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The Aligned Mind: The mind mantras of Harsh Mariwala

Harsh Mariwala, founder and chairman of Marico, on how individuals and organisations can stay fighting fit in the mind.

September 05, 2020 / 01:40 PM IST

Note to readers: They hold the economy together but what holds them together? The Aligned Mind delves into the mental health and spiritual wellbeing of India's finest business minds. How they confront their challenges. What disciplines and practices keep them intellectually and emotionally agile. How they attain the mind-body-spirit integrity that keeps their organisations finely balanced on that cutting edge.

Entrepreneur, founder and chairman of Marico, Harsh Mariwala’s personal and professional investment in mental health came about through a series of conversations with his daughter, in themselves a reflection of the kind of atmosphere in which mental health advocacy can establish itself and grow. “Indian society is hierarchical, it’s changing now but when I grew up I couldn’t talk to my father on these issues in a mature manner, there was always a fear of giving feedback. However, I have encouraged my kids to be far more open and we didn’t have a problem with taking up the issue as two adults rather than father and child.”

The key, Mariwala notes, is not keeping things bottled in within our hierarchical structures. “Any mental health issues could arise from relationships, whether it’s with parents or partners, boss and subordinate, and there has to be a high degree of openness and respect,” he says.

The dialogues that he entered into manifested through the entrepreneurial peer group ASCENT foundation in 2012, which builds safe spaces in which the entrepreneurial community can support each other through non-competing trust groups, and the mental health think tank Mariwala Health Initiative in 2015, which has moved from the urban iCall helpline in collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences to building partnerships that work across areas from advocacy, research to academia, grants and funding, international collaborations, and the more pressing focus of mental health interventions in rural and migrant India.


The importance of lifestyle balance

Mariwala puts his faith in preventive health over curative and believes, “A lot of health whether physical or mental is the result of not leading the right lifestyle so I was fascinated by mental health as was my daughter” he says.

His personal practices are designed to maintain a lifestyle that is balanced while it takes the mental health pressure off him. He abides by certain rules. “At a personal level one should have a practice that works for oneself, not just because I am saying it, but there is a certain way of doing things, leading life, and I have a strong belief that if one does that, then the stresses on life dramatically reduce.”

To begin with, he follows a strong discipline. “Whether it’s my timings or the food I eat, I am never late, and this is whether I am meeting a driver or a peer. You have to have a high sense of discipline and respect for others.”

logo-the-aligned-mind2Secondly, he structures and compartmentalises his day. “I never have an issue of a lack of time because I have a very compartmentalised way of leading life and it helps me cope with multifarious things that I have to deal with.”

Third, he prioritises based on urgency, listing top priorities in his diary.

Fourth, he says the personal discipline has to extend to an ethical business life because this is what keeps the pressure off you in a high-stress environment. “I have a high thrust on governance and ethics especially while running a business because I have seen businessmen taking short cuts. Many stresses arise because you have taken some short cut, someone else has found out, they pressurise you or blackmail you or it reaches the authorities and you are vulnerable to inquiry or cases against you. If you do things in the right manner, those issues will not hit out at you if you show fairness. Luckily, I was in the right industry.”

Fifth, he notes that we can spend some time choosing to be in the right kind of business, pick where we step and spend our time. “The type of business we have built, in the FMCG, is a defensive business. Again, within that business we have chosen portfolios where we are market leaders. If you are a market leader in a category you have a stronger position, profitability and you are in charge of driving the market dynamic, and that is by design, we spend a lot of time defining categories in which we can become a market leader. That played an important role”

Sixth, take the pressure off yourself by picking a good team and empowering them. “You select people, have a high degree of trust and allow them to operate on their own rather than constantly breathing down their necks and constantly coming to you for permissions and advice.”

Health is well, mental wealth

Seven, when you are physically fit you can cope with stresses better. “I exercise 365 days a year unless I am not well.” He does a bit of everything, yoga for 15-20 mins, he swims often, heads to the gym where he does weights, walks or engages in other forms of cardio exercise. On the weekends you’ll find him playing golf. He used to play squash but doesn’t anymore.

His eighth principle is to spend more time with family, friends, go on holidays. “To me, my biggest stress buster is my grandchildren,” he says.

Ninth, have a spiritual anchor “I’m not saying you have to be highly spiritual but spiritual in the sense to be grateful for what you have.” He has done a previous course in Transcendental Meditation but doesn’t practice it currently. He is aware of his peers who take to Vipassana but is unsure not talking for 10 days is for him.

And tenth, “Identify what you can change and what you can’t and let what you can’t change go.”

