As the month of May, which has been designated as the Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, it is time to reflect on the lessons learned, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, and plan on how to take the issue of addressing mental health at the workplace forward. No doubt your social media feeds are full of stories describing either struggle with mental health issues or strategies to tackle them, or both. More so, this month, when almost everyone is “coming out” with their own accounts and adding to the conversation. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I can say that this reminds me of the #MeToo movement, which “triggered” an avalanche of responses from women worldwide.
Since I mentioned #MeToo, I must also say that to address mental health issues at the workplace, we must first tackle “learned helplessness”. This term describes a gamut of feelings and emotions wherein those with mental health issues are often discouraged, demoralized, and fearful to talk openly about their travails. Much like #MeToo, we need a more “open” and “inclusive” conversation about mental health issues at the workplace. Learned helplessness happens when the “cultures of silence” and the “environment of denial” due to societal taboos and cultural conditioning combined with peer pressure and the necessity to “confirm” prevent those with mental health issues to speak out or even ask for help.
Learned helplessness also happens because bosses, managers, and colleagues often dismiss those with mental health issues as being troublesome and difficult, and also direct them to take medical leave, if they are so stressed out. While this approach should be reined in, a careful perusal of “ground realities” in Indian Corporates would attest to the prevailing sense of “sweeping under the carpet” any talk of mental health issues at the workplace. Indeed, talking about mental health at the workplace, leave alone addressing it, seems to be anathema in most corporates in India Inc., as I can vouch for this in my career. The first step here is an honest acknowledgement of mental health issues and then taking the conversation forward.
While stress and burnout have always been with us, the post-pandemic workforce is especially hit. More so those under 30, for whom the pandemic has been a nightmare, with all its uncertainties and disruptions. While older employees adjusted to WFH or Work From Home, those starting out and settling in their careers have been hit the hardest, as can be seen from studies pointing to higher rates of mental health issues among the Millennial/Gen Z age cohorts. This has led to trends such as The Great Resignation, where mass attrition and just quitting jobs have become the norm, mirroring the “viral times” we live in where “present shock” or the pressure to live for the moment, not to be confused with mindfulness or living in the moment, is making people “weird” and victims of the post-pandemic “blues”.
At the dawn of the Millennium, terms like Emotional Intelligence and Real-Time Business were being bandied out. The 1990s and the 2000s were the decades where technological acceleration was just starting and there was much anticipation and hope that tech would deliver us into a Utopia. The then prevailing sense of optimism is something that I see now with all the talk of Unicorns and Web 3.0. However, I must also caution that just like the Dotcom boom ended many dreams, the present bursting of the Unicorn bubble would similarly leave in its wake dashed hopes and crushed ambitions. When even celebs such as Naomi Osaka are struggling with being under the spotlight and dealing with loss and failure, I hope the present generation looks up what Emotional Intelligence means and why it is more relevant than ever in times of toxicity and partisanship.
With tech addiction and tech-driven living comes fragmentation of our minds and selves. More so when our lives have become so wound up around tech that we have moved past the point of worrying where tech would take us and instead, are now focused on managing the downsides. The connection to mental health issues is that excessive reliance on tech and more so at the workplace is robbing us of the richness of face to face interaction and the discovery of new insights through engaging with others and participating in fulfilling conversations. I do hope the conversation on mental health issues does include how we must learn to overcome this infatuation before it becomes an obsession and a mania.
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