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Shot in the arm for workplace culture: psychological safety of teams and empathy when it comes to mental health are the new goals

A few organisations have frameworks for their employees’ mental health and well-being as part of their HR policies. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of creating safer, more empathetic workspaces.

June 27, 2021 / 01:15 PM IST
(Representative image)

(Representative image)

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on much of our population already. In addition to its physical impact, the pandemic also took a toll on our mental health - international public health organisations have repeatedly drawn our attention to a mental health pandemic in the wake of COVID-19.

Among working individuals across the world, some worrying patterns have emerged: With the blurring of lines between work and home, endless video calls and elastic work hours, ‘Zoom fatigue’ has become a thing. Within a couple of months of working from home (WFH), people began to long for not just for the human contact that offices offered but also the discipline and clear work-life demarcation. The fear of job loss and pay cuts also compounded their worries.

Yet as the pressures of pandemic anxiety, keeping ones family safe and WFH continued to build up over weeks and months, something started to shift in the landscape of some of our offices at least.

Whereas earlier, employees with a diagnosed mental health condition would often conceal it from recruiters during the job interview, now candidate, employees and human resource (HR) managers became more open to talking about mental health concerns and needs.

Whereas earlier, HR policies rarely touched upon the vast, complex field of mental health and taking ‘mental health leaves’ was unheard of, now line managers and HR took the time to understand the concerns and how to build a more supportive work environment.


In that sense, COVID-19 has been a game changer. Since the very first lockdown in March, 2020, organisations have been quick to recognise and address employee burnout.

Also read: Healing Space | The great Indian burn out

First wave

“We started getting enquiries from corporates, especially IT companies, soon after the first lockdown was announced," says psychologist Subhashini Gopal of SCARF (Schizophrenia Research Foundation) India.

"We have been conducting webinars and workshops to help their employees deal with the challenges of work from home. One of the companies was based in north Madras (which had a high incidence of COVID cases in the first wave). A few employees shared their experiences of feeling panic and fear every time they heard the sound of an ambulance. They were finding it difficult to work under such stressful conditions,” Gopal adds.

“We addressed their concerns and shared our helpline number. We received many calls from IT employees in 2020. Now, the calls are fewer. But in the second wave, the issues are also different. People have lost colleagues and loved ones to the pandemic. Now corporates have been asking us for grief counselling sessions,” she says.

(Representative image) During the first wave, some employees reported that they felt afraid and unable to concentrate each time they heard an ambulance outside. (Representative image) During the first wave, some employees reported that they felt afraid and unable to concentrate each time they heard an ambulance outside.

Also read: These 11 ‘Listening Hearts’ are giving free mental and emotional support during India’s Covid crisis

Corporate support

While most companies are only now addressing their employees’ mental health and well-being, some organisations such as Freshworks Technologies have been offering therapy and related services to their team members since 2017.

“We have always been focused on prioritizing psychological wellness and have encouraged employees to participate in multiple forums we had in place. These initiatives have been at Freshworks for almost four years now. When we moved to an all-remote setup during the pandemic, it became even more important as lines merged between work and personal life. In March 2020, we partnered with YourDost, an organization that offers 24/7 online counselling and emotional support by sponsoring Freshworks employees to connect with psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, and career coaches,” says CHRO Suman Gopalan.

“The primary goal was to break the stigma and taboo around mental health issues and encourage open conversations across the company to strengthen compassion and empathy for all our colleagues. We focused on fostering social connections outside of work even when remote. We also started employee wellness campaigns like #Youarenotalone and #AnditsOK, which urged employees to take to the company’s intranet to let colleagues know they are not alone in the challenges they face," Gopalan says.

"We started a mental health support group within the company. We also wanted to ensure employees take up the Psychological Care Benefits we offer. We focused on widespread sensitization on this topic and trained managers to connect with their team members on a personal level and have conversations outside of work. We have been facilitating workshops with managers/leaders to sensitize them on how they can create psychological safety in their teams and model empathy when it comes to mental health. Apart from workshops, we have also created a few learning snippets that guide employees on how they can lead, connect and support each other during these unprecedented times,” adds Gopalan.

