Even a regular day at work causes 37-year-old investment manager NK Pazhanivel to get minor anxiety attacks. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse since the market volatility and investment decisions taken could make or break the topline of the financial services firm he works for. He often wakes up sweaty in the middle of the night with regular nightmares. Though Pazhanivel sought three days off to help calm his nerves, his employer simply said ‘his attitude would be problematic for his career’.
“On paper, my employer has provided access to a dedicated helpline for employees. However, it is barely functional and even if get through, the therapists often refuse to provide counselling over the phone. With COVID-19, my mental state has worsened but I have no choice. I have been subtly told that seeking leave to deal with anxiety could make me a target for future layoffs,” he added.
Even as the importance of mental well-being and need for a support structure among colleagues is regaining prominence after actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide on June 14, the reality is that support systems are not yet intact at Indian workplaces.
On one hand, while employees themselves are reluctant to disclose anxiety or depression-related issues, on the other employers do not show sensitivity towards the mental health of staff.
Discussing a colleague’s mental health in hushed tones during coffee/smoke breaks, removing them from key projects, alienating them at workplace events; the list goes on. Indian companies still don’t have the adequate awareness levels when it comes to handling cases of anxiety, depression at the office.
A few companies do have support initiatives for their employees, but several others don’t. Individuals who already had anxiety/depression prior to the COVID-19 lockdown are finding it far difficult to cope. Employers, on the other hand, are in a rush to pull up their balance sheets from the red.
What are companies doing?
It wouldn’t be fair to say that not a single company is taking an effort. Large companies have set up dedicated networks and also peer groups within the companies to ensure that their employees get the necessary help on time.
For instance, IT major Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has a special initiative called TCS Cares, which focuses on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of its associates. A TCS spokesperson told Moneycontrol that counselling is available for family members too, for stress, anxiety and allied issues. Further, there is a 24/7 helpline available for any mental or physical health support query of staff.
As part of TCS Cares, the company promotes awareness, understanding and acceptance around mental health and provides support through qualified counsellors and self-help resource. The counselling services are free and confidential and are delivered through telephonic, online and face-to-face medium.
This programme also works towards creating a culture of understanding and support for others through a peer-counselling support programme and developing safety nets for each other.
In this specific time of COVID-19 where people have fears of uncertainty, stress, anxiety and depression, TCS is also conducting regular sessions for various employee segments to cater to their needs. Further, insurance cover for mental health related hospitalisation is also provided by the company to all associates under the health insurance policy.
Fellow IT firm Infosys also has a dedicated helpline for staff as well as peer-based counselling services.
Richard Lobo- Executive Vice President and Head of Human Resources, Infosys said that the company has a 24/7 hotline of professional counselling.
“Each location has a dedicated local number. Issues like cases of serious mental depression, substance abuse, attempted suicides and relationship issues among others have been resolved through hotline service,” he added.
Further, Lobo said that Infosys has an initiative called Samaritans which is a peer-to-peer counselling network of employees who are trained in barefoot counselling and provide counselling to other employees thereby helping them cope with personal and professional issues. Employees use this to discuss both professional and personal situations and this has helped many.
These services are not just restricted to the IT sector. Large companies in sectors like manufacturing, e-commerce and financial services have set up helplines.
For example, a Tata Steel spokesperson said that the company had introduced an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) called ‘Umang’ over five years ago to address issues of mental health and stress. This is a confidential service offered to employees who can avail of the same to address life challenges.
But, is it enough?
Industry experts said that it is only a few large firms that have the systems in place to offer immediate assistance to the affected. The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic uncertainty may also have led to a shift in the immediate goals of companies to cost optimisation and cutting down on resources.
Sunil Goel, Managing Director of human resource firm GlobalHunt said that companies in India are still at a nascent stage when it comes to handling mental health issues of employees. But maybe that wouldn’t be the number one priority right now, considering the coronavirus outbreak.
“The focus would be on work-life balance, saving employment of staff, work-from-home practices and only post that would things like mental health would be focussed upon,” he added.
Though employees would expect their organisations to help at the time of need, human resource experts are also of the view that for personal struggles, the company may not necessarily be tasked with providing psychological support.
Rituparna Chakraborty, the co-founder and executive vice president of TeamLease Services, told Moneycontrol that some firms may be more open to listening to the employees.
“Organisations would also factor in the skillsets or performance levels of the employee. There would be some who would be more progressive to delve deeper. But for others, it may not be a priority. However, addressing an employee's individual mental health concerns cannot be assigned as the responsibility of an employer,” she added.
