Workplace Mental Health: Is employee wellbeing a worthwhile investment?

How organizations can take a proactive role in promoting wellbeing

Aaheli Dasgupta

"When I started my first job, I didn't have an immediate supervisor. The only communication that I ever received from my supervisors in those two years was when I didn't do things properly - and this feedback was offered at team meetings by senior people from the company. I never knew if I did something right or if I was doing okay. It made me feel like I didn't belong in that organisation and I didn't matter in the larger vision."

“In my last job, there was more emphasis on reaching targets, but little understanding for the challenges that kept us from getting there. And it would be accompanied by a subtle threat, ‘Do this, or no big bonus for you.’ At that moment, I’d just feel frustrated but I realize now, I was switching off; I didn't see the point of working hard in a place where there was no attempt to understand or offer support.”

"I recall working in the bureau of a newspaper as being an extremely isolating experience. While my team, mostly based in the headquarters in New Delhi was dynamic, young and enthusiastic, I had little or no interaction with them. My presence in weekly meetings (via video-conference) was negotiable, as long as I sent them ideas for approval. The lack of team interaction made me question my position in the team.

(These are three real workplace stories. Names have been withheld on request. )

These are just a few of the many examples of how workplace stress can lead to poor emotional wellbeing and lower productivity. But how does focusing on employee wellbeing benefit the organization?

Let’s look at a few numbers to put things into perspective. A 2015 survey revealed that at least four out of every 10 private sector employees in India suffer from depression and anxiety. Another study revealed that around 35 to 45 percent of absenteeism could be attributed to mental health issues. A 2016 India-based research by the Society for Human Resource Management found that employee stress can cost an organisation anywhere from Rs 10 crore to Rs 100 crore annually.

The numbers are very telling of the severity of the situation, and these are representative of the private sector. Apart from the financial loss, there are many indirect effects of workplace stress such as potential for miscommunication that results in poor interpersonal relationships, increase in employee turnover and growing bad reputation which may affect potential hires.

Many companies are now partnering up with EAPs (employee assistance programs) to help their employees with their  emotional wellbeing. However, not all organisations may have such a program. In such instances, it's up to the Human Resources to implement stronger policies for preventing workplace stress.

We asked a few experts what they felt could help the employees. Monica Kamath, HR manager at a firm, said, “It really is a top-down approach. The conversation has to start there [at the top] and only then can something concrete happen.” There is pre-existing stigma attached to seeking help, despite the company's best efforts to communicate and encourage employees. Ellen Shinde, clinical director, 1to1help, an EAP service provider, said, “There is a need to normalise this, bring it at par with physical health.”

The HR personnel can play a proactive role in the emotional wellness of the employee through:

  • Educating employees about mental health issues or mental health literacy. This may help employees identify when they or someone else needs help.

  • Ensuring that employees are aware of the wellness programs available at the workplace.

  • Organizing groups within the organization that discuss workplace stress and healthy coping mechanisms.

  • Capping overtime hours and encourage a more balanced lifestyle, etc.

at workplace has an all-pervasive effect on the overall workplace environment. Therefore, it is necessary to not only have policies that deal with this effectively, but a more proactive approach to promote employee wellbeing. In doing so, the company is investing in its future.

With inputs from Budhaditya Sujeer, assistant professor at Manipal University.