Put your mental health first

Put your mental health first

Indian workplaces can learn a lot from Olympians Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka and how they prioritised their mental health, writes Anmol Arora

Mumbai-based Tamanna Jaisinghani started getting panic attacks earlier this year which had an impact on her work and functionality. “I kept on taking leave from work and realised I was using up all of my paid leaves. I spoke with my boss, and we came to the conclusion that it might be better if I just took a break,” says the 34-year-old, who works in an ed-tech firm. She adds that the response of her employer to her mental health needs was surprisingly sensitive.

United States gymnast Simone Biles recently brought the world’s focus on mental health in workplaces when she withdrew from the finals of the artistic gymnastics team event and multiple individual all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympics. Biles was quoted as saying by global media outlets, “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health, and not jeopardise my health and well-being.” Japanese tennis star and multiple grand slam champion Naomi Osaka made a similar decision earlier this year when she backed out of the French Open and later the Wimbledon as well. There’s indeed a lot that Indian workplaces can learn about mental health from Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

A survey by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in 2015-16 suggested that around 13.6 per cent of the population of India had a lifetime prevalence of mental morbidity. Similarly, a World Health Organisation report from 2017 conjectured that mental health concerns may affect about 20 per cent of the country’s population by 2020. With such a wide prevalence of mental health concerns, the workplaces in India need to adapt to the public health reality and take interventions for the mental well-being of their employees. “Having regular mental health assessments helps all employees. Studies show that monetary benefits don’t work after a certain point if the mental health of employees is not taken care of,” believes consulting psychotherapist and counsellor Janaki Z Mehta. Janaki adds that employees can work better with flexibility and boundaries.

But such benefits of flexibility and personal boundaries are not available to everyone. Communication consultant Sharif D Rangnekar quit his full-time job as the CEO of a Public Relations firm in 2017. “In the role of the CEO of my firm at that time, my issues were partly to do with the workplace, partly to do with long and endless hours of work to meet targets,” says Rangnekar. That, along with his experiences as a gay man in a work environment where the language is heteronormative and sexism and queerphobia abound in the guise of humour, made him feel isolated and alienated. “I had to keep quiet most of the time and that led me to depression and struck me more than once during the last few years in the corporate world,” adds Rangnekar, who now works with organisations for the inclusion of the LGBTQI community.

Bengaluru-based freelance psychologist Suvrita says that the reason behind the mental health issues faced by a minority or marginalised group is stigma and discrimination. For a change, the workplaces need to take up an equity model and consider how they can create space for everyone, she adds. These systemic issues were apparent in Biles’ case as well. She was one of the gymnasts who allegedly faced years of abuse at the hands of the USA Gymnastics Team Doctor, Larry Nassar. Such sexual trauma can completely change who you are biologically and emotionally, says Janaki. She adds that we can learn to focus on mental health without considering it taboo and understand the pressure of work from the example of Simone and Naomi.

Workplaces can implement some policy changes in this regard. Janaki suggests a mental health therapist speak to employees, understand their worries, and make a plan of action based on individual needs. Suvrita advocates for paid mental health leaves without judgement and funded therapies as well. These small changes enforced with sensitivity and empathy can be a start to support the workforce and their needs.

With her team backing her up and cheering her, Simone Biles returned to the arena and won a bronze medal on the balance beam at the Olympics. Tamanna also rejoined her work in June and got the opportunity to communicate how she wanted to transition to another role in her company. “I had the opportunity to share my inputs on how I want to do this. That was handled well.”

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