Mind over matter

October 10 is celebrated as World Mental Health Day. First celebrated in 1992 at the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health (a global mental health organisation with members and contacts in more than 150 countries), this day is a sober reminder of the immense work that needs to be done in raising awareness on mental health issues.

The social stigma associated with mental health is not limited to India only. It is a global phenomenon and closely linked to the culture of a particular country. For instance, in South Africa, people living with mental illnesses are perceived as crazy, under a spiritual curse, weak, or simply misunderstood. The same holds true for India. Whereas in America, people are more open about mental health. On the other hand, there is a strong stigma around mental health that exists in the UK!

Having been close to someone who has gone through anxiety pangs, phases of depression and has rebounded, it makes me realise how difficult it is really to understand mental health. This health scare is invisible. Not concrete. You are not exhibiting the normal physical symptoms. Most of the symptoms are in the mind and hence easily liable to be termed as ‘all fiction’ and not real.

The pandemic and mental health

One of the worst fallouts of Covid-19 has been the staggering rise in mental health issues. Job losses, the loss of a loved one, health scares, being isolated and feeling disconnected, all these have made people vulnerable and lowered their inherent resilience to bounce back. The increasing incidence of domestic violence due to family stress, uncertainty and loneliness rose dramatically during 2020-2021. According to a World Health Organisation report, 45% of women had experienced some form of violence, either directly or indirectly during the first year of the pandemic. Even adolescents reported feelings of anxiety and depression.

At the workplace, restrictions related to national lockdown, social distancing, compulsory quarantine, and work from home gave rise to a different set of challenges. A new report by the Qatar Foundation, World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that at least a quarter of health and care workers surveyed reported anxiety, depression and burnout symptoms.

On any normal day, people were commuting to work, meeting colleagues, interacting along corridors and the cafeteria, and suddenly one day it all changed. Employees grabbled to understand the change, the new dynamics and so did organisations. A slew of work from home policies were rolled out, the methods and channels of communication underwent a change, everyone was either on zoom or on Teams. In short, nothing was the same ever again.

Back to business

Then, it was time to return to normalcy. Though one knows that this is a new normal and the world can never go back to the way it was once before. Offices have opened up and organisations want employees back. But do employees want to go back?

In a 2021 McKinsey survey, one-third of respondents said their return to work has had a negative impact on their mental health. The IT industry is facing a resistance from its young workforce who do not wish to come back to office and are instead comfortable with either a remote or a hybrid working model. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which had at one time announced a 25/25 model that would be implemented by 2025 (only a quarter of its employees would be required to work from the office at any given point and would spend only a quarter of their time in the office), now wants all its employees to return to office before it transitions to the new model in a phased manner. Not surprisingly, only about 20% of the employees have returned to work from office.

Supporting mental health in everyday life

There is no escaping the enormity of mental health and wellbeing issues that exist today. Organisations need to move from celebrating one day of the year to having year long dialogues and conversations on this subject.

Consistent discussions can help move the needle where stigma is concerned. Companies should focus on being flexible when it comes to return to on-site work. They will also need to focus on addressing the elevated mental health needs of the workforce and take proactive measures to create a psychological safe place to work.

It is time we all recognise the role mental health places in our overall wellbeing and speak up so that we get the necessary support from our organisations, family, friends and colleagues.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Sarita Bahl
Sarita Bahl is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Swedish Institute of Management Program. An experienced and versatile leader, she comes with nearly four decades of professional experience. She has over the years successfully overseen the communications and public affairs function and led the corporate social responsibility strategy for Bayer South Asia, Pfizer, and Monsanto, among others. Sarita has held multiple roles across diverse industries, the public sector, trade associations, MNCs, and the not-for-profit sector. Her areas of interest include advocacy, stakeholder engagement, sustainability, and communications.

As an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and Senior Practitioner (Mentoring) from the European Council of Mentoring and Coaching (EMCC), Sarita specializes in career transition, inner engineering and life issues. Sarita enjoys writing and is passionate about animals, books, and movies.

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