We are in 2020, but Mental Health in India is fast becoming a cause for concern. As per WHO, mental illnesses constitute one sixth of all health-related disorders and India accounts for nearly 15% of global mental disorders. By end of 2020, roughly 20% of India will suffer from some form of mental illness.

Beyond these staggering numbers, it is important to recognize the voids in how mental health is understood and dealt with in our country. The lack of awareness on this subject, the old age-stigma associated with it, lack of trained professionals are reasons for the low priority given to mental healthcare in India.

One never hesitates from taking medication for high blood pressure, diabetes or wait to go to the hospital, if one experiences any physical pain. We do not hesitate in sharing and speaking about our physical ailments with our near and dear ones, family, friends and colleagues. But how often do we seek treatment for mental health issues. Are we comfortable in sharing that we are having anxiety or panic attacks, battle with depression or worse?

We often tend to forget that it is stress and mental issues like depression and anxiety which debilitate our health silently. They are in fact a major reason for most of the above physical illnesses.

In fact, India adopted its first act on mental health care as late as 2017 which covered medical services for people with mental illnesses but did not make provision for awareness on mental health.

Productivity Burden of Mental Illness

There are multiple researches which highlight the impact mental health has on productivity. The WHO has estimated that India alone will suffer economic losses amounting to 1.03 trillion dollars from mental health conditions between 2012 and 2030.

In addition to the direct costs to the economy associated with mental illness, there are many indirect costs which impact productivity. Research reveals that the most stressful thoughts in people’s minds are work related. Factors like job insecurity, challenging targets, performance pressure and even office politics at work lead to increased stress levels which physically, mentally and emotionally drain the employees. And when a person is mentally stressed, it limits her/him functionally. Reduced capacity to focus, handle pressure, respond to change, deal with negative feedback leads to increase in absenteeism and presenteeism  physically being at work but not working, underperformance, overstaffing to cover absences, conflict at work and the personal front. Without appropriate support and medication such employees struggle to manage, call in sick, and at times end up quitting adding to cost related to recruitment and retention.

Approach towards Employee Well Being and Mental Health

Again quoting WHO, mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his/her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. “

To realise this aspirational state of affairs, organizations have a key role to play.

Well-being cannot be an isolated program or initiative. Well-being is purpose-driven and woven into the fabric of an organization’s values and the employee experience. It is inextricably linked to policies, programs and benefits as well as to desired culture, productivity improvement, talent retention and sustainability of business at large.

Achieving health in the workplace begins by building and sustaining workplace culture that enhance health and well-being. Robust relationships with managers and colleagues, open communication, level of employee participation, level of responsibility, authority and decision making, optimal workload, flexible working hours, and career development prospects are key factors which define the work culture of an organization. Creation of a healthy company culture begins with top leadership support and includes every level of the management from leaders to line managers.

Regular training and sensitization programs on issues around mental health will help improve awareness on mental health issues. Tools like online courses, videos, and reading materials would improve mental health literacy in the organization and aid people managers to communicate with employees in a more sensitive and empathetic manner.

Beyond the steps taken around prevention, employers should also have in place support for employees showing signs of mental health problems. Identifying early signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression and other mental health problems through monitoring and screening tools, providing forums like Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can help with diagnosis and treatment on time.  Also, organizations need to provide appropriate forums which encourage employees to share their success stories on dealing with such issues, encourage them to speak about it without inhibitions and come forward to seek help. This would be a critical step aimed at demystifying the stigma around mental health and its treatment.

Having occasional health talks or just doing a health camp will not be enough to move the needle. Organizations need to have well-being programs that are comprehensive and sustainable. Programs that can bring a change in employee behaviours and inculcate habits towards a healthy and stress-free lifestyle. Only then organizations will see a bend in their healthcare cost trends and improvement in work quality and productivity.

When we say comprehensive, the program should help improve well-being of employees around multiple health dimensions- physical, social, emotional and even financial.

Organizations need to understand that stress triggers vary from employee to employee depending on the different life stages they are in. For example, with Millennials and Generation Z entering our workforce and their changing focus from sales targets to aspects like work life balance and value creation, emotional and social wellness are becoming important which focus on being more self-aware, accepting diversity, being inclusive, supporting and collaborating with others. On the other hand, a new mother may seek help on postpartum depression, stress management or seek support through flexible working hours etc.

Organizational support should not end as the employee leaves office. Concerns around family, finances can also be major stress triggers which impact work. Having 24/7 access to counsellors/trainers can help in such situations.

Well-being programs need to be sustainable to see the desired change in the behaviours of its employees. This can be done by introducing programs which encourage continuous communication, engagement of employees and recognition – offering financial incentives for a healthy lifestyle.

From physical infrastructure like in house gyms, on campus doctors/pharmacy, nap rooms, standing desks, to offering healthy meals, introducing flexible policies, running awareness sessions/campaigns, having in house counsellors, it is heartening to see how some organizations have taken major strides in their journey towards the overall well-being of their employees. With the challenges of today’s VUCA environment (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), and increased levels of stress, mental wellbeing of employees will continue to be a focus area for organizations in years to come. However it will take a comprehensive and sustained approach to deal with it holistically and effectively.