Back to work: How organizations can support people with mental illness

We spoke to survivors, experts and HR personnel to understand more

Staying at work or returning to work plays a large part of recovery for someone who has experienced a mental illness. Going to work, having a routine and staying productive helps the person have a sense of purpose, boosting their confidence and self-esteem. It also has the added benefit of supporting those around them be more aware of mental illness and create an inclusive environment.

Also read: When can a person with mental illness return to work?

That said, most organizations aren’t very inclusive towards people with mental illness. Several organizations support employees with mental illness on a case-by-case basis, and there are hardly any regulatory or industry policies that address the issue on a wider level. This makes it challenging for both the person with mental illness, and for the management of the organization. For the person with mental illness, this implies uncertainty about their job safety, and emotional wellbeing at work; for the management and human resources, the absence of a policy means that they have little or no systems in place to support this employee.

For a person with mental illness, going back to work may bring up some anxieties around the following issues:

  • Will I be judged or stigmatized?
  • Will I lose my job or be demoted?
  • Will my colleagues understand me and the challenges I face?
  • Will I be able to cope with the stress of work?
  • Will I be able to cope with the other environmental stresses, and work stress too?

What can organizations do to address these concerns and create more inclusion for people with mental illness?

We spoke to a group of people – which included survivors, HR personnel and mental health experts – and here are their suggestions on how organizations can have systems in place to create a supportive working environment for those with mental illness:

  • Most organizations have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Having mental health as a part of the EAP program helps break the stigma and create conversations on mental health.
  • Have a mental health professional on call for support to those who may need it. Display this information prominently across the premises with numbers for emergency mental health support. Ensure that confidentiality is maintained.
  • Provide mental health education and sensitization to all employees, including senior management and officials who shape company policies.
  • Ensure that there is no discrimination or harassment to employees on account of their disability or illness.
  • While dealing with employees tackling a mental illness, explore flexible options and arrive at a solution that doesn’t cause them additional stress.
  • Have support available to managers so that they can reach out to an expert when faced with a difficult situation, if they’re working with someone who has a mental illness.

Bangalore-based counselor Maullika Sharma believes that all of this can be achieved if there is emphasis on the employee’s mental wellbeing in the company’s policies. “Managers and co-workers can then be trained to recognize signs of illness, behave in a non-judgmental manner, and go beyond the cut-and-dry mechanisms of delivery. This way there is visibility around mental health issues, and people don’t feel stigmatized. The co-workers and manager are also empowered with regard to dealing with any situation where a colleague may need support.”