Dynamic workplaces, a volatile business environment, and pressures to succeed professionally create an environment of stress for the knowledge worker
What organizations need to realize, its not just important to develop talent in terms of skills, knowledge and behavior, but also help talent acquire better mental hygiene and psychological well-being
Consider this: India has the highest number of suicides in the world. 1-2 percent or 10 to 12 million people suffer from severe mental disorders. 5 percent or 50 million people suffer from common mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. 20 percent or 200 million people will suffer from some form of mental illness by 2020. To top it all, there are less than 1000 psychologists and 4000 psychiatrists available in the country to serve the mental-health needs of a nation of 1.2 billion, as per the government data.
Mental health is a much neglected area at the individual, societal, governmental and unfortunately, the organizational level. With the advent of knowledge economies, knowledge workers have become pivotal to how businesses sustain and thrive. Sustainability today is about nurturing human capital as an asset that consists of those who ‘think for a living’. The mental health needs of such workers, then, becomes an imperative to ensure the health of the organization. Dynamic workplaces, a volatile business environment, and pressures to succeed professionally create an environment of stress for the knowledge worker. More specific causes of mental-health issues at the workplace are multi-dimensional, with some of the top contenders being spill over from personal or family issues, workplace friction, skill and knowledge gap, real or perceived workplace failures and disengagement with one’s work. The consequences for the employee could be emotional difficulties such as depression or anxiety leading to extreme consequences such as suicide, reduced productivity and performance, further disengagement and lowering of the quality of the workplace culture due to a spread of negativity. What doesn’t help are cultural taboos and ignorance about mental illness that prevent open dialogues at the workplace and elsewhere.
From a learning and development perspective, therefore, HR and businesses need to acknowledge that their talent is constituted by emotional beings; people who think, feel and behave in a certain way at the workplace, which is not only a function of their personality or behavioral profile but also of their past and current mental-health status. Industrial economies that used manual labor viewed people as inputs for a given output. The human side of labor was ignored, denied and suppressed, in order for output to be achieved. Today’s workplaces cannot function with mere cosmetic changes to how talent is viewed. An organization’s talent possesses different levels of mental health, just as it does for physical health. What organizations need to realize is that it's not just important to develop talent in terms of skills, knowledge and behavior, but also help talent acquire better mental hygiene and psychological well-being. This is because of the growing recognition that positive mental health is an enabler of performance, just as skill, knowledge and behavior are.
The traditional route to organizational success has been anchored on high performance and productivity. While in most organizations, metrics for these pillars of success are well in place, in the form of predictive assessment at entry, performance appraisals and training, such metrics may not be able to objectively capture psychological well-being of current talent. While objective assessments for hiring and selection have become normative in most recruitment and development practices, use of scientifically valid online/offline assessments for mental-health and well-being that are administered by a mental-health professional such as a psychologist or counselor are yet to take off.
A somewhat rhetorical question that nevertheless needs an operationalized answer is: What’s more important? Cultures of success or cultures of well-being, resulting in success?
This brings me to the question, how can well-being be defined in modern workplaces? Current corporate wellness programs tend to focus on tangibles such as physical well-being, leaving out more subjective aspects such as emotional health. Health Risk Assessments (HRAs) tend to weigh dominantly towards physical well-being, with ‘stress’ as a subcategory. Such analyses are often self-assessments by employees who may not be completely tuned in to their psychological stressors or their impact. Objective and scientific psychological assessments that are scored, interpreted and reported by a mental-health professional are currently offered in very few organizations as part of their employee wellness programs.
Diversity and engagement teams in organizations may need to sensitize themselves to aspects of employee mental-health and psychological well-being and drive the inclusion of such aspects in wellness programs. Diversity & inclusion programs that champion a diverse workforce should recognize how a non-inclusive environment impacts employee mental health. A workplace environment where an employee feels alienated or marginalized on account of a minority identity, s/he is bound to experience stress, which, if left unaddressed over a period of time, may result in emotional or behavioral issues. Such issues may cause harm to other employees, with the eventual result being dismissal of what may be really good talent. Immigration to other cities for work, resulting in nuclear families without support may result in life stressors due to important events such as child birth, forcing an employee who is a new father or mother to quit their job. Fresh graduates recruited from campus hiring who immigrate to other cities across the country may find it stressful to adapt to new cultural contexts, potentially resulting in attrition and a subsequent increase in cost to hire.
What is needed are more mature wellness programs that integrate counsellor services and referrals to mental-health experts in their offerings to employees. Initiatives such as mandatory leaves to create better work-life balance, crèches for new mothers and workshops for traditional methods of well-being such as yoga and meditation could be introduced on the well-being plate to boost the wellness value proposition for talent. The notion of engagement as a template for productivity and retention needs to be re-evaluated in terms of mental-health concerns, among other factors – a linkage only few organizations may be making today.
The upside is many workplaces have the potential to become avant-garde in their approach to employee wellbeing, given what they are doing currently. These workplaces are already offering self-assessment of stress in wellness portals, information and resources on psychological wellbeing such as through company blogs, and counsellors for on-site, chat or telephonic interactions. Organizations are also offering specific programs such as for new parents, and counselling for members of LGBT and other minority groups, to help talent cope with personal stress. The use of technology is helping with preventive mental health, in innovative ways. For example, mobile apps for internal use that let employees stay in touch with work during extended periods of absence from office are helping sustain engagement. Through all such initiatives, these workplaces have acquired the critical mass to take wellness programs to the next level, by introducing psychological assessment as part of talent development, engagement and inclusion programs, to give more depth, objectivity, transparency and accountability to the entire process of taking care of employee wellbeing. A robust system of referral outs for those employees who need more long term help with psychological issues, than can be solved by a counsellor from wellness programs, can further contribute to creating the right levels of mental hygiene and wellbeing at work.
In the final analysis, what matters is how HR defines its enabling role for business and what it takes for HR to help workplaces bring back the human in its human capital. The road less travelled here, if chosen, has the potential to not only create true well-being for talent but to also make more business sense in the short and long run.