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Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace: It’s Time to Talk About it

There was a time, more than a decade ago, in my first job, I would struggle to concentrate or participate in meetings and events because I was troubled by something deeply personal. Instead of calling me out for being inattentive and disengaged, my manager sat down with me and tried to understand the root of my disinterest. 

Another time, comparatively recently, my expectations from my job weren’t being met and I felt my passion for it ebbing away. Professional rivalries added insult to injury and I found myself fighting anxiety and burnout when a close colleague listened patiently to my concerns and, literally and figuratively, held my hand through it all.

Both times, I got through unscathed. I was able to finally push my head above the water and find my passion, which of course, fuelled my energy to be once again committed to my work.

What these personal experiences taught me was that a workplace is more than just a place where you gather to work towards a common organisational goal. It’s also a community where people, in an extremely human way, look out for each other to make working towards this organisational goal easier, and I will go so far as to say, healthier.

I didn’t know it then. But during both these events, I was combating a threat to my mental wellbeing. I was well on my way to giving in to depression in the first instance, and anxiety in the other. Looking back, the support I got from my manager and my colleague ended up saving my life and my sanity. 

Today, while the world shifts from unpredictability to instability in the face of the ever-fearful pandemic, this kind of support that I received is what is sorely needed in the workplaces of the globe; better, wider, and more organised.

In Search of Lost Mental Wellbeing

The global health crisis of the last two years both caused and spotlighted the widespread failing of mental health. In most ways, the pandemic was the perfect cauldron to mix our worst fears and imaginings, resulting in mental health crises on an unprecedented level. 

A Gallup survey reported that in the wake of the pandemic, 7 in 10 people struggle with anxiety and depression. Employee disengagement sky-rocketed during the pandemic due to never-ending work hours and very little avenues of recreational escape. Others suffered under the weight of the constant fear of losing their jobs or not having enough financial capacities to last the lockdown.

Impending joblessness (real or imagined), lack of a proper quiet place to work, blurring of boundaries of home and office, peer isolation, and of course, fear of death, it was a lot to deal with for even the sturdiest minds. And then there were others who were already struggling with wavering mental health and suddenly found the situation exacerbated by the pandemic and its ripple effect. 

Organisations and employers across the globe, including in India, talk about disengaged employees in virtual meetings who, despite being adequately talented, seem incapable of ideating or being creative. They report previously committed employees barely communicating with their teammates or managers. But very few of them delve deep to decipher the root of the matter.

The root of the matter is, in fact, stress and mental exhaustion. All of us, at some point in our careers, have been victims to the creative lethargy that’s born out of this exhaustion. It seems concrete and unshakeable at the best of times. And these are, unfortunately, the worst of times.

The damage the virus has caused is unprecedented. Apart from the obvious threat to our physical health, the lasting impact it has had on our definition and importance of mental wellbeing is truly vast. No longer do we dismiss stress as a weak man’s malady. No longer do we scoff at someone whose anxiety is triggered by the slightest things. And by no means do we, anymore, tell someone who is depressed to “get over it”.

We have changed. Our understanding is better now. Now, we realise the importance of mental wellbeing to live a content life. 

For all the destruction it has wreaked, this is the one positive thing we must take away from the pandemic. Mental wellbeing is no longer a medical blindspot and that is one change we must truly sustain, especially in the workplace.

The Reality of Mental Wellbeing: Let’s Tackle It

The proportion of the global population who is at a higher risk for mental health issues has doubled – from 14% to 34%. This statistics was revealed by LifeWorks, a leading organisation that provides solutions for the mental wellbeing of individuals and employees. Their mental health index has some alarming numbers and if these numbers are to be made less scary, mental wellbeing of employees needs to become part of every organisation’s operational goals.

Burnout and Boreout are comparatively newer terms that have emerged during the past two years. While, in the former, long work hours with no respite or recreation drain out physical, emotional and mental energies, the latter sees talented employees not being duly challenged and fast losing interest in what they do. Virtual work environments, with all their advantages, made a lot of us somewhat invisible, resulting in most stressed out employees not getting the attention they needed unless they spoke out.

Which brings us to the first major topic of discussion: How many employees speak out, discuss, and seek help when they feel that their mental wellbeing is at risk? 

Or perhaps a better question is why they don’t feel they could speak out.

Across the globe, and especially in India, most employees don’t feel that their employers have created a safe space for them to be open and honest about their sanity. 

In a recent Forbes article, it said that according to a recent study by Mental Health America, “59% of employees surveyed report that their employers do not currently do enough to help them manage stress, and only a tiny minority, less than 5%, strongly agree that their employer creates a safe environment for those who live with mental illness.”

Contrast this number to the earlier one we talked about. While those at the risk of a breakdown have increased, only 5% of surveyed employees feel they have a safe space to open up. The two realities are inversely proportional and that’s not a very good sign.

The question then becomes, “How do we change this reality?” And that, perhaps, is the wisest question to ask.

