When we talk about Mental Health as a very important thing we need to take into consideration that corporate mental health is also very important. It is where this statement from former Porsche CEO Peter Schutz best applies. A healthy working environment will be in sight if good character tops the list of qualifications rather than skills. In today’s Brain Checker Article, we are focusing on the mental health of the Corporate sector.
Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for mental health problems while returning to, or getting work is protective.
A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism, and lost productivity. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.
Today’s corporate wellness programs tend to focus on helping employees improve their health by creating clinical improvement initiatives around certain measures such as blood pressure, Body Mass Index (BMI), cholesterol, glucose, and smoking cessation.
Each of these measures, when achieved and maintained can help prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other illnesses that drive healthcare costs for employers. Therefore, it is not surprising that an increasing number of employers are offering employees incentives to achieve clinical benchmarks.
Work-related risk factors for health
There are many risk factors for mental health that may be present in the working environment. Most risks relate to interactions between type of work, the organizational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to carry out their work. For example, a person may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organizational practices.
Risks to mental health include:
- Inadequate health and safety policies;
- Poor communication and management practices;
- Limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;
- Low levels of support for employees;
- Inflexible working hours; and
- Unclear tasks or organizational objectives.
Incentives often include lowering healthcare premiums, reducing co-pays, and increasing costs for smokers. Often missing from corporate wellness programs, however, is a focus on mental health and emotional wellness. While mental health is not as easily measured like blood pressure or cholesterol, it deserves equal attention, especially when considering the costs associated with poor mental and emotional health.
Productivity loss, absenteeism, job abandonment, and higher turnover are often directly linked to poor mental health. For example, research shows that people with symptoms of depression have a fivefold or greater increase in time lost from work compared to those without symptoms of depression according to Jeffrey Kahn M.D., and Alan Langlieb, M.D., in their book, Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace: A Handbook for Organizations and Clinicians.
The organization would need to provide access to a mental health platform for all employees, regardless of level and type of contract. Under conditions of total anonymity, the platform would provide the following five services:
- A diagnostics module that would help an employee figure out whether she has a mental health issue, how serious it is, and its tentative classification.
- A preliminary guidance module would provide AI-based suggestions of simple dos and don’ts as well as suggest activities that can give relief to the specific types of disturbance the diagnostic module reveals. The next section suggests the kind of therapeutically useful activities organizations can consider providing.
- An interphase bridge to an array of telephonic counseling services from which one or two would be recommended for the individual based on the diagnostic outcome. In terms of sequencing, this may precede or substitute the preliminary guidance module.
- An interphase bridge to a panel of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. While it would theoretically be possible to trigger this bridge immediately after the AI diagnostic, it would more usually be preceded by the telephonic counseling bridge.
- A module for following up therapy sessions and providing online exercises for ongoing low-intensity support.
Apart from the platform itself ensuring anonymity, it is important that the bridges (3 and 4 above) do not yield employee identities or individual diagnoses to the company (collective data could be useful for remedial policy initiation). Hence the algorithm built into the platform would need to be able to assign telephonic counselors or psychotherapists based on the monetary limits and other guidelines adopted by the company for which the individual works. Since most health insurance schemes do not cover mental illnesses, the complication of bringing insurance companies into the workflow would probably be avoided.
The platform requirement would essentially be the same for all companies, bar the cost parameters that might be differently specified for the bridge interfaces to counselors and therapists. As such, it would be pointless and inefficient to incur the platform development cost separately in each company. Moreover, a platform hosted outside the company would further assure employees that the information they put into it or the treatments they derive through its agency will remain confidential. I have already suggested to one of India’s leading chambers of commerce and industry to develop such a platform for its members. If they choose not to do so, it might be a very viable commercial proposition for health providers or medical insurance firms to consider.
Promoting mental health
Having signed up for the kind of platform we have described and configuring its linkages and limits with counselors and therapists, can HR wash its hands of the matter? Not by a long shot.
In the first place, we have the concentrically widening set of employment-related stressors, starting from repetitive, distasteful, and hazardous work, progressing through toxic supervisors, peers, and team members (who are extra-lethal for disadvantaged groups), with a way-point at unreasonably pressured targets with the bell-from-hell to toll the demise of laggards and culminating with zero-privacy (eg fish-bowl open offices) or extremely isolated (including overmuch working from home) working environments. None of these are individually sufficient to disturb the mental balance of all employees – otherwise, we would have no sane ones left. However, what is equally incontrovertible is the mental havoc these factors can play in combination with the equanimity of those employees who are already high-strung, anxious, depressed, or undergoing familial and other strains.
Making substantial improvements in all of these mental health hazards is highly desirable but may not be an easy achievement – at least in the short run. Hence it becomes all the more important to provide a sense of corporate purpose and belongingness, remove the most noxious supervisors and create spaces where social interactions can relieve work-environment handicaps. In the last resort, HR can also seek to doctor recruitment profiles to choose people whose personality-skins are thick enough to withstand the particular malaise which that organization or job particularly causes. There is one super-stressor, however, which no palliative measure can remedy – the one caused by insecure and contingent employment. Until the Indian industry shakes off its addiction to the excessive use of contract labor, HR managers will have to share the guilt for the inescapable mental trauma suffered by huge swathes of the Indian working population.
There are also positive steps HR can take to ameliorate work stress and provide non-stigmatized therapeutic activities. There was a time when most large corporates in the country ran hobby centers, dramatics societies, and adventure clubs, without realizing the mental health benefits these provided. In our heedless efforts to prune expenses that could not be convincingly allocated and explained as individual CTC, these fell by the wayside or became ill-funded ghosts of their former selves. Many of these will have to be revived in more modern avatars if we are to provide cost-effective and stigma-free therapeutic options on a mass scale. There is no research-based evidence to show how, apart from the activities mentioned earlier, art, dance, meditation, exercise (though there is an unhealthy form of excessive exercise that needs to be guarded against), expressive writing and volunteering can, very economically, prevent mental illness or aid in recovery from it.
Freeing beautiful minds
The greatest benefit of tackling the mental health impairments that have so far been resistant to corporate ministrations may not come simply from making a large number of sub-performers deliver adequately. It will be the result of freeing the most brilliant minds that have been shackled by their mental fears and dark moods from giving their best at work. John Nashes may be far and few between but each organization has its share of geniuses, many of whom are held back by some or other kind of mental block for which they are too petrified to seek help. After all, as Aristotle wrote, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”
Corporate wellness programs will continue to evolve. My hope is that more attention will be paid to employee mental health and that the stigma associated with it will dissipate. By addressing mental health issues and emotional wellness, employers are addressing the total health of an employee when combined with programs for clinical measure achievement. That makes everyone stronger, more productive, and happier.
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