Lessons from the emotional wellness panel at Corporate Health Summit 2019

The Corporate Health Summit has a storied past of bringing in experts from around India for 8 hours of the most intense, involved and authentic conversations on the state of physical and emotional health of urban Indians on corporate settings.

My role in all three years has been to moderate the emotional wellness panel. In the last 2 years, we have had such stalwarts as Dr. Shyam Bhat of The Live Love Laugh Foundation, Dr. Pratima Murthy Professor of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Dr. Safiya MS, Director, Mind & Brain Health Care and Ian Faria of Talk Temple, more popularly known as the Mind Coach on Radio Indigo. Conversing with them were industry representatives such as Jayashri Ramamurthi of Google, Priya Arunachalam of Accenture, Lekha A of Café Coffee Day, and Archana Bisht of 1to1Help.

Where we came from: Insights gleaned in the last 2 editions

Our starting point two years back was “70% of urban Indians have mental health issues, undetected, undiagnosed. This is a crisis we are not aware of, leave alone, addressing.”

Mental health issues the biggest non-communicable illness facing the nation. Social media addiction is a real issue patients are being treated for at hospitals and is fast surpassing addiction for nicotine, alcohol or drugs. 

Patients seek help only when in a chronic state of incapacity of normalcy and till then, even family members discourage people from seeking help. 

Under represented are service providers like cabbies and restaurant servers suffering from these disorders, and going through life making decisions without being fully in control of their own faculties.

There are nowhere near the required number of psychiatrists and psychotherapists that are needed to interface with the number of patients. The mental health crisis in India is real. 

We seem more open to engaging with social media/our phones than the person seated next to us. Our ideas of what is social engagement is drastically changing but not our ability to cope with it. 

There is a framework for EAP organisations to provide support. There is even a 5-step process of saving employees in case of indicated or actual self-harm. There is, however, a stigma to asking for help. 

Organisations like Google and Accenture have mandated sensitivity training for leaders to help them be open and accepting of mental health issues. 

Some are assigning support in big life situations, like a grief counsellor to accompany an employee for a family member’s funeral. 

Employees migrating from smaller cities and hamlets experience the stress and trauma of a different lifestyle, pace and expectations, in addition to dealing with urban employees. 

Where we are going: our agenda this year

With that rich legacy, we were ready to tackle a clear set of questions.

The agenda for this year was: The Indian mental health crisis is a big problem with no evident solutions. What are ways of managing it best? What are responsibilities of corporate India, the individual professional and the supporting industry to make these conversations more mainstream? 

On the panel were

  • Amber Alam, Director, Prevention & Wellbeing, APAC, Optum
  • Srinath Krishnan, Country Manager, Total Rewards, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, India
  • Dr. Pallavi Joshi, Consultant Psychiatrist, Columbia Asia Hospitals
  • Gangapriya Chakraverti, Director, Human Resources, Ford Motor Company, Global Business Services

The way forward: The easy guide to understanding the problems, usable insights and clear takeaways

The problemsInsightActionables
People still don’t know that 70% of us will need mental health support. And therefore, when to know, we have to ask for helpWatch out for unusual behaviour for a 2-week period/ more. Unusual could look like: Loss of sleep/ appetite Socio-occupational deterioration (work productivity drops drastically, suddenly and socialising pattern with colleagues changes) Pervasive sadness Missing work chronically Missing targets    Does your EAP partner run awareness campaigns? Are these well-attended? Do managers mandate that employees attend some of these and talk about it?
There is a generational gap between the Gen Z/ millennials and their managers in understanding & accepting mental health issuesThe Gen Z/ millennials who have been brought up on Dear Zindagi, and American television where meeting therapists is normal. They find it easier to accept that they have a mental illness and it needs to be solved. Their parents, often are resistant to such ideas. Their managers are being coached and trained, to be brought up to speed  Have a leadership sensitisation course, where they are taught to accept with empathy, analyse and make a referral to the expert (a coach, a therapist or a psychiatrist) and be non-judgmental   Increase self-awareness: do you tend to think (and not say out loud), “I also have faced this, and I have managed. These things happen” If so, please remember, your 5kg weight could be 50kgs for someone else. And your manager’s 5kg could be something you are struggling with, and it feels like 50kgs to you 
  Conversations with the EAP partne rs is changing to include mental health but there is still about 10% of usage  This is a sea change, going from 0.1% to about 10%, and targeted webinars to bring awareness and conversation about mental health into the mainstream.    Ask for a clear structured mental health mandate from your EAP partners.    Ask for best practices & how can you keep this going all year long
Different employees have different needs depending on age, life stage and more. How to deal with them all?Some employee groups have a higher likelihood to need support: Migrating employees – they have left their support system in another city. Onboarding freshers – they are going from campus to corporate. Employees re-entering work  – women returning from maternity – possible loss of identity and confidence. Empty nesters – reorienting to a new normal after their child leaves to study further. Parents – At different stages of their children’s lives (board exams/ college applications or even entering school) .        Have targeted messages that these are situations that warrant extra support.   Train your employees and managers to provide this support in a sensitive manner. Focus groups, empathy exercises etc. help 
Statistics are that 35 out of every 1 lakh employees demonstrate some level of suicidal tendenciesIn 80% of cases of suicide, the person has given indication and clues about their intended plan. If there are clear signs such as hopelessness, actions like making a will, talking of “Going far far away” etc., it is counter intuitive but ask the person if they intend to harm themselves and if they reply in the affirmative, ask if they have a plan.   This is a cry for help and any support – while it might not look like it just then – it will be appreciated later on.   Such folks need 24/7 surveillance – at work, during commute and at home. Partner with multiple people at work, at home and in between, to make this happen   Ask your EAP partner for suicide prevention protocol.  Train all stakeholders to know what it is.   Be ready as emergency first responders.   Have clarity on issues of privacy while all this is happening. Have contact data of family members and seek to involve them as partners in saving lives.
There needs to be a pervasive, cultural shiftCulture needs to reflect Safety – Employees feeling safe physically, psychologically in the office and in the presence of others.Trust – experienced, not just spoken about.Openness – the platform for people to talk about what they are experiencing, without their problems being minimised or them being gaslighted    Ask yourself, “Are my leaders walking the talk? Is there frequent reference to emotional wellness in all their communication to their troops?”   Provide a structured support platform at critical junctures like promotions, re-entry into the organisation, role changes etc.   Have well-being as one of the tracked tasks (not necessarily goals, because it is not easily controllable) for managers, in addition to objective setting for their team members.  

Till we meet at the Corporate Health Summit in 2020, stay healthy, and don’t discount the healing properties of small (but really quite significant) things like gratitude, meditation, quiet time, yoga, exercise, downtime with friends, holidays, listening to the sounds of nature, and all that is good on earth.

Author credits: Monica Pillai, People Function Catalyst. Moderator of the Emotional Wellness Panel at Corporate Health Summit 2019

Monica Pillai used to work as Head of Human Resources and Communication at The Fuller Life. She comes with a 18-year old background in HR across Accenture, LG Software & 24/7Customer. She is a spirited writer, and creates content for The Fuller Life, in addition to a series of, literally, pro bono assignments, for the love of the craft.  She also nurtures her interest in people development via facilitation of professional/ life skills and coaching for leadership and performance. A firm believer of life in the slow lane, she has a non-conflicting belief in getting as much done as possible in every day, is an artist at heart, and likes painting, and lettering and is rekindling a long lost love for dancing.


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