In the last 19 months, many companies in India have introduced mental health benefit schemes and working professionals feel more supported than ever before.
70 percent of professionals in India said their employer supported their mental well-being compared to 65 percent globally, as per the latest ADP report, ‘People at Work 2021: A Global Workforce View’.
However, the stress caused by the pandemic has still been a significant challenge for professionals in India. Especially for leaders, as they face stress to ensure business continuity, manage their emotions as well as teams, and ensure workplace safety.
But often we have skipped talking about how and what leaders have been doing to address this. Leading by example, how are leaders taking care of their own mental health?
Leaders don't have to be perfect. They don't have everything figured out. They deal with different kinds of stress on a daily basis. Yet they are expected to always be calm and sorted. Let's break this stigma.
Helping us break the glass ceiling of misconceptions around mental health, some of the business and HR leaders shared with us how they cope with stress and take care of their mental health:
Remember, you are not alone!: Balajee Sowrirajan, MD, Samsung Semiconductor India R&D Center (SSIR)
“I feel looking at every challenge as an opportunity and not as a stress point, makes the difference. To stay positive in challenging situations, I look back at situations that I tided over successfully. Though our job as leaders is like a sponge, to absorb the pressure but not to pass it down to the next level. However, I have learnt that leaders should normalise leaning on their people and acknowledge the power of the team to solve problems. Remember, you are not alone! It’s also important for leaders to realise that they are vulnerable, you are not a superhuman. it’s okay to make mistakes and accepting that makes you human. Being real removes a lot of stress!”
Set healthy boundaries at work: Piali Dasgupta, Senior Vice President – Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities
“I have lived with chronic depression and anxiety for the past 23 years. Dealing with illnesses has become a way of life. However, even after over two decades of fighting this disease, I don’t think it gets easier to live with it. What does happen is that you learn to identify trigger points at work, and at home, and try to protect yourself from these trigger points. Work stress is inevitable for any leader because with added responsibilities come added stress. That’s not something one can run away from unfortunately. But what is of utmost importance is to set healthy boundaries at work, and try to stay away from situations that can be potential triggers or stressors. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. But leaders need to look after themselves first in order to look after their businesses and verticals well.
Share your vulnerabilities with your peers & team members: Jai Balan, Head – Human Resources, Bharti AXA Life Insurance
“With added responsibilities and work pressure as a leader, bottling up emotions and anxieties under the misplaced notion that a leader needs to always appear strong and resilient just multiplies stress. Therefore, for a leader, it is important to exhibit and share your vulnerabilities with your peers and team members to create a safe space for them to know that it’s okay to feel stressed or anxious about work. Further, to manage workplace stress and anxiety, it is important to compartmentalize your thinking so that work-related matters do not stress you during your time-off.”
Yoga & prioritising family time keeps mental health in check: Sarada Vempati, SVP & Head of Technology Infrastructure, Wells Fargo India & Philippines
“I was in my first week on the job at Wells Fargo. My daughter was away studying in the U.S., adding to my personal anxieties. As part of the leadership team at the bank, we were pretty much on 24x7. Balancing that with personal stressors pushed all our coping resources to the limit, including mine. How did I cope? I chose something I could do together with my daughter thousands of miles away – we both joined a yoga class! It was early in the morning for me and late evening for her. We felt closer and also connected doing it together, while relaxing and also keeping our mental balance during a very stressful time.”
Breaks, binging on Netflix & gratitude keeps stress away: Anupam Trehan, Senior Director, People & Communities, Cisco India & SAARC
“As a leader and a mother, I have to focus on keeping myself strong-mentally and emotionally, to be able to support the well-being of our employees and our community networks while also managing home. A few things that I try to do to help me cope is - blocking time on my calendar for breaks. I may not always be successful, but I have realized that when you can manage your calendar, you can get more done, feel less overwhelmed, and be more relaxed. Secondly, I consciously step away from work for a few hours to spend time with family. Thirdly, I keep 30 minutes to get some exercise, read a book, or to do any activity that acts as a de-stressor. Sometimes that may just be binging on Netflix. Lastly, two things that get me through when I am stressed or upset are square breathing and gratitude. Gratitude to be surrounded by amazing people at work & home who are there with me, behind me to lift me up.”
Having a mentor for guidance is enabling: Suma PN, Director HR, Otis India
“Early in my career, I realized that taking care of ‘self’ is important for me, if I have to take good care of people around me, including the teams that I lead and the people I am responsible for. Staying physically active and paying attention to my dietary habits has helped me enormously over the years. Practicing Yoga keeps me focused and improves my concentration. Having a mentor for guidance enables me to share and learn from the experiences of the person I trust in and who has confidence in my abilities as an individual and as a leader. Looking at the bigger picture and the wonders of this beautiful life always keeps me grounded, with a positive outlook.”
