Mental Health Issues @ Workplace : The Invisible Challenge

Lakshmi’s transition from ‘dependable’ to ‘unpredictable’ has been a puzzle to Rajeev, her immediate supervisor. Lakshmi was a ‘dependable’ Junior Manager at DBC Real Estate Company, taking care of client relations, reporting to Rajeev. She is a single mother taking care of two young kids and her ageing parents who live in the next town. As the pandemic struck, she had to start working from home, managing the kids who also were staying home and also had to tend to her parents who were at high risk of getting infected. She struggled to meet all the challenges in face of uncertainty at the work as the company’s business was struggling. In April, Rajeev wrote to Lakshmi along with all his team members regarding the 25% pay-cut the company decided to impose on all employees to keep business viable. All he got as a reply from Lakshmi was an impulsive resignation letter by email. Two months down the line, the company had lost majority of the clients Lakshmi was taking care of. Lakshmi at her end, is jobless, became temperamental and difficult to keep up with for her kids as well as parents, summarily ‘unpredictable’. When Rajeev bumped into Lakshmi at a supermarket the previous day, she seemed to be a very different person from the one he knew, a miserable version of her previous self.

According to a study conducted by the Institute of Health Metrics & Evaluation, 10.7 % of the world’s population suffers from one form of mental illness or the other, like Lakshmi. However less than half of them ever receive any form of treatment. The result is unhappy lives and agony undergone by such population. The financial loss is US $ 1 Trillion to the world economy, as estimated by the World Health Organization

Mental Health issues are real and more common than what we think. Fortunately these issues can be addressed by seeking help. Unfortunately, these issues are left unaddressed both by individuals as well as organizations. Less than half of the affected people receive treatment as revealed by studies. A WHO study has revealed that for every US $ 1 spent on mental well-being, the return is US $ 4 in the form of improved health & productivity. The actual spending on mental health is estimated by WHO to be US $ 2 per person per annum in low-medium income countries and US $ 50 in high income countries.

All the above-mentioned statistics are based on studies conducted well before the pandemic broke out. Now, add the mammoth impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health of people across the globe, as being predicted by experts. The following reasons have contributed immensely to an overall decline in mental well-being in the background of the pandemic:
▪ Psychological trauma as this is the first challenge of its kind in last 100 years to human race in tackling with a pandemic of such scale. High amount of information regarding the rapid increase in number of infected persons & deaths keeps getting posted very frequently, affecting psyche negatively.
▪ The lockdown has had a profound impact on the way of living leading to increased number of cases of domestic violence, divorces, depression etc.
▪ The current as well as the last few generations had never had to deal with uncertainty of this intensity and magnitude. The uncertainty extends to very basic functions of life such as health of self/health of loved ones/ job loss/ business loss/ salary cut etc.
▪ Work from Home has imposed itself upon people rather than being embraced. Extended & forced stay indoors with very limited options to venture out causes stress of its own kind.

Individuals, Organizations and Governments are the three key stakeholders of this issue and they can no longer afford to neglect mental health issues. At an individual level, we should understand that it is in the mind that we live. Our body is but a vehicle that hosts the mind, which is the driver. However great the vehicle is, if the driver is not in good condition, the ride cannot be enjoyed and the desired destinations also may not be reached. A bad driver can very quickly damage the vehicle as well. Fear of stigma which has been a major deterrent from seeking help, should be overcome.
The governments should ensure that the society as a whole does not transition from the current pandemic into another pandemic of mental health issues. In order to achieve this objective, Governments should increase the spending on mental health, raise awareness regarding mental health issues and help create a culture where social stigma does not exist regarding people who obtain treatment for mental health issues.
The role of Organizations, which is the primary focus point of this essay, is equally important in ensuring mental well-being of their associates. Organizations should bear in mind that the estimated US $ 1 Trillion adverse impact that Mental Health issues cause, is in reality borne by them. Organizations, albeit inadvertently are the both contributors as well as victims of the issue. The stress that is caused due to work and operational environment, even toxic Organizational Culture in certain cases contribute to the issue. Additionally, the business uncertainties, pressure to work from home which is an invasion of the private lives of the associates, etc enhance the probability of mental health issues arising.

