How mental health issues are perceived in the corporate sector

A closer look at how the corporate sector perceives mental health and how HR practices can help both employers and employees

Lalithashree Ganesh

Mental illnesses are the leading cause of disability worldwide, and there is an urgent need for workplaces to take measures to address the mental health issues of their employees and focus on their wellbeing. 

ASSOCHAM's report (April 2015) based on a survey conducted among 210 corporate employees infers that 48% of the employees surveyed experienced fatigue due to general anxiety and rarely reached out for help. Optum, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider estimates that 46% of Indian workforce suffers from some form of stress (OPTUM’s online Health Risk, 2016).

White Swan Foundation's Lalithashree Ganesh spoke to Major Vandana Sharma, a former military officer a corporate leader with two decades of experience across strategy, HR, resource management, general management, and operations. She is also the founder of StartupPeople Consulting, and shares her insights on how the corporate sector perceives mental health and ways in which HR practices can help make workplaces mental health friendly.

Are conversations around mental health common at workplaces?
issues are still perceived with a lot of stigma, not just at workplaces but also in common society and neighborhoods. People are afraid to talk about it as they are scared they will be looked at differently by a lot of people who matter to them - their friends and colleagues may start avoiding them due to any conversations that may sound negative, depressing or critical. Therefore, they start getting into a shell to avoid being branded as negative or boring.

Can a mental illness be triggered at the workplace?
Some illnesses including depression, anxiety and stress disorders could definitely be triggered at the workplace. They could stem from an unsupportive work environment with no space for voicing concerns, working with an uncooperative manager, or people practices/policies such as overworking employees, leading to exhaustion, and unfair distribution due to heavy workload. These triggers contribute to distress, giving rise to mental health issues. It is important that the managers balance the workload fairly, and that HR also has enough checks and balances to receive continuous feedback or monitoring.

I have come across cases in a few companies where employees overworked due to overtime or incentive systems in order to earn more. However, they completely neglected their health in the process and the system did not monitor or check their condition till things reached a breaking point.

What should workplaces do to function better?
is a very essential and integral part of functioning at any conscientious workplace. It is the management team's responsibility to ensure that the welfare of the employees comes first, and they will respond by contributing with complete dedication, trusting that their welfare, reward and recognition are taken care of. This is the reason some companies have core values that make employees stick to the same workplace for their lifetime - like the Tatas, Flipkart and Amazon in India; worldwide companies like Google, Facebook, BCG, Bain & Company which are known for their compassionate people policies that bring out the best performances in employees.

What are some of the HR practices that can help make organizations mental-health friendly?
HR practices have a great role to play to ensure the mental health of the organisation is good.

  • Having a transparent, open culture and allowing fearless communication between employees and management is critical.

  • Creating infrastructure including facilities for employees to relax, like recreational areas with various activities: physical and others like music, or those that unleash creativity/inspiration play a good role.

  • Providing space for a creche, to ensure childcare and other such responsibilities are taken care of (which could be a huge cause of concern/anxiety for young parents) and place for worship could be some things organisations could do to support employees.

  • A lot of good organisations also provide healthy and nutritious meals throughout the day and night to support employees, which is also a great way to ensure that the basic needs of eating right and on time are taken care of.

  • Besides this, creating recreational communities to support fitness campaigns, gym, zumba, yoga classes, adventure activities, etc. help build a healthy work environment and also work on the long term, cross-functional team building and community feeling throughout the company.

Major Vandana Sharma is an army veteran and an award-winning senior industry leader, entrepreneur and TEDx speaker. She mentors youth and startups at her venture, Startup People Consulting, committed to building empowered organizations with diversity and culture at their core.