Why corporate India needs to focus on mental health of its employees

Loneliness is just one of the ingredients in a deadly cocktail that is setting off a range of mental health problems among employees
Every Saturday morning G, a young executive with a leading software company in Bengaluru, walks to the mall near his apartment. He waits till the doors open and then he goes in. For the next two days, the mall is his retreat, the place where he can be anxiety-free till Monday. The city has isolated him, bringing on bouts of anxiety that make him gasp for air in his room on the days he has no workplace to go to. His colleagues had no idea of his condition until he let it slip one Friday evening while everyone was discussing their weekend plans.

Abhijit Bhaduri, management consultant and executive coach, recalls the case as he talks about the mental health crisis staring corporate India in the face. Bhaduri, who also worked as the chief learning officer at Wipro, says that loneliness is a common malaise amongst young employees who leave home for the first time and find it difficult to adjust to their new life. It can often lead to depression and anxiety — sometimes even turning a person suicidal.

However, loneliness is just one of the ingredients in a deadly cocktail that is setting off a range of mental health problems among employees. Making it worse is the stigma associated with such illnesses, say psychologists and therapists across the country.

Jasdeep Mago, who runs a suicide prevention therapy centre in Mumbai called Invisible Illness, says that at first her foundation did not want to work with the corporate sector. But soon they realised that it would be impossible not to. She says most people coming to her are from the age group of 25-45 years. Invisible Illness works mostly with small and medium enterprises but none wants their names to be made public. 

Experts feel that there is a conspiracy of silence around mental health problems in the corporate sector. A few big companies such as Hindustan Unilever (HUL), with its 12-year-old Lamplighter programme, or the Aditya Birla group with its foundation, mPower, are exceptions. While mPower is not just for employees within the group, Lamplighter is an in-house initiative. According to the company’s note on the programme, based on annual medical checks, employees are assigned colour codes according to their health status. Employees identified to be significantly afflicted are provided with support and necessary treatment. 

The note says, “Last year, we had partnered with experts in the field of mental health and counselling and had set up toll-free helplines in nine languages for our employees so they could speak to a counsellor and seek advice on physical and mental health related matters. This year we expanded this facility to include face-to-face orientation sessions across 29 locations in India.”

A spokesperson for HUL, which has set up a robust system for mental health care, says, “We look at employee well-being from a physical, mental, emotional as well as a purposeful perspective. We encourage employees to participate in our health and well-being programme, called Lamplighter.”

Given the toll that mental illness has begun to take on productivity and morale, many firms are now introducing similar initiatives. Sharmila Banwat, an occupational therapist and clinical psychologist who works with leading financial sector professionals in Mumbai, cites the findings of a 10-year longitudinal Indian study, titled “Mental health status of corporate employees”. Conducted by 1to1Help.net, a professional counselling outfit for companies, the study involved over 6,000 employees in 200 companies across multiple cities. The results of the study are alarming, says Banwat.

One in every two employees showed signs of depression. Women were more prone to depression than men. While 80 per cent of the respondents exhibited symptoms of anxiety, 55 per cent had symptoms of depression. The study also showed that the risk of suicidal behaviour had gone up from 2.1 out of 10 in 2008 to 8.21 out of 10 in 2016. In other words, 80 per cent of the employees polled showed suicidal behaviour. The identified triggers were prolonged stress in their personal and professional lives. 

World Health Organization defines mental illness as a behavioural or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning. It refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders, health conditions involving significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behaviour and distress and/or problems in functioning in social, work or family activities. It is different from mental well-being or general well-being — the terms used interchangeably by people to describe such problems. 

The first step, say health professionals, is to accept it as a form of illness and not mask it as a lifestyle issue —  something that a recent poster tweeted by the Ministry of Health does. It says: “Depression is a state of low mood that affects a person’s thought, behaviour, feeling and sense of well-being. One must take up activities that keep him or her boosted in order to cope with depression.” The poster suggests walks, yoga, fruits, sleep for eight hours and positive-thinking as remedies for depression. 

Such prescriptions are the bane of mental health professionals for they diminish the seriousness of the issue and discourage people from seeking help. Banwat points to the disastrous consequences of leaving mental illnesses untreated. “Mental health conditions are treatable. We are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people manage their mental health conditions,” she says. The key is to get people to overcome their shame and to make others stop treating it as a taboo topic.
Sanjay Sarkar, co-founder and director at Finoux Solutions, a software company based in Mumbai, has set up a counselling group, Therappo, for mental health issues. Sarkar is not a trained professional but his platform has empanelled a group of counsellors and therapists who are trained to deal with problems in the workplace. Therappo offers video-chat based counselling and guarantees privacy, which makes it appealing to employees who are terrified of their condition being found out. 

Sarkar feels that the social stigma around mental illnesses is the big reason for the problem having ballooned the way it has. According to him, the Indian corporate sector’s attitude to mental health problems is strangely dichotomous. While it is a huge priority at the CEO-level, the initiatives to tackle the issue are lacking at the HR level, he says. 

Other experts agree with his view. Banwat says that she has hit a wall in her attempts to reach out to the HR departments of various companies. And yet, getting the corporate sector on board is a must-do. Even if the workplace is not responsible for the mental illness, says one counsellor, it exacerbates the problem. 

Puneet Manuja, co-founder of a helpline called YourDost that has conducted numerous corporate workshops and training programmes for executives, says that the taboo around the issue is so strong that it stops people from taking any action. “When we conduct corporate workshops and ask a question like ‘how many of you are stressed’, nearly every hand goes up. But ask them how many have sought help and there is barely one,” he says.
Most people who call YourDost do so between 8 and 12 in the night. “Back from work, that’s the time they probably feel the need for help most,” he adds. Many of them worry that they may lose their job and women often stress about an impending marriage that they think might curtail their careers. Manuja says that every young employee wants to set up a billion-dollar company by the time they are 30 and when they can’t, they sink into anxiety and depression.
Banwat points out that everyone gains when companies invest in improved support for employee mental health. “The employee gains, the employer gains, and the economy gains,” she says.

HUL, for one, has been very proactive on the issue of mental health. “We provide 24x7 toll-free telephonic and face-to-face access to counselling to  all employees. We also have face-to-face orientation sessions and street plays to break the stigma around mental health,” a spokesperson says. 
However, mental health professionals say that this is an exception rather than the rule. Indian companies have a long way to go before they can even spot the way out of the labyrinth of their employees’ minds.

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