Opinion Papers

Friday June 11, 2021

Update - Anxiety and Stress June 2021

Adit Jain, IMA India June 2021

Depression at work   

Construction workers, traditionally involved in physically arduous jobs, and now even office employees that remain glued to their chairs, acknowledge cervical damage and other conditions as work-related hazards. Employers have become conscious of such disorders and provide therapeutic help. However, the issue of mental depression and stress-induced conditions, such as anxiety, are frequently ignored. Regrettably, mental illnesses have a social stigma attached to them and whilst this is now changing, the fact is that an acceptance of reality is frustratingly slow. Employees are consequently susceptible to escalations in their conditions or slipping into further complications. The demands of urban life with pressures of commute and pollution, have aggravated things over the past two decades. More recently, with the mayhem of the pandemic and the absence of social engagement due to isolation and work from home, the issue of depression has become more acute.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, shockingly suggested that 14% of the Indian population suffers from mental ailments, with about 11% requiring immediate attention. This was before Covid. The prevalence of such complaints is higher in urban India and ailments such as schizophrenia, mood disorders and other neurotic conditions are common. The worst part is that most people go untreated. A study in 2015 by Assocham, an industry lobby group, suggested that 42.4% of workers in the private sector suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. Some reports indicate that an average employee clocks over 50 hours a week at work. When combined with a competitive or demotivating environment, high levels of stress inevitably follow. Moreover, employers expect their workforce to remain available on smart devices and emails, even during off-duty hours, undermining the concept of a complete break. Whilst it is tempting to argue in favour of strictly regimented work hours and untouchable off-duty periods, this would amount to moving from one extreme to another. Every individual has different thresholds of stress and motivation. Ultimately, the only sustainable solution is one that allows flexibility while retaining discipline and accountability.

At a recent forum session, Hariharan Madhavan, CFO of the CK Birla Group, explained that his company has encouraged senior level employees to consult with psychiatrists in order to manage stress. This is really smart thinking. Employers need to set formal processes to deal with the phenomenon. Workers must be urged to discuss their conditions and seek help. Recognition is half the battle. An awareness campaign to ensure that there is no social stigma attached to mental disorders is vital. People are reluctant to tell their friends and colleagues that they need help and the way to fix this is through an understanding and acceptance of issues. According to a study published in the Lancet, a medical journal, managers could have a significant impact on the mental health of their subordinates and even a four-hour training programme makes a world of difference in providing empathy and flexibility to employees.

A study by Bupa, a health insurer, suggested that in the United Kingdom over 60% of business executives suffered a mental condition at some point in their lives. Instinctively, figures in corporate India are likely to be quite similar. Some larger employers have begun to offer in-house therapy or arrangements with out-sourced medical professionals. Still others run mental health workshops and, finally, companies have begun to encourage a better work-life balance. Depression at work is no longer an anecdotal issue but a worrying trend. It needs to be handled accordingly.