Mental health in the workplace

Continuing my occasional writing stint at the widely read Indian Economy blog, I have
written today a post about a topic still not openly discussed in polite Indian circles without tut-tutting but whose incidence and growth is undeniable – mental health and illness.

You can read it here.  If you have views, please do share them using the comments link below the post.


My first experience of seeing mental illness, beyond the one-word shorthand in Hindi ‘paagal‘ and the figurative usage ‘dimaag kharab hai‘, came when I was an engineering student. I used to visit my Rakhi-brother in the medical college. Now a specialist in child psychiatry and a professor at one of the world’s leading medical schools, he was then in the process of finishing his MD in psychiatry – something that makes him a great visionary in my eyes.

With his wife, also a specialist doctor in a different field, I often visited him in the Psychiatry OPD where patients and their families awaited their turn. The range of emotions writ large on the faces of the accompanying members of the family of the patient ranged from exhaustion to exasperation, whereas confusion, fear, uncertainty and a host of others lined the faces of patients.

My brother took the time to explain various things to me: what the known causes of some mental illnesses were, how the various illnesses manifested, how to tell signs that there is an emergent problem, how one label differs from another, how the patients were treated, what the role of their family and work environment was in their recovery and so on. For a young teenager, I was probably then one of the most well-informed people amongst my friends and family.

More importantly the experience taught me to manage my prejudice. I say ‘manage’ because illnesses manifest differently and misunderstandings, about how dangerous mentally unwell individuals are, abound even though the patients are more likely to harm themselves than others.

The truth remains that it is the lack of awareness and therefore the abundance of prejudice (Latin praeiumacr.gifdicium: prae-, pre- + iumacr.gifdicium, judgment) not just at the workplace but also in the immediate and extended family, that keeps the incidence of mental health well-hidden in India. Now and then there comes a film, which tries hard to bring up the issue, such as Aparna Sen’s ‘15 Park Avenue’ or Mahesh Bhatt’s ‘Woh Lamhe’, albeit not without enforcing the same stereotypes of violence, aggression, suicide and such like and then, nothing. Silence.

Things may be changing, if ever so slowly, as you can see from this blog by an Indian mother chronicling her daughter’s schizophrenia. Even so, by and large, the management of mental health issues remains a dominantly NGO activity in India, as captured wonderfully in this book.

With growing urbanisation, increasing work pressures (I am tempted to list all the personal blogs by Indian bloggers that admit to feeling listless, tired, demotivated and depressed about their work!), social isolation, increasing economic disparities and such inevitable joys of globalisation and industrialisation, the numbers of Indians with chronic depression, anxiety, mood and personality disorders, and eating disorders are only likely to increase.

There are however signs that in some workplaces in India, there is recognition that mental illness is not necessarily a red flag that calls for immediate dismissal of the employee. In a more structured and simpler social environment such a dismissal would be grounds for a lawsuit for discrimination but that is for another discussion, perhaps. More than ever before, an employee, who has suffered a bout of mental illness, needs a supportive environment and – in the absence of a universal healthcare system – money for ongoing medication and psychiatric evaluation and consultation sessions.

A few aware managers are taking the initiative to manage the concerned employees well by supporting them and helping them manage their workload, while ensuring that the employee does not face discrimination, ridicule, sarcasm, stigmatisation, further isolation and other behavioural traits of mental health related illiteracy in the workplace. Tall order for a manager, requiring resourcefulness, a great deal of emotional intelligence, authority and influence in the workplace, and to some extent, a willingness to take personal risk in his or her own career!

Much as I should like to name the multinational firms in Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore, where I know these practices to be well-rooted, my doing so will violate the privacy of many individuals. Thanks for your understanding.

You are an enlightened reader group. Do you have stories or experiences from your workplace to share? Please use the comments link below.

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