Supporting mental wellbeing at work

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Three experts provide tips on how employers can support workers’ mental wellbeing and keep them motivated to perform to the best of their ability.

The Covid-19 pandemic clearly poses a major risk to the mental health of Indian workers – whether it from worries about job security or the negative impact of social isolation due to prolonged periods of home working.

Safety Management asked three experts from the fields of psychological health, human resources and occupational health and safety (pictured right), what employers can
do to support the mental health of their staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, and therefore help them to perform to the best of their ability.

We interviewed:

  • Neha Kirpal, Co-founder of InnerHour, a psychological health support service platform for businesses and their staff
  • Sana Nayyar, Vice President of Human Resources at Urban Company, a technology-enabled home services company
  • Suresh Tanwar, Head of Audit and Consultancy at the British Safety Council in India.

How has the pandemic affected the mental health of employees?

Sana: The pandemic has been challenging for every individual globally, irreversibly altering the way we work. While we seek to understand the long-term consequences of these changes on employee wellbeing, it is our responsibility to prioritise their health, safety and productivity during this transition period. Juggling remote work, family, household chores, anxiety about contracting the virus and maintaining personal wellbeing has become a struggle for many. Burnouts have rapidly become ubiquitous.

Sana Nayyar, Vice President of Human Resources at Urban Company, a technology-enabled home services company

Neha: Covid-19 has exacerbated the mental health crisis in India, a predicament the country faced long before the pandemic. In particular, this crisis has negatively impacted the mental wellbeing of the Indian workforce. In corporate India, 46 per cent of people struggle with stress-related conditions, and 42.5 per cent suffer from depression and anxiety, making India the most depressed country in the world.

Even though workers of all socio-economic backgrounds require mental healthcare, the lack of access and anonymity, as well as the stigma surrounding mental illness, often prevent them from seeking professional help. 62 per cent of all Indians use words like ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ to refer to people with mental disorders. Furthermore, the dearth of mental health professionals hinders workers’ access to timely help; there are only 0.3 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in India.

What steps has your organisation taken to support the mental health of its staff?

Sana: To foster employee wellbeing, Urban Company decided to analyse the root cause of mental health burnouts among workers and take steps to mitigate these issues.

With the ongoing pandemic, many people are experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety and often find it difficult to talk about it. The treatment for mental health and psychological consultations are often expensive. Therefore, Urban Company has made psychologists accessible to its employees by partnering with a leading mental wellness platform. The complete consultation is paid for by the company. Through such initiatives, we are not only trying to foster employee health but also create an environment where people feel safe to talk about their mental health issues.

We also realised that many employees did not prioritise their health and refused to take sick leave when they had minor illnesses. We observed that people were trying to save their sick leave allowance days for emergencies in the future.

So, in order to foster employee wellbeing during the pandemic, Urban Company launched a new Mental Health Leave Policy under which employees are allowed to take unlimited sick leave if they have contracted Covid-19 or for mental health purposes. This policy encourages employees to prioritise their health without the fear of using up all their paid leave days.

Urban Company also implemented various initiatives towards employee wellbeing in these anxiety-prone and sensitive times. These include no-meeting-Wednesdays, silence hours, a buddy system for those living alone in the city and predictable time-offs, which encourage employees to take personal time off from work.

How can managers support good mental health among their workers?

Sana: We learnt an important lesson about communication during this period. Leaders in the organisation must communicate and then communicate some more! If we are able to constantly communicate to the team about the state of affairs and what the future looks like, it helps our extended teams focus on their work and feel more at ease with respect to their roles and their contribution to the bigger picture.

During the pandemic, employees were feeling isolated and disconnected while working from home for a long duration. So we took some steps to foster a spirit of connectivity and collaboration at work. We increased the frequency of ‘town halls’ where our founders and leaders connect with employees to ensure everyone is aware of the state of the business and other key initiatives that were being undertaken. All managers made sure there were several team catch-ups and one-to-ones during the week.

We also introduced other cross-team information-sharing platforms, such as team showcases and ‘ask me anything’ sessions by subject experts.

Have you observed any positive changes in the mental wellbeing of workers?

Sana: Over the last year, employees have been more open, honest and understanding with each other – as we build a culture of communicating about mental health issues. We have also seen collaboration that did not happen before because everybody was busy with their work. We’re already seeing a change in how mental health is acknowledged, prioritised and communicated to and by employees. This is a step in the right direction as we seek to create a safe and healthy work environment.

Although Urban Company is still following the ‘work from home’ model, our staff have slowly started to return to the workplace – but we are taking measures to protect them from the risk of catching Covid-19. We maintain a minimum employee strength in our offices, where mandatory screening and temperature checks are conducted for all staff members who enter the site. We have also marked out suitable seating arrangements, hallways and common usage areas, such as the pantry and rest rooms, to ensure maximum hygiene.

What steps can employers take to support the mental health of their staff?

Neha: Given the current realities, organisations have had to think innovatively about protecting their employees’ mental wellbeing, often turning to tech-enabled platforms to bridge barriers to access and affordability. InnerHour, our mental health platform and self-help app, has seen more than 700,000 people take free self-assessments, and more than 900,000 people have downloaded the app from over 100 cities across India.

No matter the designation or the extent of experience, people within corporate India have been required to change how they approach their jobs. Whether it is moving to a work-from-home structure or wearing masks in the office, and maintaining a physical distance from colleagues, Covid-19 has initiated a new normal in professional life. These sudden changes in lifestyle and routine can feel overwhelming and can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions or lead to further issues.

