NEW DELHI: “It was never possible to have a human interaction with my manager,” a Bengaluru-based media professional, who has been struggling with mental health issues, says about one of her prior workplaces.
“I was always asked to try harder, even when I was working seven days a week for my own growth and learning.” Damini Shrivastava was told to ‘buckle up’ when she decided to have a conversation about her deteriorating mental health with her boss.
Quitting felt like the right thing, or the only thing, as she faced ‘gaslighting, low self-esteem’ at the job.
Since then, Shrivastava made it a point to actively talk about mental health at all her workplaces. She is now used to awkward silences, unsolicited advice from colleagues on not speaking up or she will be labelled as ‘the girl with anxiety’, twisted mouths and furrowed brows.
Such is the state of workplaces in India. Only 1,000 companies are estimated to have a structured employee assistance programme (EAP) for mental health, out of the 1.1 million active companies, according to a pre-pandemic report by Optum Health International, an EAP service provider.
The pandemic, however, has given the mental health conversation a push in the corporate corridors where it’s usually a forbidden subject.
Various companies even announced a 4-day week programme, wellness leaves for employees. But those were only temporary measures and soon rolled back.
It raises important questions - Do employees only need mental health interventions when it’s a pandemic? These initiatives should be lauded, but what about a regular, non-pandemic day?
Almost one in every three people’s personal life stands affected due to work stress, according to a recent survey.
The study by ICICI Lombard published in August, 2021 revealed that Covid has taken a toll on the mental health of those who are partly working from home, showing a noticeable decrease in the health status proportion from 54% during pre-Covid to 34% during the post-Covid era.
Several other studies portray a similar grim picture.
The study also points out that 89% of people expect employers to implement health and wellness programmes.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has noted that for every $1 invested in treating common mental disorders, there is a $4 return in improved health and productivity, which implies that it makes sense for corporations to take care of employees’ mental wellness, not just as a moral motivation but also an economical imperative.
Most companies in India are aware of the returns on investment (ROI) of having an EAP, but they choose their priorities, says EAP consultant Isabel Paul, adding that EAPs do not come cheap.
The average cost of an EAP, Paul estimates, is Rs 5 lakh per year.
Talking about the ecosystem, Paul says that most MNCs in the country have an EAP, primarily because it’s a requirement at the global level for them. On the other hand, she reckons, very few Indian-origin organisations have it.
“In the US, for instance, most large companies will have an EAP or an alternate arrangement, but in India, this may not be the case,” Paul adds.
Experts say, most of EAPs don’t even focus on mental health and when they do, companies look at these services from a curative perspective and not a preventive measure.
More often than not, it’s just a tick off and companies tend to compromise on counsellors, service providers.
Parveen Shaikh, AVP: outreach, strategy & collaborations, Mpower, says, companies are focused on fixing the symptom, not the cause.
“Even now, companies have started calling people to the office, but you need to ease people into it and not just announce a date for them to come back.”
Talking about the challenges, Sheikh says, “We had five companies that asked us to start a helpline urgently in May. We need a minimum guarantee of three months. It’s post three months now and none of them wants to renew the contract.”
Deepti Srinivasan, Director, ResilienceWorks and an EAP expert, says, “We have HR people (who) tell us don’t talk about stress, because they won’t be able to address it and employees will start saying they are stressed and leave the company.”
“Sometimes they also say please call it coaching and not counselling,” Srinivasan adds.
EAP is much more necessary in India, she says, than it is in western countries, primarily, because mental health services are not covered under insurance.
“If covered, it would only cover hospitalisation and not all mental health services like counselling require it.”
The work culture in India glorifies slogging, which often enables employers to exploit employees’ vulnerabilities, making them work for long hours.
When it comes to employees’ mental health presently, as experts say, ‘there is a long road ahead’, and one is sure to find many awkward silences, twisted mouths and furrowed brows on the way.