We are living in a time when uncertainty is unprecedented. As the new normal gets to be defined on a daily basis, we all grapple to be on life's driving seat. The larger than life devil, called COVID 19, refuses to let go, as wave after wave hit hard with perpetual cruelty. Death, the order of the day, is just a number and humanity looks on with sheer helplessness!
Among this mayhem, millions and millions of people around the globe continue to work from home since the outbreak of COVID 19. Work from Home, a dream for many of us, now appears to be a double edged sword. While it has its upsides of zero commuting (just imagine a person like me who has to commute two hours to work!), spending more time with family, it has its downsides too! Work from home has blurred the boundaries of work and life as some management sadly misinterprets it as perpetual work! Coupling work stress with household chores, children's online school management and a growing feeling of fear of the unknown have catapulted many towards deep isolation and loneliness during this pandemic.
Each of us needs to take care of our mental health, just like our physical health. How can we do that? Mental health and wellbeing can be built in through stress management, counseling, meditation and resilience building. Unfortunately, workplace, especially in Asia and Africa, does not offer the most friendly and cordial environment for mental health dialogue. Mental health and mental illness are perceived synonymously, although they are not so and the notion is stigmatised. Here we are comfortable to talk about our heart problems, diabetes, even cancer and fertility issues but not about our mental health issues. We forget that the brain is just as much an essential organ of our body as is our heart. The fact of the matter is getting stressed and burnt out, suffering from anxiety and depression only makes a person humane and should never be stigmatised. Even the best of talents and meritorious people may pass through such phases. Unfortunately, employees feel a sense of shame and embarrassment to open up, fearing judgment and retaliation from their stakeholders, according to a 2006 survey.
So it's no surprise that depression and anxiety has a toll on the global economy by $1 trillion per year in lost productivity as per World Health Organisation (WHO). A welcome respite is that for every $1 spent on treating common mental health concerns, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity, as per WHO. Surveys find that a significant segment of the global working population feels that the coronavirus crisis has harmed their mental health.
Let's take a pause and think what that means. Many people with mental ailment do not turn up for work or deliver lesser than their optimal. And obviously, lost productivity means loss on the bottom line. The American Heart Association's CEO Roundtable's report, "Mental Health: A Workforce Crisis" promotes comprehensive programmes for prevention and treatment of mental illness to the employers. "The cost of doing nothing is higher than investing in evidence-based prevention and treatment," the report states. Employers should embrace this reality with open arms and set in comprehensive Mental Wellbeing Programmes as their Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
Many employers, including Google, Facebook and Apple are thinking beyond benefits to reach out to their employees to be able to make them happy and healthy in their personal and professional lives. These plans are devised by none other than the Benefits Managers from HR. Google has now started to upskill their people managers with training to support the mental health of their teams. This necessarily includes Mental Health First Aid Training, difficult conversation skill on how to spot signs and symptoms of mental health problem, peer-to-peer programmes and an environment that fosters an open-connected working culture. Facebook's Employee Assistance Program shows their employees availing mental health benefits vigorously, which includes 25 free therapy sessions for employees and their dependents per year in addition to mental health coverage.
Just to look out, Google has introduced a Work Location Tool to let employees calculate pay and benefits for their remote work! As hybrid way of working is now the order of the day, Google HR has progressively introduced this new platform. Here employees can compute their own compensation, based on their locations, since cost of living is linked with their places of posting and the local job market. What a progressive notion for making a conscious career decision!
Unfortunately here in Bangladesh we are yet to make our footprint in the global horizon! First and foremost, we, in the developing world, have a perception on mental health issues. People with mental health issues are commonly thought to be insane and not enough effort is made to eliminate the stigma on the matter. In this pandemic, very few companies have hosted learning sessions on Mental Well Being (a mere basic support in this catastrophe!) in the last one year, let alone introduce Comprehensive Programmes on it. There is no thought of changing Compensation and Benefits policies surrounding hybrid way of work.
So as a shout out for sanity, the topic of mental health and collective happiness should now, than ever, be on top of the mind of the CEOs and HR leaders. At the outset, surveys should be conducted to identify the number of professionals who are suffering from anxiety, depression, stress and other health diseases. Empirical evidence should be made public to enable actions to be taken on the basis of the survey outcome. Legislature and corporate HR should work hand in hand on this.
HR should remind itself that only a happy employee can be an engaged employee! So it's time for them to have their own KPI of keeping their employees happy and engaged through well thought Mental Well Being Programmes. This requires intrinsic functional competencies and training.
More and more conferences and seminars should be hosted on Employees' Moral Well Being, Stress Management and Collective Happiness. Mental Health Coverage may be introduced as part of the Medical Insurance Coverage of the corporate. Quality care and treatment should be made available in their Benefit Basket. A day off may be given at periodic intervals beyond the stipulated leave days to help burnt out employees get time out to recharge themselves. In-house facilities should be made available for counseling employees. The absence of all these is a barrier to achieving a healthy and happy workplace.
As CEOs and HR leaders, the onus is upon us to act and transform now before it's too late.
Madhubanti Kabir, an HR professional with a Chartered Accountancy degree and an MBA from the UK, has worked for MNCs, a local conglomerate and a bank.