Have some me-time: Mubarak Begum, HR Head of Kristal.AI
"As an HR professional handling a workforce spanning multiple countries, the challenges are manifold. Add to that the pandemic, and most days I feel there aren’t enough hours in the workday. I've learnt that having some me-time is crucial for your mental health. I begin my day with meditation and go for a run on alternate days. On weekends, I enjoy quality time with family or just go for a drive. I also take time out to read. On weekly calls with my team, we've started taking some time to talk about anything but work. This helps keep things light."
Unwind holistically for better mental health: Nimisha Das, Director – HR, Kellogg South Asia
"My personal mantra is to ensure I unwind holistically, so it invariably includes activities that help me de-stress physically, mentally, and socially. I love spending quality time with my loved ones and my cat, Tango. I practice yoga as it caters to my internal as well as external well-being. Whenever I get time off from work, I travel away from the city because I truly believe travelling teaches one a lot."
Nothing is more important than 'you' and 'your mental wellness': Rajesh Rai, VP – People Team and Head of HR, India, GlobalLogic
“In every individual's life, one would find themselves grappling with stressful times, and such experiences can be overwhelming. In the present times, stress is something we all have to manage by taking approaches that are personalized to us. In stressful situations, I manage stress by disassociating myself from the triggers and seeking things that I love doing to bring more positivity for myself in that very moment. These could be immersing myself in meditation, listening to music, spending quality time with loved ones, going for a run, or sometimes even simply indulging myself with a sweet treat. This little time of self-care enables me to process my thoughts and realign myself to tackle the stress head-on.
Don’t stress the could haves: Ruhie Pande, CHRO, Godrej Housing Finance
“I read this at the tube station during my travels and it stayed with me – ‘Don’t stress the could haves , if it should have, it would have’ ! I truly believe stress is often an outcome of trying to control things and my focus is to embrace the process and give things my 100% without trying to influence outcomes. Pursuing a hobby helps as well. I have an active interest in volunteering for animals, reading & writing and I ensure to take time out to invest in them.“
Work is not a sprint but a marathon: Ramya Sampath Sharma, Chief People Officer, GreyOrange
"The fact remains that for all the excitement of the VUCA world, the relentless nature of our lives today [work and personal] has a massive impact on our mental health. As leaders, it is critical that we balance the demands of our work and organization with the need to be empathetic to employees. This requires the ability to understand that work is not a sprint but a marathon. This is my own mantra and the secret to my ability to keep going in this fast paced work."
Pay close attention towards your own mental well-being: Sushant Patnaik, Head-HR, Aeris Communications
“Last 18 months has literally condensed decades of learning in a few months. Adapting to a new normal, shifting from brick and mortar to online grocery shopping, online education and healthcare and so on. It is normal to end up in a condition of tight strain, with life slowing to a standstill at times, stuck between the four dividers of your room and the sorry state of affairs around. As a wellness trainer myself, I am acutely aware of this stress that many of us feel. Also, as the bridge between the business and employees, I keep reminding myself continuously that I have a greater responsibility to undertake. Therefore, I pay close attention towards my own mental well-being and also encourage my colleagues and loved ones to do the same. These have been testing times, requiring each one of us to be calm and empathetic towards others. Every leader has to wear numerous hats, and in my case, I have to ensure employees' stability and help them through grievances. That is only possible if I take good care of my personal well-being.”
Spend quality time with family: Ruchi Bhalla, Country Head - Delivery Centers, India & Vice President Human Resources (Asia Pacific), Pitney Bowes
"As a leader, I understand my responsibility to set the tone for good mental well-being at the workplace. While managing my own mental health, I’ve tried to be cognizant of the impact the pandemic has had on me and my family, with lines between home and work blurring. I’ve been conscious about inculcating habits such as regular yoga practice and exercising. I make it a point to keep some time each evening without my phone and emails to spend quality time with family. As an organization, we keep a high focus on human interaction, albeit in the digital space, so that people continue to feel that sense of connection and bonding with team members. It can also help alleviate the stresses of long-term technology fatigue."
I religiously take long walks to decompress: Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, Director and Co-founder, Wakefit.co
"Running a startup brings with it a different set of challenges. As exciting as the role of a founder is, it is also stress-inducing because there are so many different moving parts and you want to instinctively control every single aspect of the business to give the startup the best chance of success. Over time, we've hired highly qualified and reliable people in leadership roles that take ownership of business units, which has alleviated a lot of stress for my co-founder, Ankit and me. Personally, I religiously take long walks to decompress and like to write my thoughts down at the end of the day to unwind. I am also a voracious reader and love exploring different genres. I am currently reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. These small but habitual routines help me take care of my mental health amidst the hectic schedule of my day."
Take time off to spend with oneself: Maria Rajesh, CHRO, Embassy Group
“Today, organizations are facing workforce disruptions at an unprecedented scale, across the world. The rise of a virtual workplace has emphasized the need for a better work-life balance, with an increased expectation from employers. Employee wellness is no longer limited to just covering employees’ medical expenses, today it is about having an overarching approach. As an individual, I believe it is important that one must take care of themselves. I ensure on having my consistent workout regime, which leaves me fulfilled the entire day. One must take time off to spend with oneself, as well as their families to ensure the required balance for having a stress-free life. The pandemic has proven and given us an opportunity to inculcate a healthy lifestyle – be it a routine, a diet, and regular sleeping patterns – without the hassle of commuting. We advocate such a lifestyle strongly among our colleagues and friends, and as an organization believe it is imperative for overall well-being.”
