June 7, 2023

Mental health at work: What needs to change?

Raj Mariwala, director at Mariwala Health Initiative, and Santrupt Misra, director of Group HR at Aditya Birla Group, discuss how workplaces can impact an employee's mental well-being, and why both organisations and individuals must take responsibility of prioritising mental health in the workplace.

6 min read

According to the Deloitte Mental Health Survey 2022, 80 percent of the Indian workforce experience mental health issues. Forty-seven percent of respondents consider workplace-related stress as the biggest factor affecting their mental health, while societal stigma prevents around 39 percent from taking steps to manage their symptoms. The report also points out that poor workforce mental health costs Indian employers approximately USD 14 billion each year.

Therefore, it is imperative for organisations to prioritise the mental health of their employees. But they must move beyond their current tokenistic approach, shifting the focus from yoga retreats and workshops to thinking of mental wellness as a person’s right. Organisations must focus on developing robust policies and creating safe spaces that encourage conversations on mental wellbeing among employees.

However, does the onus of an employee’s mental well-being lie entirely with the organisation? What role can the employee play in their own well-being? Where does the organisation’s responsibility end and the individual’s begin?

On our podcast On the Contrary by IDR, we sat down with Raj Mariwala, director at Mariwala Health Initiative, and Santrupt Misra, director of Group HR at Aditya Birla Group, to discuss how workplaces can impact an individual’s well-being and productivity, and why mental health policies in the workplace need to be more inclusive.

Below is an edited transcript that provides an overview of the guests’ perspectives on the show.    

We need to rethink the current approach to mental health in the workplace

Raj: Mental health within the country is largely seen in the biomedical paradigm. What this means is that just like physical health, mental health is assumed to be a set of symptoms. There’s a certain kind of treatment given, which could be allopathic medication, or talk therapy at most. And then what is expected is that there [will be] a reduction in symptoms, and then the person [will be] cured. Now this is a very limiting narrative, because what it ends up doing is [focusing] only on a symptom reduction approach. What we’ve seen in COVID-19 is that people are coming to realise that mental health is also very deeply connected to our lives and the environments we inhabit. It’s not enough for one to say, ‘I will provide a psychiatrist or a counsellor,’ especially when it comes to workplace mental health. This is a piecemeal approach. Instead, we should look at our workplace and see the stressors that are born out of this environment.

Santrupt: An organisation’s performance would always be unsustainable and short-term if the [employees] are not at ease. And all evolved organisations realise that. Well-run organisations realise and understand that they are productive because their people are in a state of equanimity, where they are able to bring their best to the job. There isn’t a dichotomy between mental health and productivity. Yes, there will always be tension between the two in terms of how much you need to account for an employee’s mental health and how much you need to meet your obligation to other stakeholders. But [the minute] you integrate well-being and productivity, you start seeing them as two sides of the same coin, not two parallel lines.

It is crucial that the leadership views mental health as a matter of concern.

The challenge is that for far too long, we have refused to recognise mental health as an issue… And it is crucial that the leadership [views] mental health as a matter of concern. You can always provide a yoga instructor, a counsellor, and a supportive infrastructure [at the workplace]. But those can be the icing on the cake, they cannot be the cake. The cake has to be a big commitment for the management, [and they must have] the willingness to understand mental health, and [be capable of seeing the need for creating a] supportive environment to [deal] with these issues.

What can organisations do better?

1. Recognise mental health as an issue of disability rights

Raj: [It is] the organisation’s responsibility to look at the environment [and] to address the structural barriers in society that exclude persons with disabilities. What that means in a larger sense is that your whole workplace, your whole work ecosystem should be accessible to everyone. And you’re not looking at it as a privilege, you’re looking at it as a right.

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The focus should be on providing ‘reasonable accommodation’. According to this principle, necessary and appropriate modifications and adjustments, that do not excessively burden the organisation, must be made to ensure that all employees get an equal opportunity to enjoy or exercise their responsibilities and their privileges.

[For example], historically and [even now], employers wouldn’t hire women because they didn’t want to give pregnancy leave. Now, due to advocacy, that has shifted [and] pregnancy and maternity leave are considered an employee’s rights. So what’s stopping us from giving similar mental health accommodation? If your employee breaks a leg, you’re going to make sure the lift is working. Maybe get a nicer chair. That’s what reasonable accommodation is.

Empty table and chairs in an office_mental health at work
An organisation’s performance would always be unsustainable and short-term if the employees are not at ease. | Picture courtesy: Cold storage / CC BY

2. Enable senior leadership to talk about their mental health

Santrupt: During the course of their work, people can develop many kinds of problems. And employers do have a responsibility to find ways to notice that and help create a sensitive culture. Role modelling [then becomes important]. Most often, senior managers and successful people seem to believe [that] there is a compulsion to always show that you are invincible. [But] if senior leadership can display authenticity and vulnerability, it makes people around them more comfortable to share similar experiences. 

Raj: At Mariwala Health Initiative, we [published] this research on mental well-being in the workplace in 2020. During our research we found that just like anyone else, leaders face certain unique stressors. But they never share this with their co-workers or their peers. If the head of the organisation or the senior leadership of the organisation doesn’t feel safe talking about [mental health], how are you going to expect your employees to talk about it?

3. Develop policies keeping in mind different socio-economic contexts

Raj: Part of this is also looking at your workplace and recognising that it actually mirrors the larger prejudices of society. Workspaces are largely engineered in a way that may be more distressing to women, to LGBTQ persons, to Dalit and Adivasi persons, or to Muslim persons. Does this mean that when we look at mental health, when we look at distress, we are going to be able to treat everyone equally? If the answer is ‘we are not sure’, then we need to look at our different policies. It’s not just about looking at mental health policies, it’s also looking at other comprehensive anti-discrimination policies. It’s also having grievance mechanisms up and running and in place. It’s also having supportive spaces at work.

And you need to look at it under all three categories—the ecosystem, the workplace, and the individual. At the workplace, it could be work hours, it could be toxic supervisors or toxic peers. Second is the individuals themselves. If there’s an individual who undergoes anxiety, and suddenly the job requires, public speaking, what sort of accommodations are you going to make? And third is industry. What are you doing as a larger ecosystem, in terms of policy, to negotiate with unions? How about pushing for mental health within insurance policies?

Employees must also take responsibility for their well-being

Raj: [Employees need to] communicate to the supervisor that they will require an accommodation. A safe space has to be created in order to do that. People often think that this will mean compromising on performance. That is not reasonable accommodation. Everyone who wants reasonable accommodation still requires to be accountable for their work. And that’s as per your negotiations. Also, the employee must realise that if they’re unable to do certain things, it’s likely that another team member would have to do it for them. So, the responsibility for the employee is to communicate [these needs] very clearly, and many employees do not for a variety of reasons.

Santrupt: The health of an employee, whether mental or physical, is primarily the responsibility of that employee. You cannot suddenly become a paternalistic state or company. But having said that, given the fact that you have a larger responsibility to society and your employees are also part of the larger society, if you find that there are issues there, you have a responsibility to help them both.

You can listen to the full episode here.

Know more

  • Read this report by MHI to learn more about structural inequalities and mental health.
  • Read this to learn more about mental health in the workplace.
  • Listen to this podcast to learn about how leaders can navigate mental well-being.

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India Development Review

India Development Review (IDR) is India’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. Our mission is to advance knowledge on social impact in India. We publish ideas, opinion, analysis, and lessons from real-world practice.