Given the way the economy has been seeing challenges since the beginning of 2020, companies have also resorted to threats and the lockdown has resulted in overworked employees across companies.
Chennai-based IT sector employee Santosh Karunakaran said that when he confided to his HR manager about facing depression issues, he was told to ‘take a break’.
“I initially thought that my company is allowing me time off. But later I found out that the team was planning to remove me from a crucial project with a US client. I had no choice but to join back because losing such an important assignment and possibly, my job at this juncture would have been disastrous emotionally for me,” he added.
Early detection of issues related to anxiety and depression and professional therapies help those affected to lead a normal life with no impact on productivity. But often the first reaction to employees who disclose their condition is to ask them to go on leave citing concerns about future productivity.
Chakraborty explained that once the mental health conditions start impacting work, employers won’t have the patience and may not support the employee beyond a point.
“As a country, India is behind in dealing with issues like anxiety and depression. Why single out only employers in India?” she asked.
The other side of the story
Mohan works in the commercial department of a Mumbai-based textile company. In April, the company sent him an email announcing a 10 percent pay-cut. The company instead of paying the remaining salary, announced a deferment of almost 60 percent of salary. In effect Mohan has been receiving 30 percent of his salary.
While Mohan has to pay his rent, he had his second child recently and bought a car too. He also has recurring medical expenses. His father suffered paralysis, and is still recovering.
Mohan is the only earning member and says that he is struggling to meet both ends. He also suffers from severe anxiety issues thinking about his future.
“Since the last two months, I am having difficulty in anger management and feeling stressed out. I know my employer is going through a difficult period financially, but I feel there is a lack of sensitivity. There isn't a single call from the HR or at least from the line manager beyond work,” he added.
However, some companies seem to be waking up to this issue by seeking professional help for their staff.
Vikram Thaploo, CEO -TeleHealth at Apollo Hospitals Group, said that the group has seen a surge among corporates showing interest to provide psychological counselling for their teams.
“Earlier it was a luxury and only confined to top 25 companies. Corporates whom we are in touch with are definitely looking at novel ideas of helping their employees psychologically. We even saw companies approaching us on finding ways to provide emotional support to their employees and including those who were asked to leave,” he added.
What can companies do?
Soumitra Pathare, a psychiatrist and Director at Pune-based Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy said that given the COVID-19 outbreak, what companies can do is to be as transparent as possible.
“If you (employer) are going to ask people to leave, given adequate time to plan, give them a generous severance package and provide them some helpline number. If you are not planning any job cuts, tell the employees that we are not going to cut jobs. That relieves them from anxiety. Even if you can't predict the future, having transparent and open conversation with your employees on what the situation is and taking them into confidence is the probably the best way to reduce anxiety,” he added.
Pathare says there is a clear link between job losses and mental health. There are studies in the US and Europe, especially after the 2008 financial crisis there was an increase in suicides, increase in alcohol use and general rise in mental health problems.
Further, human resource managers also agree that some sensitivity in decision making during the pandemic would also help maintain stable psychological health of the employees.
An HR official told Moneycontrol that while laying-off people is the last option, companies could act more sensitive.
“But if it has to be done, we need to adopt a process or a system that is transparent. There shouldn't be any favouritism shown. There is also a need to provide staff with outplacement services and assure them of employment opportunities when things start improving,” he said.
On paper, this looks like the ideal situation. But, with dozens of examples of companies forcing employees to resign, threatening to hold back the pay if they don’t quit even if an employee requests for a few-weeks’ time citing mental health issues, Indian corporates are far from what the expected reaction should be.
The industry experts said that probably the spate of suicides over the last six to nine months would be a warning call for the companies in India to get serious about the mental health of the employees.
"It is a wake-up call. To not just sit and make beautiful HR literature about mental health awareness because we have seen enough of that in India. Companies need to get into the field and take concrete actions to help your own staff. If you are helping your employee, the company ultimately benefits," said the former human resource head at conglomerate.
If you or someone you know needs help for mental health issues, call any of these helplines: NIMHANS toll-free number 0804611000, Mpower and BMC joint helpline 1800-120-820050, Vandrevala Foundation 1860-2662-345 or Aasra 9820466726This is the last part of a three-part series on the mental health crisis in India. The first part spoke about the stigma attached around mental health while the second part spoke about the costs of availing treatment in India.