How companies can better address mental health at the workplace

We need to ask, are we doing it right?

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After the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions around mental health-related issues started to gather heat. With work-from-home becoming the norm and official and personal hours overlapping, professionals around the world were mentally exhausted. Most were overburdened with domestic responsibilities and official commitments and ended up spending long hours working. Naturally, it took a toll on mental health, leading to extreme stress and burnout.

Companies such as Bumble, a social-media platform, recognised the rising stress amongst the its employees and gave their entire workforce in the US one week off to relax. There is no doubt that companies are aware of this issue at the workplace but somehow, the steps that have been taken by firms to address the same have not really created the desired positive impact on the workforce.

A report released by Deloitte which studied the behaviours of GenZs and millennials, states that both the groups are highly stressed out due to work and more than 50 per cent agree that their employers have been talking about mental health at work but there has hardly been any real impact.

“As an organisation, we have to become partners in this journey because mental health issues are not solved so easily.”

Suchishmita Burman, HR leader & life coach

According to the data released, more than 70 per cent of millennials and Genzs admit that their employers have started to focus on the mental wellbeing of employees, no significant positive impact has been experienced by the employees in their lives as a result of their efforts.

So, where are the employers going wrong? Are they following the right steps in addressing the issue or we are they just resorting to meaningless gimmicks?

“As organisations, we need to reflect on the real purpose of our actions. Are we just doing it because we see others doing it or do we really want to help our employees address their mental health issues?”

Mangesh Bhide, head-HR, technology & FTTx business, Reliance Jio Infocomm

The HR leaders HRKatha spoke to, agree that it is a good sign that employers have at least put the spotlight on the issue. They feel it would be wrong to be critical of the intentions of companies in solving mental health problems at the workplace.

“First of all, we should be thankful that at least companies have brought this issue of mental wellbeing to the table, because earlier it was nowhere part of the agenda of the HR team,” points out Sunil Singh, CHRO, Stellar Value Chain Solutions.

“If organisations do not have the right expertise to start an employee mental wellbeing programme, they should simply avoid doing it. In India people, become ‘gurus’ very fast. They think they know everything, but it is not true.”

Sunil Singh, CHRO, Stellar Value Chain Solutions

However, we cannot totally rule out the fact that there do exist organisations that just want to tom-tom about their diversity and inclusion practices. Activities pertaining to mental health have also become a fad these days. There are some facts that we need to understand and accept:

It is a societal issue – If someone is suffering from a mental health issue, there is always a hesitancy in talking about the same at the workplace, because mental health problems are still a taboo in our society. “If anyone takes this issue to the HR or the HR gets involved in this, it becomes a hot topic of discussion at the workplace because employees lack privacy at the workplace,” explains Singh.

There is lack of specialised skills – Mental health issues are not unknown. People are aware of such problems but ever since companies have started taking steps to recognise the same, a serious lack of knowledge or subject matter expertise has come to light. That means, HR leaders feel the need for psychologists or trained specialists / professionals, capable of dealing with workplace stress and mental health issues.

It is this scarcity of specialists that leads to employees failing to benefit even from the employee assistance programmes or EAPs. It is essential for organisations to have psychologists and mental-health specialists as part of their team to drive the agenda.

Lack of trust is a reality – While many progressive organisations have various programmes and windows that can help employees, there is an underlying lack of trust between the employees and the employers. The mental/emotional disconnect between them wo actually discourages the employees from availing such services.

As a strategic focus area to build an engaged high-performing workforce, most organisations express their intent to enhance the total wellness quotient for their employees by driving a balance of mind, body and soul, admits Amit Das, CHRO, Bennett Coleman & Company.

However, he also admits, “At times, lack of trust, empathy and psychological connect, creates a barrier making employees feel uncomfortable sharing their mental health challenges in a transparent manner”.

As a result, employees are unable to avail the counselling platforms and associated support ecosystem provided by the organisation, says Das.

Intent has to be genuine – Just the way companies love talking about their DE&I agendas, mental health has also come to be another fad for them. It is important for organisations to reflect and ask themselves exactly why they are doing this. They need to ask themselves whether they really want to genuinely help their people, or are they simply doing things for the sake of it. “As organisations, we need to reflect on the real purpose of our actions. Are we just doing it because we see others doing it or do we really want to help our employees address their mental health issues?,” questions Mangesh Bhide, head-HR, technology & FTTx business, Reliance Jio Infocomm.

Singh believes that if organisations do not have the right expertise to start an employee mental wellbeing programme, they should simply avoid doing it. He observes that in India people, become ‘gurus’ very fast. They think they know everything, but it is not true.

Similarly, while trying to address the mental health issue at the workplace, organisations think they know everything and are taking the right steps. However, Singh suggests that in the absence of expertise, organisations should refrain from starting mental-wellness programmes. “We have to understand that it is no joke, but a serious matter. Without expertise, organisations may actually be playing with the lives of their people,” Singh warns.

Measuring impact is essential – The issue of mental health is not a one-dimensional problem. Merely creating a platform is not enough. “That is like a tick in the box activity for most companies,” says Suchishmita Burman, HR leader & life coach. Burman stresses upon the need to build an ecosystem where people can discuss such issues openly. “As an organisation, we have to become partners in this journey because mental health issues are not solved so easily,” asserts Burman.

Therefore, it is important to measure the impact by finding out how many people actually availed the EAP services and benefited from them. This would require proper evaluation of the ecosystem. “The basic and most important step is to ensure that people are comfortable talking about their mental health,” points out Burman rightly.

The issue of mental health at the workplace cannot just be addressed as another activity. Human resource leaders suggest taking small steps and reflecting upon the extent one can go to help the workforce tackle this issue. A deep analysis and thorough study is required before deciding on the steps that can be taken to efficiently address the issue at the workplace.

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