On the occasion of World Mental Health Day, a group of people sensitive towards mental health initiated an event to gather more of such sensitive people for an open talk on October 10. Kavya, the founder of Cafe Otenga and a student at National Institute of Design, was our gracious host. Her idea behind this cafe is to offer Ahmedabad a happy place, as well as a platform to encourage such meaningful discussions. Udit, a student closely associated with Mental Health Awareness has been conducting such events for various groups and organisations. Experts in the field, namely, Dr. Nimrat Singh, a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Lalit Vaya, a Psychiatrist, Dr. Manoj Jain, a Nutrition and Wellness expert and Prof. Krishnesh Mehta, a Design Educator were generous enough to give clarity to our thoughts. The audience was an interesting mix of students, professionals, creative people and business owners.
The conversation began with a basic understanding of the words ‘mental health’ and how something as crucial is conveniently ignored, avoided or misunderstood. Getting a leave approved on grounds of physical health may be a challenge when the same can be backed by reports and medical certificates; let alone mental health that is not-so-evident, unexpected and a taboo. We are confused between disorders and diseases, not that diseases should be looked down upon either. In most cases, people suffering from mental health issues are either ashamed or scared to talk about it and those hearing about it are neither aware, nor compassionate enough to understand it. We sometimes give so much importance to strength that we forget to reason with weakness. It is OK, sometimes, to be more open than strong, a little imperfect over excellent. It is OK to choose acceptance over denial, for facing a weakness is a strength in itself.
There were thoughts on how friendly the work policies are to address such issues. Human Resources Management as a discipline, department or practise is highly underutilised in India. It has been reduced to Time-Office and its most dynamic sub-practises like Organisation Behaviour, Training and Development, Counselling Skills for Managers remain only in books. These are the subjects that interested me while pursuing management studies and I ended up specialising in HRM. Not just that, while studying Counselling Skills for Managers, I started recognizing some of my behavioural patterns which would have been completely unknown otherwise. My first job was in Hospitality Sector, an industry that suffers from highest levels of stress, longest working hours and hence attrition. Thankfully the management there tried to balance things out by introducing initiatives it deemed fit and I was happy to be a part of a department that could bring change. But when I changed my city, companies and jobs, I realised HR is a caged bird. With as much passion as I had studied and pursued HR, I had to change my industry because I couldn’t find a job in Ahmedabad that was in sync with my interest, scope and dreams. A part of audience felt that it’s more about the leadership than policies and I do agree. Some organisations may be too small to have a separate department or team as HR but if they have the right approach and sensitivity towards employees’ welfare, they will be able to set the right culture. Whereas some MNCs may have a number of people as their HRM with several bookish policies but the lack of concern may reduce it to just another department.
Some employers are obsessed with hard-workers over smart-workers; so long working hours despite lower efficiency level affects the working culture and employees’ mental health in return. Not to forget overtime is seldom overpaid in India. Other than IT companies, many companies still maintain six days a week policy. A leave application that mentions vacation as the reason is frowned upon. If your company gives you health insurance, it will certainly not cover mental illness; will show you the exit door instead. Which employee, in such a scenario, would talk about his mental health; only to be judged upon, devoid of his social circle, not promoted or fired? Dr. Manoj Jain conducted a little case study wherein an employee receives severe criticism from an immediate senior, looses it and hits back. The idea was to judge who needs help, the employee, the senior or both? I would like to know your thoughts on this in the comments section below. This was followed by Dr. Nimrat’s suggestion of learning to differentiate between criticism and feedback. Most forms of communication are primarily about the language used. A little empathy not just avoids such cases of unintentional violence, but also goes a long way in establishing mutually progressive work relationships.
With rising work pressure and indefinite working hours, concern was expressed for encroachment of emotional or private space. Emails, calls or texts from office after work hours or during weekends have become normal while employees are expected to completely shut off from their private lives during work hours. This takes me to the first question Udit asked at the beginning of the event, “How do you perceive mental health?” I believe certain explanations are more dynamic hence I did not use the word ‘define’. We are in the age of imbalanced surroundings, so the ability to recognise and accept that imbalance and the capability to balance it may constitute mental health for me. Do employers realise the need to strike a balance?
Time was less to elaborate on issues such as gender bias, castism and sexual harassment, but I would like to add my own experience here. In my last job at a Real Estate Broking Firm (An industry that needs no formal education, not that education alone can build character) I was the only female employee working as the Assistant Manager. Juggling between a sexually unexposed boss and a sales team under me with minimal exposure to realities of life was me, getting attention beyond tolerance. From the sales team scanning my clothes to my married boss inviting me to his bachelor friends ‘parties, the place always made me sick about being a female. The pervert boss once also asked about the kind of clothes I liked to wear on weekends and tried to discuss his intimate life with me. I reacted as harshly as I could and it stopped for a while, but people don’t change. What’s more ironical? I was the HR, Finance, Admin, all in one of that branch so I couldn’t go to someone else and complain! I used to be irritated often and my husband complained about me being grumpy all the time. I finally had to leave the job because nothing else could make things better.
Most part of the conversation was from employee’s point of view, so let’s come to the employer’s bit with a real example. Mr. X and Mr. Y, two dynamic people with different work experience and skills leave their well-paying jobs and come together to build an organisation. Their dream is to be the best in what they do. They invest everything they have, take more debt and invest further in order to grow. They are ethical entrepreneurs, their vendors and clients are happy and despite being a small firm, they start competing with known firms within a short span of time. The constant struggle they face, however, is to find motivated, ambitious team, aligned with the goals of the organisation. They pay well as compared to others for a firm their size, promote members, train and develop resources, tolerate politics amongst employees (yes it exists), reward good performances, are liberal with leave and welfare policies and try various ways of recruitment. Yet what they have as a major number is a bunch of under-performing, unprofessional employees. The employers are doing their best, but somehow the employees are not reciprocating the way they should. Shouldn’t these employers be really stressed out? Should they keep firing incapable people and spend on training new ones often? I heard someone from the audience say “putting pressure comes naturally” and I wanted to hear more. Employees shouldn’t be treated like slaves, but employees should also not behave like protesters without substance. If we contribute well, irrespective of the roles we play in a company, the work satisfaction should certainly do some good to our mental health. Also, it puts us in a stronger position to take action against the wrong, if a need arises.
During the conversation, more than few spectators mentioned the word ‘mindfulness’, a practise of being aware of our thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings. It also involves accepting emotions without judging them. We do not categorise them into ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, nor do we associate them with our past or future. We simply remain in the present and build resilience to stress.
Prof. Krishnesh Mehta, mentioned what was my biggest take-home of the evening, not in the literal or traditional sense of the term though, Jeez I’m married! (rolling eyes) He asked, “Why can’t we have more love and romance at work places?” Just be ‘mindful’ of how you define these terms, they are discussions, conversations and several evenings in themselves.