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Why Mental Health at Work Matters

Employers' Willingness to Address Mental Health Could Affect the Future Competitiveness of India

Photo by Ronit Valfer

This piece was co-authored by Nalini Saligram, Arogya World and Garen Staglin, One Mind Initiative At Work.

Mental illness has become a defining health challenge in the world today. Depression and anxiety disorders affect more than 600 million people around the world, and have a devastating toll–making even everyday tasks seem insurmountable (The World Bank, 2016). According to the World Health Organization, mental illness affects 1 in 4 people and is the leading cause of adult disability worldwide. People young and old, men and women—from teenagers anxious about college applications to cancer patients worried their chances of recovery—can be affected with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. In America, some 20 to 30 percent of the working population is impacted.

The problem may be compounded in countries like India, by stigma and lack of adequate healthcare professionals and facilities. India is home to 1.3 billion people—18% of the world population —and is deeply impacted by mental health issues. A 2016 National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences study showed that nearly 14% of the population in India has a mental health condition. Suicide—especially among women—is a huge concern. There are 230,000 suicides a year in India and how India tackles this public health tragedy could dictate whether the world meets the SDG goal of reducing the suicide rate by one third by 2030 (The Lancet 2018).

Because of the efforts of the World Bank, World Health Organization, and others, global leaders are beginning to recognize the enormous toll of failing to prioritize and support mental health. There is greater scientific understanding of the underlying causes, exciting advances in brain health research, new potential treatments, and greater dialogue and willingness to do something about it. A recent special edition of TIME called “Mental Health: A New Understanding” notes: “Madness still stalks our species, but increasingly we are stalking it right back—and slowly driving it into retreat.”

Our two organizations—One Mind Initiative At Work, a global, employer-led coalition to tackle mental health in the workplace and Arogya World, a global health non-profit advancing chronic disease prevention in India —believe that employers have a special responsibility to ensure not only the physical health but also the mental health of their employees. We have joined forces to mobilize CEOs in India to do more to advance mental health in the workplace.

Why Workplaces Matter

Mental health disorders have a substantial impact not only on the health of individuals and communities, but also pose an economic challenge to companies in terms of lost productivity and a diminished workforce.

  • Nearly one in 3 working age adults in the US experiences a mental health challenge. India is not far behind, though people are less open about mental illness there. Optum, a leading health services business, estimates that nearly half of India’s workforce suffers from stress. ASSOCHAM’s corporate employees’ survey done in 2015 revealed that 42.5% of corporate employees in India are suffering from Depression or General Anxiety disorder. The recognized rate of anxiety and depression has increased by 45–50% among corporate employees in the last eight years.
  • It is estimated that mental illness contributes a staggering $16 trillion to lost economic output by 2030 globally. It is known that mental illness drains productivity, increases absenteeism and disability claims, and raises healthcare costs.
  • So significant are the human capital and financial costs of mental health issues that employers worldwide have consistently identified stress as one of the top 3 issues influencing their health and wellness programs.

India is a young country. Two-thirds of its 1.3 billion people are less than 35 years old. Workplaces, where so many working Indians spend so much of their day, offer an attractive platform to educate business leaders and help improve the physical and emotional wellbeing of employees.

As part of Arogya’s Healthy Workplace program, designed to leverage workplaces for NCD prevention, we seek to understand and evaluate an organization’s efforts in reducing stress and NCD risk factors in its employee population. Work-life balance was identified as a necessary criterion that would mark a company as “healthy”, in a multi-stakeholder consultation we held in Bangalore in February 2012. Arogya World has, since then, included work-life balance yardsticks routinely in all its site visits and formal Healthy Workplace Assessments to date (>115 companies, covering 3 million employees). In 2016, we initiated a Platinum Healthy Workplace award, which analyses quantitative employee health data submitted by companies and works with them to calculate the business benefits from investing in employee health. Mental health program metrics are scored during Platinum evaluation.

Our Upcoming Conference in Bangalore

Every year Arogya World organizes a Healthy Workplace conference and award event, at which we recognize companies for investing in employee health. This year’s agenda, to be carried out November 14-15 in Bangalore, is poised to further advance the dialogue on workplace health in India.

On the second day of this conference, One Mind and Arogya will collaborate to present a half-day session devoted entirely to mental health in the workplace. We have experts talking about the toll of mental health in working India, the importance of sleep, and case studies describing how companies doing business in India are tackling mental health. We also have leaders making new pledges and commitments to improve the mental health of their employees.

Call to Action

We call on all companies in India to commit to doing more to help their workforces cope with mental health conditions. For example, as many of Arogya World’s Healthy Workplaces do, you can make genuine efforts to increase work-life balance, and support activities like exercise and meditation. You can offer counseling services and run internal campaigns to reduce stigma around mental illness. You can learn from Wipro, Reliance, and Infosys and their remarkable efforts to destigmatize mental health and make counseling and care accessible across their large employee populations. We encourage companies in India to come up with supportive HR policies and ways to encourage employees to speak up and seek treatment

The health of your workforce and of your company demands this. Nothing less than the future and competiveness of India is at stake.  

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