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Mind it – it’s a mental wellness leave, not sick leave!
Lipi Agrawal | HRKatha | New Delhi | Thursday, 13 July 2017

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While most people hesitate to talk about their mental wellbeing, it is crucial for one to sustain both work life and personal life, in general.

In the 2016 Bollywood movie, Dear Zindagi , the protagonist, Kaira, who is heartbroken due to a sequence of events—a relationship break-up and slow progress with her prospects at work—spends sleepless nights in despair. She then, one day accidentally hears a psychologist, Dr Jehangir Khan, "Jug", speaking at a Mental Health Awareness Conference and decides to take his help to get over her insomnia and anxiety.

The events that follow and Kaira’s interactions with Jug, clearly show her hesitance to open up to him about her personal and professional issues. While dealing with her own set of problems, she is  also simultaneously making efforts to overcome some of them with Jug’s help. However, she is strongly judged by her relatives and parents for seeking psychological help. Well, while the movie ended on a positive note, it is still just a movie. The hard-hitting reality in India is that people prefer to keep any discussions about mental health under the carpet, because they may be judged. It is forbidden —for you may be tagged insane!

In fact, at the workplace, it is even more difficult to admit if one is going through mental stress or emotional disturbances owing to personal challenges pertaining to family, relationships or finances. Such things are meant to be handled at home, while the fact still remains that these issues impact one’s performance at work. Organisations need to realise this. Rather than tagging people as non-performers or sloggers, organisations may at times need to consider what these people might be going through in their lives beyond work – or at times may be even at work.

“It is incredibly hard to be honest about mental health in the typical workplace. In situations such as this, it is so easy to tell your teammates you are ‘not feeling well.’ Even in the safest environment, it is still uncommon to be direct with your co-workers about mental health issues.”

Ben Congleton

While most people hesitate to talk about their mental wellbeing, it is crucial for one to sustain and survive —at work, at home, and in life, in general. It is something that needs to be considered vital and essential. It’s time we put mental health on the same pedestal as physical health and talk about it with ease and comfort rather than keeping it under covers.

Breaking the social barriers, in a recent case, Madalyn Parker, a web developer at a US-based company, Olark Live Chat, emailed her team to let them know she would be using two sick days to focus on her mental health. It was her positive outlook and integrity that made her honestly reveal her reason for taking those two days off, and surprisingly, the CEO of the company, Ben Congleton, responded by thanking her for helping "cut through the stigma" of mental health.

Congleton aptly mentions in a blog, “It is incredibly hard to be honest about mental health in the typical workplace. In situations such as this, it is so easy to tell your teammates you are ‘not feeling well.’ Even in the safest environment, it is still uncommon to be direct with your co-workers about mental health issues.” He is right. When it comes to organisations in India, the situation is even worse.

Geethaa Ghaneckar & Prem Singh

Geethaa Ghaneckar, director-HR, Raymond, agrees that taking a break for a mental or spiritual pursuit is not seen very positively in India. However, she believes that things are changing gradually and that youngsters now seek time off for relaxation and stress-relieving retreats. “Despite the gradual evolution, there is not much awareness around mental health issues and their treatment,” she says.

People in India, on an average spend more than 8-10 hours a day at work. Organisations need to realise that if undergoing stress in their lives, people tend to carry those issues to work as well. Ghaneckar suggests that, “Organisations should talk about mental wellbeing and encourage people to take remedial action for such issues. This requires organisations to create an open environment where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health.”

“Organisations should talk about mental wellbeing and encourage people to take remedial action for such issues. This requires organisations to create an open environment where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health.”

Geethaa Ghaneckar

In agreement with Ghaneckar, Prem Singh, president-global human resources, Wockhardt, also believes that talking about mental health will be a game-changer. “Only when you talk about something, you allow more possibilities to emerge. Hence, it is important that organisations encourage people to talk about it – be it with their teammates, managers or HR executives.”

This is possible only if the leadership takesthe  lead. Both Ghaneckar and Singh emphasise that the leadership needs to demonstrate the right behaviour so that people also feel that their mental health is crucial to their performance at work. If leaders share their experiences with people and open up about mental wellbeing, even employees would be able to come out of their shells and discuss and act upon the need for ensuring mental wellbeing.

“Another way to get organisations to take the right steps in ensuring the mental health of people is through creating a policy around it,” Ghaneckar says. Just as organisations woke up to and acted upon enhancing their maternity benefits after the Indian government rolled out the new Maternity Act, a law or policy around mental wellbeing of working professionals would certainly help change things.

“Leadership needs to demonstrate the right behaviour so that people also feel that their mental health is crucial to their performance at work. If leaders share their experiences with people and open up about mental wellbeing, even employees would be able to come out of their shells and discuss and act upon the need for ensuring mental wellbeing.”

Prem Singh

In addition, Singh believes that bringing about a change in getting people to acknowledge and appreciate the importance of mental health will require three fundamental steps:

  • Recognising the reality
  • Sharing it with people who can help, opening up about it and being comfortable discussing it
  • Acting upon it; taking time off or seeking professional help if need be

In Madalyn’s case, although she recognised the need for a break to regain her mental health, was upfront in sharing it with co-workers, and took the required time off for the same, it was her CEO’s reaction to the whole situation that is commendable. Employees will only be able to take the aforementioned three steps if the management is supportive enough to allow and encourage people to also focus on their mental health. After all, whether one agrees or not, mental health leave is the same as a sick leave, or may be more important!

© 2016 HR Katha
Last modified on Thursday, 13 July 2017

2 comments

  • Comment Link Sangita Kelkar Friday, 14 July 2017 posted by Sangita Kelkar

    We at BPCL have our EAP program in place for the last nine years which provides confidential counseling to all employees and their family members to deal with mental health issues. Though efforts are required to make people understand and open up to counseling, this initiative has helped many employees in handling issues in personal and workspace. Many customized interventions focusing on common and specific mental health issues are organized across the regions and locations. Coinciding with World Mental Health Day (10th October) every year, mental health fortnight is celebrated wherein mailers,contests, programs are held that help in improving awareness.

  • Comment Link vinisha Jayaswal Thursday, 13 July 2017 posted by vinisha Jayaswal

    I completely agree with Mr. Prem Singh & Ms. Geethaa Ghanekar. Organizations must start talking about mental wellbeing openly. Afterall, all the diseases stem from Mind. If the mind is not given rest, illness will prevail & employees will continue to take sick leave.
    This strikes me that if the term "sick leave" is changed to "Mental wellbeing leave", I'm sure employees won't feel so sick and instead take the leave to enhance their mental wellbeing. By just changing a word, the outlook towards the leave changes.
    There are many people in the market offering courses on Mental wellbeing in this stressful day. Let's reach out to them to make our industry stressfree and ensure mental wellbing.

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