The answer, though simple, has the propensity to seem difficult and time-consuming to execute. Because what is required is not the sudden formation of a super-team dedicated to battle for the cause or a weekly group call for people to discuss their issues freely. Of course, these things do matter and are important. But for long-term solutions and to create a safe environment where there is no stigma attached to mental health, what we need is a paradigm shift in the cultures we create. 

Be Involved Because it’s Your Business

As a leader of any capacity in your organisation, the very first strategy you can adopt is to be involved – truly involved – in the mental wellbeing of your employees. This means giving the topic the priority it deserves. In fact, make it part of your major agenda. There are organisations that have included mental health in the medical benefits offered to their employees. It’s a big, bold step, and a very kind one.

For small organisations for whom expanding their health benefits is not a viable plan, enlist the help of dedicated employees who are invested in championing mental wellbeing in the workplace and form a committee. Give them complete charge of how they want to run it. Whether they want to organise group therapy sessions outside of work or have informal one-on-one sessions just to lend a shoulder to cry on, let them draw out plans to ensure and sustain the mental wellbeing of their teammates.

You can also look outside of your organisation. Reach out to counsellors and arrange for talks or seminars to educate yourselves and your employees. There might be cases where employees have internalised the belief that stress shows weakness and have denied themselves the opportunity to reflect on what they are truly going through. These sessions could be eye-opening for them and might end up being a turning point for some to seek help.

The most important step you can take in prioritising mental wellbeing in the workplace is educating your leadership about the significance of it, how to identify those who need help, and how exactly to provide help. This must be part of every orientation process. This must have entire training sessions dedicated to it. And this must definitely have professional resources attached to it.

There are so many leadership development programmes that address mental wellbeing, which enable leaders to gently, delicately, and effectively provide help. Seek out these programs and empower your managers and team leaders to be able resources who their teammates can turn to in an hour of crisis.

Take the Stigma Out of Mental Wellbeing

We, as a species, have finally learned to accept that conversations on mental wellbeing are important in a workplace. But we still have a long way to go. The stigma attached to it is still rich and rampant. While the younger generation in the workforce, Gen Z, might be brave enough to be open about it, the older millennials and Gen X still struggle with the idea that it is okay to accept that they might be out of balance.

In most cases, it’s a generational thing. They were never empowered to understand that stress is not equal to weakness, and that accepting it is the exact opposite of it. In all my years of wading through multiple organisations and interacting with teammates spanning three generations, I have noticed this reality with a very heavy heart. While the younger ones understand and admit – because they have been empowered to do so by today’s world – the older ones struggle to do so. 

So the very first thing to do to take the stigma out of mental health is to invite it to the main stage. Make talking about issues such as anxiety and burnout openly a regular thing, instead of linking them to a person’s weakness. 

I’m not talking about setting up formal sessions with just this on the agenda, but more of an open canvas kind of approach. Talk about it whenever you feel it is contextual. The result of it might be greater than you can imagine.

I once had a teammate who would casually ask others how things are going at home. It was mostly an icebreaker or a casual opener to a conversation. But some of us regarded that as a welcome gesture to actually talk about how things are going at home. Imagine asking this innocent question to an otherwise chirpy teammate who has suddenly gone silent for two days. It makes them believe that their problems matter, that they are valid enough to be heard and discussed.

And the most beautiful thing is, since human beings are in its entirety a solution-driven species, you might be able to provide effective solutions, opening up the other end of the tunnel for them to let in some much-needed light.

That manager from my long-ago job and that colleague from my immediate past did this very same thing. They just asked me the right question at the right time. And they ended up putting me on the right path towards healing.

One of the organisations that I had previously worked with had an HR department that was actively invested in the mental wellbeing of their employees. Driven by an HR director with a PhD. in psychology and an HR executive whose passion was mental wellbeing, they made a power duo that ensured that mental wellbeing in the workplace is second to none. There were regular communications – tidbits, newsletters, WhatsApp messages, and even fun sessions – highlighting the importance of it. Other than the informal inhouse committee of interested individuals, making your HR the flagbearer of this programme can do wonders for your employees.

Be Empathetic and Empowering

Leaders, unfortunately, face the responsibility of running an operation effectively while being mindful and perceptive about their people’s mental wellbeing. People need to work to keep the company running, it’s a stark, yet undeniable reality. So as a leader, how do you ensure that one works without disrupting the other?

The secret lies in a balancing act. You need to be able to meet your goals without asking your employees to overwork. You need to be able to ease your people’s stress without downsizing your goals. 

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that no matter how empathetic and kind you are, you cannot eliminate all stress triggers from your workplace and create a haven of mental peace for your employees. That’s a myth and a very unrealistic expectation to put on yourself. And a highly ineffective workplace, I may add. There’s only so much that rules and regulations can attain. So try and take a case-by-case approach.

