Despite Societal Stigma and Cultural Taboos, India Inc. Must Address Mental Health Issues, The Elephant In The Workplace We Deny

Mental Health

Historically, India has not given importance to mental health issues, at home and in the workplace, due to a variety of reasons, including the social stigma associated with such ailments and the “culture of silence” surrounding mental health wellness due to prevailing taboos and societal norms. Indeed, for long, acknowledging and addressing mental health issues was considered as an affront to “family honor” and a “blot” on the social standing and status in society. However, in the last few decades, Indians, by and large, seem to be getting around to accepting and normalizing mental health issues, especially in cities and semi urban areas, as can be seen from the easy availability of medicines in almost all pharmacies and the proliferation of psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors/therapists in hospitals in the metros. While this is a positive development, an equally important aspect here is that we must also address mental health issues in the workplace, given the multiple factors that cause such ailments in Indian corporates. From overwork to the stress and strain of work pressure, to the pandemic accentuating existing fault-lines and accelerating the onset of burn out and exhaustion, there are any number of such causal factors that have catalyzed an “epic epidemic” that India Inc. can no longer ignore.

The issue of mental health wellness at the workplace is especially important for the Gen Z and the Millennials who are either starting their careers or are about to achieve “take off” as far as career progression goes. The pandemic  has made matters worse for these age cohorts as the Gen Z, who joined jobs in the last few years, have been bereft of the traditional onsite on-boarding and face to face mentoring and hand-holding, that are so essential for “settling in” their jobs. Moreover, WFH or Work From Home has increased workloads and added to the prevailing sense of “disconnection” and “isolation” leading to an alienated workforce. On top of all this is the extreme “uncertainty” of these times that can unsettle even Zen Monks, meaning that those minds less formed and less able to withstand the “pressures of the moment” are “wilting” under the burden of so many impactful factors. This is leading to all sorts of challenging trends such as the high rates of burnout among the 18 to 25 year olds, as well as trends such as the Great Resignation among those in their thirties.

While India Inc, and the business leaders do make some “noises” about addressing mental health issues in the workplace from time to time, there has been no comprehensive approach to dealing with such issues. Right from the “blaming the victim” syndrome to stereotyping those burned out or unable to cope, to outright derision and lampooning anyone who dares to “open up” about their mental health, we do not seem to be doing justice to the victims who are suffering silently, with no recourse to anything that can alleviate their condition or at least acknowledge it. Indeed, India Inc. must shed its social and cultural biases against mental health, or risk a full blown epidemic of a “lost generation” of workforce, that would ironically hurt corporate houses more than anyone else, as productivity dips, attrition rises, and there are not enough job ready resources to hire or to place in managerial roles. In other words, we would be “cutting the face to spite the nose” if we do not address mental health issues at the workplace on an urgent basis.

While I do agree that we cannot “import” solutions from the west, given our unique culture and social mores, India Inc. can and should take a leaf from how the West, and especially Europe is dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. Right from providing for paid leave to those reporting burn out, stress, or any other mental health problems, to mandating that firms should necessarily have trained medical personnel, adept at dealing with those with such ailments, to having regular counseling and therapy sessions for those who need help, there are dime a dozen ways in which India Inc. can learn from those nations worldwide, who have begun to take mental health issues in the workplace seriously. Right now, what India Inc. needs to do is to not “live in denial” about mental well being and instead, acknowledge the “Elephant in the Room” and then accept and actualize responses and solutions. For this to happen, there is as much need for a mindset change from the middle and lower layers of the hierarchy as there is for the top level and the business leaders across India Inc. to take the lead and “walk the talk”.

Last, at a time when religious ,sectarian, ethnic, and social tensions are tearing the nation asunder, India Inc. should not succumb to the prevailing “closing of the mind” and add to the problem of mental health at the workplace. By studiously avoiding polarization of the workforce, to embracing diversity in all its glorious forms, to not letting workplaces go toxic, and most important of all, not to let the hate and vitriol “seep” into the sanitized workplaces. Indeed, the operative term here is that India Inc. should not let the insanity of the external environment vitiate the sterility of the much cleaned and much vacuumed offices and at the same time, maintain high standards of tolerance and acceptance. Given that the Indian workforce is highly diverse in terms of religious, social, regional, ethnic, gender, and cultural aspects, only by an inclusive approach can we overcome the social and cultural undercurrents of causal factors that can exacerbate mental health issues of employees. To conclude, mental health issues cannot be “swept” under the carpet anymore and it is high time our corporate honchos stepped up to this issue.

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