I was a flight attendant in one of the best international airlines for half a decade before moving into the start-up world. It seems glamorous I know, but it is a very lonely job. Meeting new people every day doesn’t make for long lasting friendships and hectic schedules inhibit the efforts made to stay in touch. The job involves many meals eaten alone, many days spent without speaking to family back home because of the time differences and the jet lag, which is something we never get over. Understanding the effects this can have on our mental health, my organization invested in hiring in-house psychologists and counsellors. They even made the effort to create a group called ‘Peer to Peer’ in case we were more comfortable speaking to our colleagues. The members of Peer to Peer were colleagues who had chosen to volunteer and were trained accordingly. This to me translated as being part of an organization that truly cared about my overall well-being.
Mental Health has made its way to conversations over the years, especially in this time of COVID-19. Working from home has become the new norm and albeit its benefits, it has blurred the lines between signing in and out of work. Balancing home without house help, reduction in salaries, layoffs and other factors have contributed to the decline of the mental well-being of employers and employees.
However, mental health has been an issue since before COVID-19. According to a study by ASSOCHAM in April 2015, nearly 42.5% of employees in private sectors suffered from depression or general anxiety disorder.
Their findings also showed that 48% of respondents felt fatigue on a regular basis due to general anxiety and 27% admitted they suffered from regular headaches.
How does mental health affect the organization?
1 out of 7 people in India suffer from mental illness according to The Lancet. Since we spend a majority of our time in the workplace, tackling the mental health of employees is imperative.
While opening the conversation for diversity at work, acknowledging that mental health is as important, allows you to retain your employees, cuts costs of employees shuffling in and out and saves on retraining. But just talking about mental health without tangible action is like talking about exercise without ever moving a muscle.
Many organizations have workshops once or twice a year on mental well-being or give employees a helpline number for additional support, these are band-aid methods and shift the onus of looking after one’s mental health entirely onto the employee.
Constant and consistent practices to improve mental well-being are essential.
When unaddressed in organizations, the effects are counterproductive - hurting productivity at work and increasing absenteeism. It is thus of economic value to invest in the mental health of your employees. While speaking to various Indian organizations on inculcating a mindset of overall well-being for employees, they mentioned that it is always a good idea when the initiative for introducing good business practices comes from top management and is then built into the vision of the company.
The economic cost of not addressing mental health
A study showed how work related stress can be a huge financial burden on society. This study took into account Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the EU-15. The total estimated cost of financial loss ranged between US$ 221.13 Mn to $187 Bn. The interesting aspect was that the majority of these losses were productivity related and a small percentage of the losses were due to health care and medical costs.
Although this study did not include India, the WHO has estimated that India stands to lose $1.03 Tn between 2012-2030 due to mental health conditions.
Tangible ways an organization can include mental health into its overall work environment
With focus on mental health being the need of the hour, here are some suggestions you can incorporate in your organization to cater to the mental well-being of your employees:
- Peer to peer support: Bringing in regular professional help may not always be feasible for organizations.
In such situations, employees can volunteer or ask employees you believe are equipped with a high EQ to volunteer, and become part of a team that is available to other employees to speak to. These volunteer employees can be trained by a professional to listen and guide their colleagues.
In some organizations this is referred to as Peer to Peer Support.
- Support groups: Support groups with confidentiality clauses every month is another way to include the mental health of your employees into the work culture.
- Awareness conversations: Many Indian organizations hold awareness weeks which include mindfulness and stress management workshops. Nitesh Batra of The Mindful Initiative highlighted how private organizations with proven practices such as Mindfulness Based Interventions, Compassion Cultivation Training can provide monthly content to make it a continued conversation and practice.
- Building regular awareness on Mental Health by bringing in professionals in the field to explain the cause, symptoms and effects of mental illness. This will create awareness and allow employers and employee’s to learn to look for the signs and identify them. In-house or contractual psychologists would be another resource.
- Recreational content: Some work spaces have gyms and other recreational areas, yoga and breathing lessons in these spaces are a good way to help employees cope with stress. However, taking into account the global pandemic, this may not be a viable option. Hence, curating good content on mental health through articles or podcasts on wellness is a good alternative.
The Mental Healthcare Act 2017 has now bound insurers to create provisions that cover mental illness in the same way as physical ailments. Educating your employees on these provisions is a step forward along with providing referrals for long term or short term counselling.
Work related stress and lack of concern towards the mental health of employees is usually seen as ‘it’s all just part of business’. But human resource is the most important aspect of business and taking care of employees is now everyone’s business.