Blog: Let’s talk about mental health and HR

Employee Relations

Let’s talk about mental health and HR

6 Steps for promoting sound minds for a sound workplace.
Let’s talk about mental health and HR

Rishika is a young finance professional. She was born and raised in South India. She recently got married, relocated to a new city and found a new job in North India. She had also moved in with her in-laws. Rishika was grappling with so many changes in her life- A new workplace, a new family and a completely alien culture. To top it all, she had no friends in the new city. She was often gripped with bouts of sadness. She would sometimes find it hard to wake up in the morning and drag her feet to work. Given the cultural differences, she found it hard to make friends even at work. She was an outgoing and gregarious girl but now found herself feeling withdrawn, lost and often breaking down for no reason at all. She felt de-motivated to go to work. She wanted to reach out to someone. But did not know where to start and how to go about the process.

Rishika’s story is one among 57 million others in India. This article looks to address the role that HR can play to help the likes of Rishika and many others struggling with poor mental health. Today, we live in a world where work-life balance has given way to work-life integration. Employees are today connected 24*7 to their work network and jobs have become an integral part of people’s lives. This often means that along with longer hours and more commitment, employees bring along their personal challenges into the workplace - a large part of which are related to their mental health.

Mental health and today’s employee

There are various environmental factors which contribute to an individual’s mental state

  • Socio-economic and cultural factors

    A wide range of factors including globalization, distressing social relationships, economic adversities and lack of support systems are often linked with mental health concerns in young and middle-aged groups.

  • Domestic migration

    Domestic migration brings along with it several challenges including- acculturation to a new city, proneness to health hazards and poor access to good housing which adversely impact mental health. According to a study by NIMHANS, Bengaluru-female residents from urban metros have a greater prevalence across the different mental health disorders.

  • Workplace stress

    A 2016 survey of 200,000 professionals employed across 30 Indian firms found that 46% reported suffering extreme stress because of their work often causing at-risk individuals to contemplate suicide. Today employees are faced with workplaces which celebrate a culture of “Sink or swim”. 

The urgent need for HR to intervene 

Even as mental health-related concerns continue to pervade the workplace, there is an acute shortfall in the number of trained mental health professionals and their accessibility. There are 0·3 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in India. Given this shortfall, there is a need for a multi-pronged approach, with organizations and HR professionals playing a critical role.

What is alarming is that very often HR is least likely to be considered as a trusted source of help. A research survey conducted by totus consulting, asked employees to look back at the last 12 months and rate the most and least used sources of help. They found that employees in need of help are most likely to use self-help or approach close family, friends and mentors. Among the least used sources of help were- religious and professional sources and the HR department!

What has been done so far- Employee Assistance Programs

An Employee Assistance Program is an employer-sponsored service that helps employees and their families deal with emotional, behavioural and well-being needs that may affect their work and life. 

Today, many large organizations including - Wipro, PepsiCo, Infosys, HCL Technologies Ltd, Sapient, Essar Group, Hexaware and CSC, India have adopted formal EAPs. The HR department is usually the flag bearer for the implementation of an EAP. 

The truth about EAPs in India

Despite the wide adoption of EAPs, the success of an EAP in India is faced with many roadblocks including

  1. Stigma associated with seeking professional help 
  2. Low enthusiasm from the top brass given the absence of clear metrics to measure success 
  3. Lack of psychological literacy among managers to refer employees to an EAP
  4. Lack of awareness and initiative among HR professionals about mental health and the sources of help available

The road ahead

It is imperative for HR professionals to take certain measures to gain credibility as a source of help. Given below are 6 steps that we would like to recommend for every HR professional to adopt

  1. Education and training

    HR professionals must first equip themselves with requisite skills to address mental health concerns. They must be trained to identify early signs, to have empathetic and non-judgemental conversations and refer impacted employees to the right sources of help.

    Additionally, it is critical for HR to integrate mental health awareness into the training for new managers across the organization.

  2. Helping fight stigma

    In 2017, a survey by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) revealed that just one in six employees with mental illness said they felt comfortable disclosing their condition to their manager.

    HR must take it upon itself to promote open dialogue about mental health. This can be done by sharing relevant articles, posters and mails to create awareness, organizing mental health camps and inviting speakers to address employees. It is crucial to spread awareness about the benefits of communication and to take steps to dispel myths and negative perceptions about mental health and seeking help.

  3. Reading signals and early detection

    • The following are a few early signs which indicate that an employee may be experiencing mental ill health
    • Uncharacteristic behaviour which may be overly sensitive, irritable, angry, teary or tense
    • Obsession with parts of the job, and neglect of others
    • Working longer or fewer hours than usual
    • Disengagement and low morale
    • Increased unplanned absence
    • Increase in use of negative language and workplace conflict
    • Physical symptoms such as appearing tired, headaches

      Once the symptoms have been identified it is important to let the employee know that you are available to speak and to make resources available. It is important not to belittle the problem or the individual who is suffering.

  4. Creating a network of resources

    In his book “Creating a helping organization” Ganesh Chella (Founder and Managing Director-Coaching Foundation of India) speaks about creating five layers of help within the organization to address the needs of employees across levels in a comprehensive manner. This model can act as a guide for the steps to create a mentally sound workplace. This must be initiated by the HR department.

    • Community help- Years of research have proven that groups are the greatest source of emotional and social support. This layer includes friends, supervisors, teams and other support groups. This helps employees feel a sense of connect, cohesion and strength.
    • Barefoot help- While a manager is responsible for securing results she/he must also be psychologically literate and emotionally intelligent and through those abilities be able to engage in providing some barefoot coaching support in the normal course of her/his work.
    • Qualified help -The term “Leader” in this layer refers to anyone who has a strategic level of impact within the organization. By being removed from the day-day demands of daily work management and transactions, these leaders are best equipped to engage with employees in a helping relationship. The term “Qualified” is used to emphasise that these leaders need formal intensive training and even certification to play this role.
    • Professional help for Executive coaching- This layer is in the form of executive coaches who engage with senior executives to address coaching agendas including skills and styles, behavioural changes, addressing emerging agendas and developing new perspectives.
    • Improving existing Employee Assistance Programs- It is important for organizations and HR to strengthen the EAP by involving top management and the board, integrating employee assistance into all people processes and ensuring multiple points of organizational connect and positioning employee assistance programs positively within the organization  

  5. Creating a mental health and well-being policy

    It is important for HR to design a mental health and wellness policy including but not limited to the design of jobs to minimise harm, setting clear and reasonable expectations, providing employees with all the necessary resources to carry out their work and creating regular avenues for feedback. Some additional initiatives could include planned mental health leave and flexibility.

  6. Developing empathy

    In the words of Dr. Reuven Bar-on Empathy refers to- “Our ability to be aware of and understand how others feel. It is being sensitive to what, how and why people feel the way they do. Being empathetic is being able to “emotionally read” other people, which is the ability to pick up emotional cues. Empathetic people care about other people and show interest in them and concern for them; they express warmth and affection to others.” 

To be seen as a trusted source of help and tackle mental health concerns at the workplace effectively, this is the most critical skill for HR to develop.

Even as we move further into the digital era, and talk about automating various HR processes, we need to stop to reflect on one of the aspects that makes us truly human- the tendency to be and feel vulnerable. In the mad race towards the bottom-line, are we forgetting to let people feel vulnerable without labelling them as weak? More importantly are we refusing to let ourselves as HR professionals feel vulnerable enough to recognize the emotions of others, especially when they need help?

If the answer is an emphatic “Yes”, we better get to work! 

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Topics: Employee Relations, #MentalHealth

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