The theme of ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’ for the upcoming World Mental Health Day 2021 on October 10 underlines the pressing need to focus sufficiently on health beyond the physical in a sustained way in a world still struggling to fight the coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequalities in human development, including dealing a double whammy to mental health by causing more incidence of mental disorders and disrupting already limited mental health services.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has already released guidelines for prevention activities to address mental health issues caused by COVID-19. Such measures are welcome. At the same time given the enormity of the challenge, it is an apt time to reimagine our approach towards mental healthcare at the workplace and removing the stigma around it.
As businesses slowly emerge from the restrictions imposed by the lockdown, it is critical to reimagine the work environment in a manner where employees feel safe, secure and supported – not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. According to the WHO, depression and anxiety disorders alone are estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. It’s time for organisations to relook at their policies and integrate mental health as an essential part of employee well-being, in a manner that it fits in with the company’s culture.
While organisations acknowledge the importance of mental health and well-being of employees, it also places leaders and HR professionals in a rather precarious state as there is no defined, standard policy in the country. Often companies face legal obstacles in terms of how they approach the mental health of their employees. Technically, an employer cannot ask an employee directly if he is having mental health issues. Yet there are signs that an employer should be noticing that could indicate an employee needs help. What this also means is that companies need to invest in training, learning and development as we go ahead. Here are some salient features that companies can consider:
Importance of a mental health policy
Addressing mental health issues in your business starts with establishing a strong mental health policy. This gives employees and management a framework to encourage proper treatment. It also lets employees know that the organization wants to remove any stigma surrounding mental health so they feel comfortable discussing any mental health issues with their direct managers. It is essential to ensure everyone is more aware of mental health in the workplace and feels confident discussing it. Emotional intelligence is a key component of understanding mental health issues better and organisations must focus on developing this quality in leaders.
Create a conducive work culture
According to the State of Mental Health Report, close to 40 per cent of workers have reported suffering from depression, anxiety or stress over the last 12 months. Often the fear of stigma prevents some employees from getting the help they need. For employers and leaders, it is critical to implement awareness programs to eliminate stigma associated with mental illness. One of the most important things that an HR or learning executive can do in supporting mental well-being is to advocate for normalizing conversations around the subject. Workplace mental health issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, are increasing at a troubling rate and will prevail for years to come. The coming storm of mental health problems will put business productivity and societal health at dire risk if no immediate and decisive action is taken. Workplace wellbeing, then, refers to the business goal of being watchful of, and then improving on, the collective mental health of your workplace, so that everyone feels supported and included, particularly in the more difficult times.
Small changes go a long way
Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and we are living in uncertain times. Prior to the pandemic, many companies had increased their focus on workplace mental health. Those efforts are even more imperative today.
Make check-ins a habit - intentionally checking in with each team member on a regular basis is more critical than ever. It is important to go beyond the formalities and really listen, and encourage questions and concerns. Of course, be careful not to be overbearing; that could signal a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage.
Rely on tech to track data
Technology is a great enabler during the time of remote working. Employees enjoy interfacing with collaboration tools and video conferences to discuss work and maintain relationships with co-workers, this can have a positive effect on employee well-being. Coaching programs for mental health prevention that utilize technology, digital content and personalized coach support which can be accessed easily, tend to have less stigma, are more scalable and cost-effective than service-model coaching programs. With employees working remotely, using technology to provide a variety of mental health programs, such as licensed counselors on call, meditation platforms and virtual education for employees to learn coping mechanisms and stress management.
Empathy as a part of leadership
The silence surrounding psychological problems at work can be costly to your business. Leaders who show they care about individual employees and provide mental health guidance can help boost spirits. Host video calls to keep up employee morale and promote a larger conversation about overall well-being. Remind employees to take mental and physical breaks, exercise and participate in other non-work-related activities to reduce anxiety and improve productivity.
The ramifications of this epidemic on top of the pandemic are sure to be long-lasting and pervasive. Even though it will require a heroic effort to emerge from the shadows of this deadly pandemic, organisations must to what they can to safeguard their employees.
The after-effects of the pandemic are still unfolding and as workplaces consider various models in the wake of gradual easing of restrictions, it is critical to have in place a mental health policy that showcases its importance as much as physical well-being. Caring for employees’ mental health not only creates a more positive atmosphere but it also has a long-term effect on productivity, collaboration and retention.