neutral washrooms is also an issue especially in spite of so much conversation around LGBTQIA individuals.
Q. Finally, what are some insights that you would like to share on the importance of mental health therapy in work life?
Firstly, we need to understand what mental health therapy and counselling is. Secondly, if you’re facing difficulties at work, you have to bring it up in therapy because if you’re not going to talk about it, the issues will just get bigger which will make it difficult for you to work around it and offer the kind of support you’re expected to offer at work. The importance of mental health and therapy needs to be brought out more often because only when that is done will it affect the workplace, employees and business overall in a positive way. Moreover, it has to be done in an inclusive way; D&I and intersectionality continue to be an important part of mental health policies.