When there’s a case of an employee crumbling under the burden who seeks help, give them the time to recuperate. You can either provide them time off or put them on projects that are not too demanding. If pushing deadlines is not an option, provide an additional resource to support them through delivery. This is you accommodating another person’s vulnerability by being compassionate. And that’s a wonderful trait in a leader.

Throughout my career, I have had teammates come to me seeking support and guidance (some of them in tears, sadly) because they were severely stressed but at the same time, were fearful that talking about it might cost them their jobs. Apart from calming them down with a long, meaningful conversation with them at the centre, I would decide to support them in their work myself. This would immediately give them reassurance and many a time, not only were the deadlines met but there were teammates who breathed a sigh of relief at being heard. 

When you take control of a situation like this and jump into the battleground to get your hands dirty, there are two things being achieved. One, you are directly helping a teammate restore their mental energy and recuperate. Two, you are showing them how to handle such a situation. In other words, you are empowering them to be the crisis-handler in another situation for another teammate. You are showing them how empathy works and what it can achieve. You are inspiring them to be a better version of themselves for someone else’s sake. And what more can you expect from a leader than showing us the way?

Create an Informal Corner

Never underestimate the power of casual conversations. Pre-pandemic, we would often credit casual conversations for being sources of creativity and innovation. Post-pandemic, they are the sources for stress-relief.

Those much-loved chai breaks of an era that now seems long gone had been the outlet for frustration, celebration, and even inspiration for so many of us. In our new virtual reality, it’s gone. We are reduced to sipping coffee silently, in our own company, and most often, in the middle of a meeting. We must do whatever is within our power to bring this age-old tradition back because it is just too good to let go.

Team leads and managers, and even leaders higher up in the ladder, can have a short catch up call at the end of every week. Don’t talk about work. Talk about everything else. Talk about how when you woke up today, your cat was sleeping on top of your laptop. Talk about how your daughter learned to recite her poem with perfect diction. Talk about how your spouse is driving you insane by always leaving the coffee mug at the edge of the table. Talk about the places you want to travel to once this nightmare ends.

Create that corner for teammates to lighten up by being there yourself and leading the conversation. Take inspiration from your own previous managers who would take you out for lunch or for Friday night drinks just to be away from the workplace and to get to know you as a person. Because that is the most important part of it all. Being human and getting to truly understand another person for who they are, what they love, and how they are ignited.

All it Takes is Not Much

Creating that safe space for people to well and truly talk about how they feel begins by creating a culture where that is normal. Because, like we said earlier, a workplace is a community of people working towards a common goal, but it is, in all essence, a community. 

With the pandemic-induced virtual working, most of us have lost interpersonal diversity in our lives. That crazy coworker who always used to steal your pens and that chirpy colleague who always used to brighten up conversations enriched our lives in more ways than we had counted on. With the physical barriers once again being put up, we will miss the richness these people brought into our lives. They were all stress-busters, we never knew.

These very small and seemingly insignificant things are actually anything but. Sometimes, one smile, one kind word, one hello is all it takes to turn a bad day into a pretty productive one. And, as much as we strive to create a better world to keep us all sane, these are the things – the mundane, the unnecessary, the insignificant ones – that will eventually end up making all the difference.

That is the kind of workplace – virtual or otherwise – that we must envision to establish, one in which it is okay to be afraid, stressed out, vocalise, seek help, and be heard like it’s all normal. Because it is normal.  

So while you set up a culture with professional resources empowering your managers and by adding mental health in your health benefits, take the time to catch up with your teammates by casually asking, “How are things going at home?”

Frequently Asked Questions

What does taking the stigma out of Mental wellbeing mean?

To remove the stigma surrounding mental health, the first step is to bring it to the forefront. Instead than associating worry and burnout with a person’s weakness, make open discussion about these difficulties a regular occurrence.

How can creating a safe space help in restoring mental wellbeing?

Creating a culture where people can openly and honestly express their feelings is the first step in creating a secure space for them to do so. Because, as we previously stated, a workplace is a community of people united by a similar aim, but it is, at its core, a community.

How can one empower teammates?

When you empower your teammates, you are giving them the authority to handle a crisis for another teammate in the future. You’re demonstrating how empathy works and what it can accomplish. You’re motivating them to be a better version of themselves for the sake of others.

Is Mental health important in an orgaisation?

The very first tactic you can adopt as a leader in whatever capacity in your organisation is to get interested – truly involved – in the mental welfare of your people. This entails giving the subject the attention it deserves. Make it a priority on your to-do list. Mental health has been incorporated in the medical benefits supplied to employees by some companies.

How can we achieve mental wellbeing?

Achieving mental wellbeing is not that easy. What’s needed isn’t a hasty construction of a super-team dedicated to fighting for the cause, nor a weekly group call where people may freely express their problems. These things, of course, matter and are significant. However, for long-term solutions and to establish a healthy atmosphere where mental health is not stigmatised, a paradigm shift in the cultures we construct is required.