Employees in certain sectors have borne the brunt of the pandemic more than others. For instance, tourism and hospitality, among others, have taken huge hits, evoking fears about job loss among employees. On the other hand, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are naturally booming, but employees are overwhelmed with the immense workload.

Furthermore, as work-from-home becomes the norm, the lack of boundaries between personal and professional lives have led to employee burnout across the board. Advocacy around employees’ mental wellbeing and their right to set clear professional boundaries are still unusual in India.

Pratishtha Trivedi Mirza, senior consultant psychologist at InnerHour, says: “These issues are compounded by the lack of informal conversations that, pre-Covid, were commonplace in all organisations. Such social support in the workplace is a significant factor in job satisfaction as well as in reducing work-related stress.”

Young and first-time employees are particularly vulnerable to depression and anxiety as a result of such social isolation. What should have been an exciting first step into adulthood is rife with uncertainty and loneliness.

Neha Kirpal, Co-founder of InnerHour, a psychological health support service platform for businesses and their staff

How has the mental health of female employees been affected by Covid-19?

Neha: Alongside youth, the mental health of female workers in several industries has suffered due to the pandemic. Women have been forced to be hypervigilant to balance personal and professional responsibilities. The modern working woman must handle childcare, household duties and family healthcare while holding a full-time job. Several women have been forced to step away from their careers indefinitely due to these conflicting responsibilities.

Sweta Bothra, lead psychologist at InnerHour, says. “This is not a unique scenario. I see similar trends across organisations with female employees, which leads to heightened fear, insecurities and anxiety. It is important, now more than ever, that managers acknowledge this inequality and comeup with inclusive work policies.”

Are big businesses taking sufficient steps to support workers’ mental health?

Neha: The Covid-19 pandemic will have an intergenerational and longitudinal impact on the existing mental health burden in India.

As the pandemic enters its second year and professional life in India acclimates to a new normal, the mental wellbeing of employees must remain a priority for organisations across all sectors.

Although access to formal therapy services is extremely useful, leaders must promote healthy lifestyles. These changes could happen at the macro level by creating policies and programmes that support workers’ mental health; or occur at the micro-level by simply encouraging conversations about mental and physical wellbeing.

Providing employees with accessible support and encouraging them to use self-care tools will ensure timely interventions and prevent conditions from worsening over time. Ultimately, creating
safe spaces within professional environments will build resilience and help both the individual employee and the organisation itself to survive this global crisis.

With such issues coming to the fore, corporate leaders now realise the importance of prioritising employee mental health and seeking solutions for care and support.

InnerHour’s Employee Wellness Programme user-base increased to nine times its level before the pandemic, and participation in psychological educative webinars increased by 130 per cent during this period. This data demonstrates a positive trend within organisations as leaders begin to normalise mental health discussions and encourage employees to seek support through self-help tools as well as formal therapy.

What steps can team leaders take to support the mental health of their staff?

Neha: From daily morning and evening check-ins with teams where conversations may or may not pertain to work; hosting sessions with employees’ families; sending regular email updates with verified information about the pandemic to workers who feel inundated by false news; gathering the leadership teams across departments in online ‘huddles’ to discuss business; and encouraging personal storytelling and informal chats among leaders; I have seen how these kind of practices have provided employees with outlets for their stress and anxiety.

However, it must be recognised that those with moderate to severe conditions, like addiction, clinical depression and psychosis, will need timely and consistent clinical interventions – both within their professional organisations and in their local communities.

How has workers’ mental health been affected by the pandemic?

Suresh: The pandemic has affected the health and wellbeing of a wide variety of workers –
ranging from construction workers to factory staff, drivers and the workforce in small and medium scale industries.

Workers’ mental health has been affected in various ways. The uncertainty of losing your job
is the most critical reason. Apart from that, the actual loss of a job and working at a lesser salary
(in certain cases reduced by half), are other major reasons for poor worker health during the pandemic.

The drivers’ exodus at the start of the pandemic to their home towns added to the misery. Workers faced lot of physical and mental hardships while making the journey to their home villages and towns. While many have come back to the cities and areas of major employment, reports say some people have decided to stay in their villages and have not come back to cities.

Those people who were confined to work from home also faced some level of stress and anxiety, as extended working from home for a year was never foreseen. Also, constant working from home with little or no separation from on and off time has resulted in a high level of stress in some cases and related issues of high blood pressure, low levels of tolerance and high bouts of anger. In certain sections of society there has also been an increase in domestic and sexual violence as well.

Suresh Tanwar, Head of Audit and Consultancy at the British Safety Council in India

What impact is Covid-19 having on the health and productivity of workers?

Suresh: There is most likely a significant amount of absenteeism and presenteeism occurring among staff, although this is not particularly well understood and monitored by big businesses.
Absenteeism is about being absent from work due to health issues that may be related to the work, such as back pain or stress. Presenteeism, meanwhile, is about an employee being physically present at work but without having their full heart and mind focused on their work.

So, when presenteeism occurs, an employee may be present at work but has low productivity. Presenteeism is usually triggered by stress or anxiety. It is vital for companies to monitor both absenteeism and presenteeism and to take appropriate action, depending on the root causes.

The other worrying aspect of presenteeism is the risk of a worker being at greater risk of suffering or causing an accident at work – for example, due to a difficulty concentrating as a result of experiencing stress or poor mental wellbeing. Clearly, this can have serious consequences for the worker, their family and the organisation as a whole.


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