Leaders need to act as role models who champion mental health: Ashok Gupta, Head – Talent Acquisition and Business Partner HR, AirAsia India
“The iconic adage ‘health is wealth’ has been redefined, especially over the past 18 months as we have experienced times that truly tested our mettle, both emotionally and physiologically. It is imperative to take care of our physical and mental health now more than ever before. On a personal level, I do take some time out to join the meditation sessions that we conduct internally for all our Allstars (as AirAsia employees are fondly called). I likewise practice yoga as it conditions your brain and body at the same time and has been known to show phenomenal advantages. Most importantly, to expunge the stigma around mental health and well-being, we as leaders need to take initiatives and act as role models who champion mental health and are advocates of our own mental well-being as well as the mental health and well-being of each and every one.”
Incorporate open conversation in the organisation: Sajan Pillai, Chief Executive Officer, Season Two Ventures
"The mental health of a business leader is not just restricted to managing his own emotional well-being, it is about ensuring the mental well-being of the organization by nurturing psychological resilience of the team. Being in the leadership position, practicing self-care and protecting yourself from the potential threat of stress causing elements is the key to mental health and leading by example is really important. By carefully incorporating healthy practices involving open conversations in the organization, work-related stress can be reduced and generate better output."
Casual interactions with colleagues helps de-stress: Siddharth Das, Vice President Sales, India & APAC, Brillio
“Here are a few things which have worked well for me to cope with work-related stress and anxiety. Engage in some casual interactions during the week without any specific agenda/formal purpose and connect with customers, peers, bosses and subordinates through open conversations. Additionally, these interactions allow you to create empathy and space to be transparent about the challenges that each has faced. They even provide a common outlet to resolve these problems rather than just formal agenda-based meetings. In the pandemic and in the absence of office “water-cooler” meetings, these conversations matter a lot in building trust, confidence and reducing anxiety.”
Encourage your team to take time off for themselves: Anjali Rao, Senior Director, HR, Intel India
"Leaders today have an even greater responsibility to arm themselves with the right strategies and role model behaviors that will help their teams thrive. I’ve made a conscious effort to focus on my own mental and physical health and be open about it with my team to encourage them to take time for themselves and their loved ones. Practicing gratitude and yoga have helped me be more present when I’m at work and extend grace to those around me in the toughest of hours. It’s important to remember that everything may not always work the right way but we can solve things together and with kindness.”
Rehearsing the art of recovery is imperative: Shruti Tandon, Director, People Enablement, Nagarro
“In the course of time, there are certain practices that I have followed and they have helped me cope with stress and take care of my own mental health. Firstly, self-reflection and self-care, which is a conscious effort and practice, has helped me in dealing with everyday stress. Secondly, I prioritize myself for my own self, where I make sure to exercise regularly to keep my body at its functional best. Thirdly, as leaders, we are used to juggling a lot of important details, where our mind is constantly working and we are pushing ourselves hard at 100% capacity, all the time. Therefore, rehearsing the art of recovery is imperative, where I ensure to take small frequent breaks and timely vacations. Lastly, to cope with stress, one should never hesitate to ask for help. This can be cathartic! At the end of the day, we all need someone to talk to, and encourage us to believe in ourselves.”
Practicing empathy and compassion while dealing with any problem: Shradha Lohia, Co-Founder, Ekaanta - Mindversity on the Ganges
"Whenever I am faced with sorrowful, painful, stressful experiences, I hark back to this wisdom and tell myself, I have to learn from this experience and let it pass with patience. And surely, this knowledge brings a lot of peace to me and helps me deal with any challenging situation with strength and calmness. This is a simple technique that once learnt and practiced, can be so helpful to guide our actions more mindfully and meaningfully at work and in our personal lives. Even in very stressful work environments like large corporations or manufacturing sites, most of the stress is generated by people themselves - due to the way a situation is handled. As a business leader, I am very conscious of this. I always make it a point to practice empathy and compassion while dealing with any situation or people and their problems – knowing well that like any situation, even challenging situations will pass if we practice patience."
Avoiding the need to create a state of needless rush: Prerna Kohli - Director of HR, Cyware
“Managing stress effectively is critical for not only our productivity but also our overall wellbeing and happiness. Personally for me, meditation and deep breathing exercises that foster mindfulness can help melt away stress. Every day, I do not miss investing a few minutes on simple activities like walking or enjoying a meal. What also works for me is the philosophy of acting instead of reacting or creating a state of needless rush. At Cyware also, we have fostered a culture wherein we relish every moment together as a team, indulge in promoting healthy food habits, and connect as a team for regular fun activities. We have also built a culture of open-communication with the leadership so any team member can directly talk if they feel stressed about anything.”