Therapists have noticed a significant increase in corporate enquiries over the last 16 months. “After COVID-19, we have conducted mental health-related workshops for several corporates. They usually reach out to us with their specific requirements and we tailor our sessions accordingly. We do a lot of work in the field of expressive arts and use these modules in our workshops as well,” says Kamala Easwaran of Sumunum Arts & Wellbeing. “It’s nice to see corporates addressing and normalising mental health. In fact, one of the start-ups that reached out to us recently even asked us to create a framework for addressing mental health so that it becomes an integral part of their HR policy.”

Through mental health support groups, psychological care benefits, and sensitization of managers and team members - there are many ways in which companies can support employees' mental wellbeing. Through mental health support groups, psychological care benefits, and sensitization of managers and team members - there are many ways in which companies can support employees' mental wellbeing.

Wellness leaves

At Tiger Analytics, the leadership and HR team is constantly in touch with employees to understand their pulse through various initiatives. “We have a wellness platform that provides employees 24/7 access to doctors and mental health professionals. In addition we encourage employees to take time off under 'wellness leave',” says Sivani Nanda, associate director - people operations.

Managers at many companies have noticed the gradual increase in their employees availing of such services. “There has definitely been an increase in employees participating and making use of these sessions during the pandemic. A lot more people are now open to talking about these issues, and not shy away from topics on psychological well being,” says Gopalan of Freshworks.

The key to the mental health crisis lies in dispelling the sense of isolation that has surrounded us. “We are, as humans, inherently social. We crave for connections and interactions that are key to our well-being and happiness. With prolonged periods of isolation, we realised that it is bound to take a toll on our mental health and happiness. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have been mindful of creating ways for people to connect and recreate social interactions online. From having 'game night Fridays', to online exercise sessions, DJs, etc., we created ways for people to stay connected with each other,” says Gopalan of Freshworks.

“Going fully remote (during a pandemic), people are tempted to not cut off from work and therefore might feel stressed/anxious, etc. As people are trying to create synergies between all areas that define 'life': work, home/family, community, and personal well-being, they are bound to feel overwhelmed with all of these. We addressed this by mandating additional day-offs called ‘Refresh’ days to help employees switch off from work and rejuvenate with their families. Also, many were dealing with grief from losing a loved one in family/friends, and so coping with the pain of it all, while also not knowing when the crisis will end," Gopalan adds.

Also read: Healing Space | Mapping loss, nurturing grief

Covid response

"We put together a Covid response group with volunteers to help employees in need of any assistance (mentally and otherwise - finding hospitals, medication, oxygen, etc.),” says Gopalan. " To address Zoom fatigue, we promoted non-meeting days and deep-work hours for employees that help break the monotony of getting in and out of meetings."

But there is a lot of work that still remains to be done. “There has been an increase in corporate proactiveness regarding mental health but in India, most big organisations continue to remain sceptical about having an organisational psychologist as part of the team. Most organisations are currently addressing it because there is an evident crisis. But very few have mental wellbeing as part of their work culture,” says Shilpa Raghavan, an organisational psychologist who specialises in animal-assisted therapy.

“I have had many individual clients who have suffered in the pandemic not just because of the trappings of a work-from-home lifestyle but also because of lay-offs. I feel more organisations should have organisational psychologists to address issues such as employee self-esteem, change management, and employer-employee relationship,” Raghavan adds.

While very few organisations have frameworks for their employees’ mental health and well-being as part of their HR policies, hopefully this is just the beginning of creating safer, more empathetic workspaces. After all, even pandemics have silver linings.

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Shilpa Krishnan is a Chennai-based author and storyteller. Instagram: @theshilpakrishnan. Views are personal.
first published: Jun 27, 2021 12:34 pm
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