In our globalised “always-on” work culture, mental wellbeing is a growing concern not just for societies but also for businesses. The rise in work-related illness reported by employees suffering from high stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression has become a serious problem. It is being discussed in media, business, and medical communities as a major challenge for organisations. A recent study estimated that mental health alone accounts for a global loss of productivity worth Rs 65.39 lakh crore (approximately $1 trillion) annually.

Another study by industry body ASSOCHAM states that nearly 57 million people in India suffer from depression. It further states that 42.5% of corporate employees in the private sector suffer from depression or general anxiety disorder. While deteriorating mental health can be due to work- or non-work-related factors, workplace stress has emerged as the most alarming aspect of the problem. Constant workplace stress, as we know, can lead to serious mental ailments.

The Stress Factor

It was said that a little stress is not bad; it helps a person stay attentive and energetic to meet the everyday challenges in the workplace. However, when stress levels consistently exceed the ability of the brain to cope with them, their effect is nothing less than toxic. Long work hours, unrealistic deadlines, discouragement for taking out leisure time, inadequate health policies, along with a lack of communication and encouragement are key risk factors of stress, and prolonged stress affects an individual’s critical thinking, decision-making ability, and work efficiency and even physical health.

With such knowledge and growing awareness about this vital health issue, companies are implementing mental health and safety standards in the workplace. Many countries such as New Zealand and Japan are actually moving towards a four-day workweek, even as Sweden is experimenting with a six-hour workday.

In India, there is a social stigma attached to mental health issues that discourages people from talking about their problems; many prefer to suffer in silence instead of speaking out and seeking help. This is where a strong organisational culture comes into play. This is important for employee happiness and productivity and results in lower rates of burnout and higher rates of engagement.

Managing stress at work—employee initiatives

As a first step, organisations need to take initiatives to know how to identify early signs of mental health issues and create awareness about it. There is also a need for a proactive approach towards mental health at the workplace, which includes the elimination of factors that create a negative workplace environment. To ensure a happy workplace environment, different line managers must be trained periodically. Several progressive companies provide annual health check-ups, awareness sessions, and other facilities. However, many people cannot find the time to avail these benefits. Organisations even run wellness programmes that specifically focus on emotional and psychological problems to ensure overall wellbeing. Another initiative started by companies is to tie-up with external service providers to offer confidential employee benefit programmes that assists employees through personal and professional issues. These employee assistant programs (EAPs) are for employees and their immediate family members wherein they can discuss personal or work-related concerns and issues freely.

Creating a ‘happy workplace’

Each business has its unique culture, which defines the core values of the company and creates a set of guidelines for employees to follow. A healthy workplace always brings positivity and gets the best out of employees. Happy and satisfied employees are more committed and have a higher sense of purpose regarding their workplace and their own place in it. Hence, building a lasting culture of mental wellbeing needs a two-pronged approach. First, companies should provide training, tools, and resources to be able to look after the employees’ mental wellbeing. Second, organisations need to develop a work culture where empathy, mutual support, and trust are valued.

Equally significant is the individual’s own response. Employees are the key stakeholders for the success of any mental health initiative. As colleagues and team members, they spend most part of their day together. Therefore, their interpersonal understanding and support in challenging life situations can genuinely contribute to the mental wellness of the workplace.

Today there is a dire need in our society to be more accepting and inclusive and we must thus start with our own immediate environment by sensitising employees, including leaders, to share their concerns. Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent must create cultures that support and prioritise people—including their mental health needs. Organisations that are able to create this fine balance between maximum productivity and stress-free work environment will be the ones that prosper in any economic environment.

The author is vice president–HR, Ingersoll-Rand (India). Views are personal.

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