By Vineet Nayar
Why don’t you exercise more? Why don’t you eat healthy? Why don’t you go out and make more friends in the office? Why are you making a big deal out of a small issue? Yaar you are too emotional. Take a chill pill. Sleep on it, you will be fine. You are too sensitive… we can’t trust you with a team. Why are you depressed? Come up with a better excuse! I will take you out for a drink and all will be well as you need to relax yaar!
All these are still fresh in my mind as if I heard it yesterday. I understand a little bit about depression. I have been there, just like 1 out of 7 young Indians, who have experienced depression at some point of time in their lives and heard some or all these remedies in their workplace. I know that I am not alone. Mental health is one of those things that we know is important but we rarely talk about it at the workplace, because of the stigma around it.
Walking up to a manager and sharing a mental health issue has to be one of the most traumatic experiences for an employee. Statistics show that almost every second person in the private sector (42.5% of employees) suffers from a mental illness. An employee has to overcome a lot of fear to talk about their mental health-the fear of judgment, fear of being seen as incompetent or even the fear of being fired.
A Mckinsey study found that there is a big disconnect between employer and employee perspectives on mental health stigma in the workplace. The study revealed that 80 percent of employees thought an anti stigma campaign would be useful, whereas only 23 percent of employers have such a program. Employers ranked reducing stigma last in their priorities of behavioural health-focused initiatives, even though 75 percent of the employers acknowledged the presence of stigma in their workplaces.
The takeaway from this study is clear. Employers know that their employees do not feel safe talking about mental health and yet they ignore this problem. Perhaps, they feel stigma is difficult to address, without realising that this is an opportunity for companies to be better employers. Removing stigma around mental health works to the benefit of companies. According to a WHO report, the estimated cost of depression and anxiety to the global economy is US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Mental health problems, reflect in an increased absenteeism, high attrition, drop in productivity and even profits. Addressing stigma helps both employers and employees. The question is how do we do this.
Begins with leadership
Leaders face mental health issues as much as anyone. When a leader is honest and open about any mental health struggles of their own, employees feel safe in talking about their own experiences.
In fact, many leaders have shared their struggles with mental health. Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry, who has researched the link between mental illness and leadership has written about the fact that sometimes leaders with a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety show the greatest leadership. Many iconic leaders throughout history have suffered from mental health issues. Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King have all suffered from depression and were candid about it.
Leaders can be the role model for employees, who are scared to speak up about their mental health problems. Personal stories of leaders, when shared, can be the most powerful tool to shape an open and non-judgemental corporate culture that encourages employees to disclose their own mental health struggles.
Normalise time off for mental health:
If you have a cold or a flu, you can take time off from work. Can we do the same for anxiety, panic attacks, depression or any such mental health issues? It is time to normalise taking personal leave to recover from mental health issues. This practice should start right from the top. When a manager takes time out for a vacation or therapy, it sends a strong message to every employee that it is perfectly alright to prioritise self-care. There is no shame in putting yourself first. When leaders show this through their behaviour, it encourages employees to practise self-care.
Train managers on spotting mental health issues:
Managers should check in every now and then with their teams to see how they are coping at the workplace. Are they stressed out, do they feel under appreciated, do they need to take time off. A simple ‘how are you’ question, can help managers spot any mental health issues that their team member faces. Managers should be trained on recognizing the signs of a mental health issue. It could be an emotional outburst or a panic attack or a sudden drop in productivity. Training can help managers listen to their team members and offer help at the right moment.
Hold your horses:
Mental health cannot be resolved overnight. It needs time, patience and an acceptance that there is a problem. I have been through a depression cycle that lasted almost two years. I did not admit it because of the fear of being judged. The first step to feeling better is accepting that there is a problem. Acceptance is not a sign of weakness. It is in fact a sign of strength. Perhaps an inclusive work environment, where there is trust between managers and employees, will encourage more employees to speak up. Acceptance is followed by patience and it cannot be resolved through one conversation one day, but it does get resolved if you go after it as the most important thing in your life.
(Vineet Nayar is Founder, Sampark Foundation, and former CEO of HCL Technologies. Views expressed are the author’s own.)