Mariwala’s multi-faceted practice of honing his mental health underlines the vision he advocates for. He isn’t for the blanket ‘mental health’ as a buzzword approach that gets bandied about. He sees structural differences in cause and condition, “there are so many causes for mental health issues, it could be economic, it could be relationships, it could be health-related, and today during the pandemic it is everything together. Can you imagine these three things happening at the same time, cooped up in the house all together with the frustration?  I reckon that the interest in mental health awareness has skyrocketed at this time, what we thought was important has been highlighted at this time. In one way it is good that this has become important, but in another, clearly yes, depending on the individual, what you’re going through, income levels, you can’t have one size fits all approach, whether it’s what kind of advice you need, what kind of discipline you follow, lifestyle choices, it will vary. For me, exercise works as a stress buster, for somebody else it could be music. You can’t have one formula for enacting mental health across various segments, incomes, communities, geographies.”

This multi-pronged approach to mental health is also what he believes will combat the stigma of approaching a mental health practitioner. We need to be inclusive of the various modalities by which mental health support gets disseminated, he observes. “It depends on what you’re going through. Sometimes when you talk to a group of trusted friends, the key thing is ‘trusted’, who are giving their viewpoints in your best interest, or you go to a spiritual guru, or in the older days people used to go to astrologers, they had a role that was about giving hope, I don’t see anything wrong in that as long as you go to the right set of people.”

The beginning, however, he notes is in self-introspection. For intervention of any sort to take place, we need to be willing and open to receive it. “Every person in the world has blind spots and to overcome them you have to talk to people to see yourself as they see you. To get them corrected you need feedback, and for feedback to flow towards you, you need a high sense of openness. You have to be able to thank people for the course correction even if you disagree with it in part. I think how the feedback is welcomed and who you go to is important, you can’t go for a business issue to a non-business person. In corporate life, business coaches also play a very important role in addressing mental health issues” If these avenues are not working for you, you need to go to a counsellor just like one would head to a doctor if you are ill. Indian society has always been scared of what people would think, that their sons won’t be able to find a match if he’s gone to a counsellor. In western society, these issues surface much earlier and with less stigma.

Men in India especially in the workplace have different triggers for mental health issues than women and also have a harder time asking for help thanks to the need to maintain the image that they have it all together. “I think there is a mindset issue in how men view themselves, ‘I should not look vulnerable, I should not sound vulnerable and I should not show my vulnerabilities’” he says.

Mental health and organisational culture

Having said which, it is necessary to look beyond the individual to the mental health of organisations and institutions that need to change if individuals are to feel more supported, Mariwala explains. “There is a huge organisational agenda as far as mental health is concerned. A lot of mental health issues depends on the culture of the organisation. It is the top management responsibility in any organisation, whether it is a business or a non-business organisation, to get the right culture. Where people enjoy working, where performance is not the only criteria. Where there is a high degree of openness, a high degree of trust, people are willing to take risks, experiment, where they are not fearing of failure. Because if they are very cautious and are punished, they will stop taking risks. And if people stop taking risks, it will have an impact on an organisation in terms of its growth.”

It is, of course, important for each organisation to build a culture which is relevant for it to succeed in the market place, by identifying what values are important for it and create an atmosphere that acts as a competitive advantage for it, Mariwala notes, yet despite differences in what works for each organisation, these are key aspects that cut across all boundaries.

At the time of a pandemic in a difficult economy, even as organisations face increased pressure for productivity and growth, they still need to ensure their bottom line is employees are taken care of, Mariwala says. “The overall leadership expectations during the pandemic have been very different than earlier leadership expectations. And there is a very high degree of anxiety at the family level, unseen, unheard at least in my lifetime. I have interacted with other people who have said this is something that has led to the breakdown of relationships, led to people going through depression, we’ve seen people losing lives because of this. It is a time when leadership needs to exhibit an authentic leadership style. Which means they have to be far more empathetic, they have to be more caring. They have to be far more communicative. If need be every week because communication is very critical to manage stress. Also from a corporate angle, look at not just ‘the employee’ but their families also, their children are sitting at home, they don’t have school, frustrations are high, and leadership has to be supportive, be caring, and give an assurance that things will come back to normal, it’s a matter of time, you have to just live through this.” It’s a period which is a call to leadership to be far more proactive, he notes.

The bottom line, Mariwala says, is to have an evolving vision for growth, whether you are an organisation or an individual, rather than remaining in a stuck dynamic with a vision that is balanced between inner and outward vision, and engaged.

Harsh Mariwala’s memoir ‘Harsh Reality’ releases later this year.

Gayatri Jayaraman is an author and counsellor

Follow the entire series here.

Gayatri Jayaraman
first published: Sep 5, 2020 12:08 pm