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Towards Mind-positive Workplaces

Focus will be on protecting a company's most precious asset - the emotional well-being of employees
Neerja Birla   New Delhi     Print Edition: February 9, 2020
Towards Mind-positive Workplaces
Illustration by Raj Verma

From the nature of our work and the way we work to the tools that help us work - everything has changed, rather, evolved. The connectivity tools at our disposal such as automation and even the rise of AI allows us greater flexibility in when and where we work. At the same time, it blurs the line between work and personal time. Increased global competition and a difficult economy mean that businesses have to work harder and continuously innovate ways to stay profitable and relevant. The question we should be asking now is not whether these changes are good or bad but how they affect us - our minds, our lifestyles and the bottom lines of our businesses. The future of the workplace depends on how well we adapt to these changes and how well we learn to deal with these challenges in an effective manner and balance the pros and the cons.

A Wall Street Journal report in 2016 showed that millennial Indians are spending over 52 hours a week at work on an average, much more than their counterparts in 25 other countries. Performance pressures, office politics, complex interpersonal relations, family priorities, financial worries - we're regularly exposed to stressors without having the training, tools or support system to mitigate its effects. So, it's not surprising that four out of 10 professionals in India suffer from either anxiety disorders or depression. In the private sector alone, these mental health concerns affect 42.5 per cent of employees, according to various studies and surveys (Assocham, Optum and others). Stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, personality problems and psychiatric problems are some of the commonly cited mental health issues among working professionals.

What starts out as increasing underperformance often escalates into absenteeism and lowered productivity due to frequent sick days. As things worsen, companies will have to deal with the rising cost of hiring and developing talent only to lose them to burnout and mental health concerns. Eventually, they will have trouble attracting the brightest and best talent, which is invaluable when it comes to continued success and sustainability.

Heavy Price to Pay

The cost of mental illness is starting to add up; WHO estimates that it currently costs the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity alone. This does not include the cost of treating poor mental health, wasted talent development resources, and the cost of co-morbidity that occurs when mental illness affects or exacerbates physical health concerns. The only silver lining in this cloud is that thanks to the alarming rise in the prevalence of mental health concerns, companies are waking up to the fact that mental wellness could impact everything from the bottom line to work culture and the sustainability of the business itself. However, culturally, we're still in a place where the topic of mental health is surrounded by denial and stigma.


Taking on Stress

  • The cost of mental illness is starting to add up; WHO estimates that it currently costs the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity alone.
  • A Wall Street Journal report in 2016 showed that millennial Indians are spending over 52 hours a week at work on an average, much more than their counterparts in 25 other countries.
  • Four out of 10 professionals in India suffer from either anxiety disorder or depression. In the private sector alone, these mental health concerns affect 42.5% of employees, according to various studies and surveys.
  • Due to the alarming rise in the prevalence of mental health concerns, companies are waking up to the fact that mental wellness could impact everything from the bottom line to work culture and the sustainability of the business itself.

While companies make a token effort to broach the topic in employee wellness initiatives, mental health is still the elephant in the boardroom and office corridors. Of the country's 1.1 million active registered companies, only 1,000 are estimated to have a structured employee assistance programme (EAP) for mental health, according to a survey by Optum.

Our workplaces are not just ill-equipped to handle the mental health needs of the present but are also woefully underprepared to tackle the mental health challenges of the future workplace. Workplace dynamics and job security are only going to get more stressful and employees will find that they need to keep developing transferable skills and be adaptive to fast changes.

Taking Care of Human Resources

The human mind is perhaps the most valuable resource that a company has. Apart from productivity, companies depend on employees to deliver their mission and drive sustainable success. Safeguarding and futureproofing this resource seems to be the obvious way ahead, but what does that look like?

You're having a tough time at work, and your manager comes in. "Are you okay?" he or she asks. Imagine a workplace where that happens and where you can honestly reply to that without fear of reproach and discrimination. That's what I envision for a mind-positive workplace of the future.

Imagine a workplace where you have high-performance goals and a hectic schedule, but also a work culture that lets you create synergy between your work and personal lives. Even though there may be late nights and tight deadlines, your organisation also facilitates and encourages you to disconnect and de-stress. No matter how different you are, you still feel like you belong, and that you're doing something meaningful with your life. When you need help, you have access to mental healthcare and sick days as part of your health benefits. Any signs of distress in the form of fatigue, lowered performance or behaviour changes are handled with empathy by management that understands and has in place a support system to help you.

So how do we move towards mind-positive workplaces? For companies that are just starting out on this journey, I'd advise a multi-pronged approach that includes:

  • Having workshops to increase awareness about mental health as well as training in the aspects of self-care, stress management, and resilience
  • Encouraging dialogue and ensure participation across all levels of employees
  • Focusing on including mental health skills in leadership training programmes
  • Having a dedicated employee assistance programme, either in collaboration with a mental wellness organisation or by developing an assistance programme internally
  • Incorporating mental health into employee wellness benefits
  • Most importantly, ensuring that employees have the time and support they need to actually avail of mental health resources put in place for them. (This is one of the most common feedback we get from employees in our programmes.)

Globally, we're seeing companies start to invest in initiatives to tackle the mental health issue. For example, EY has a programme called We Care, and as a part of it, senior leaders frequently share their struggles with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, leading by example that it's okay to talk about these issues, and that it won't hurt your career. Since launch, the company has seen a 32 per cent increase in calls to their programme, proving that employees feel more comfortable to engage in help-seeking behaviour. Canada's Bell Telecom partners with a digital wellness platform to provide 24x7 access to mental health resources. Over a two- to three-year period, Bell saw 20 per cent reduction in short-term disability related to mental health and an Return on Investment (RoI) of CA$2.18 on their investment in employee mental health.

Effecting change in work culture and practices is a slow process, but you will notice that the benefits and RoI increase with time. The challenge is to grow from running one-off mental health campaigns in the workplace to having a structured SOP for prevention and treatment programmes, consistent efforts to make mental wellness part of work culture and to have long-term strategies.

The future of our workplaces is filled with challenges and uncertainty, but with a robust mental wellness framework, businesses can rest assured that their best people are in the best of health to tackle them head-on.

Neerja Birla is Founder and Chairperson of Mpower

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