Mental Health issues of associates could have an intangible, but significant impact on businesses. The competence, skill and intelligence of an organization is the sum total of the competence, skill and intelligence of its associates. While data related to the business of the organization lies in its computers, the intelligence to use the data for best business outcomes lies in the minds of employees. If the minds of some of the employees are corrupted by sickness, the overall intelligence diminishes leading to poor business outcomes. Business owners would be well aware of the fact that not all minds are immediately replaceable. If an associate quits because of mental health issues, the short and long term effects of the absence of that person and the impact on the morale of his/her colleagues are bound to be profound. Following are some of the findings that reveal how mental health issues have a direct impact on businesses:

▪ Depression affects individual’s ability to work physically by about 20% of the time and cognitive performance 35% of the time (CDC). However, only 40% of employees who have severe depression receive treatment and only 57% of employees who have mild depression receive treatment.
▪ In developed countries, an average of 35-45% of absenteeism is due to mental health problems (WHO).
▪ Mental health issues at workplace increase likelihood of workplace accidents. The damage to the reputation of the company or the employer branding adds salt to injury.
▪ Emotions are contagious. Mental Health issues of one associate have an impact on the morale and productivity of people working with the associate. It is a downward spiral until addressed in a positive manner.
Following are some of the preventive and corrective measures that Business Managers can put in place to tackle with the issue.
● The very fundamental requirement for mental well-being at workplace is a safe and healthy workplace and environment. Organizations and Regulatory authorities need to ensure that the workplace is free from Hazards, the job is designed not to induce stress and the environment is healthy and hygienic. Enforcing short breaks at regular intervals helps reduce the impact of stress caused due to repetition.
● Organizational Culture plays a major role in how employees fare at work from a mental health perspective. It is imperative for organizations to design and build positive and progressive cultures and not leave culture to chance.
● Communication: Organizational communication is a major source of assurance to employees and provides clarity. Lack of relevant know-how and information leads to speculation, rumors and anxiety. Frequent communication in the form of online Town hall Meetings is a good idea and does not cost money.
● Emotional Intelligence (EI) : Various studies have established the positive correlation between Emotional Intelligence and Happiness. EI and happiness build psychological resilience and improve interpersonal relationships enabling associates to cope up with the setbacks and challenges associated with the job and business. Organizations can choose to help associates enhance EI through awareness programs and practical exercises.
● Breaking the taboo related to mental health issues to enable associates to seek help. Creating a sense of security enables associates to come out in the open and seek medical care and resolve the issue rather than live with the issue. This could improve the reporting of this hugely under-reported problem.
● Several Organizations could do a lot better in the area of feedback receiving practices from associates. Employees should be encouraged to share their feedback and concerns without fear so that issues can be addressed quickly before they aggravate.
● Progressive Organizations work on improving the Happiness index among their associates. Happiness is the ingredient that provides the necessary resilience to tackle with day to day difficulties. Happy minds do not slip into depression and anxiety very quickly.
● Employee Assistance Programs: Across the world several organizations which provide Professional services at very reasonable costs, exist. Organizations can subscribe to such services so that employees could access these services while maintaining anonymity on phone and could proceed to seek personal counseling if required.
● Empanelment of Psychologists: Some progressive organizations have been empaneling psychologist’s services for visits and consultations by associates.
● Two of the dearest aspects of life for almost all human beings are work and family. There used to be a certain demarcation between family life and work life which kept getting blurred progressively with time. Currently we are at a juncture where work has penetrated into the living rooms practically eliminating the demarcation between family and work life. This provides a need as well as opportunity to involve Family Members while celebrating successes and more importantly while communicating about future of work, future plans of the organization etc. This helps associates to obtain better involvement and emotional companionship from family members in professional journey.
● In the current times, rather Corona Times, most businesses are reassessing their revenues and costs to preserve or enhance bottom-line to keep organizations thrive or at-least alive. The most common measures are to reduce costs. However, organizations should first explore opportunities to enhance existing streams of revenue as well as finding new streams of revenue. In situations where cutting costs is unavoidable, reducing spend on employees earnings and their well-being should be considered as the last option.

The action items proposed above are not all-exhaustive. There are several other avenues to address issues related to mental well-being. Individuals, Organizations and Governments are required to realize that Mental Health issues are real, acknowledge, destigmatize and work on solutions in order to surmount the issue before the situation of each victim becomes insurmountable.

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