mental health day

This year’s World Mental Health Day focuses on the theme of mental health in the workplace. To understand how mental health intersects with the workplace, it is important to understand the concept of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY), which refers to “The sum of years of potential life lost due to premature mortality (YLL) and the years of productive life lost due to disability (YLD)”. In simpler terms it can be thought of one lost year of a healthy life.

Of course, typically, the word ‘disability’ is considered to represent a physical disability only. We know this is not true and that there are mental illnesses that can be considered as disabilities. Socially, financially and politically, the resources invested in addressing mental illnesses are disproportionate to their prevalence in different population groups (this is partially due to the discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses, including at the workplace, as well as the under-estimation of how prevalent mental illnesses are).

typically, the word ‘disability’ is considered to represent a physical disability only.

For India, the rather generic term “self-harm” is listed as one of the top ten causes of both premature deaths and potential years of life lost, and depressive and anxiety disorders cause the most disability. Take a minute to think about this, about the impact of these numbers on our daily lives.

First, socially and psychologically, mental disorders are stigmatized, often addressed through religious or spiritual mechanisms rather than the medical/counseling options. But the stigma at the workplace is often more intense and damaging. People go to great lengths to hide any symptoms of mental illnesses they have – of course, they cannot always function, and so the days and years lost to mental illnesses.

Individuals at the workplace may disguise these under symptoms of a physical disease. Even when individuals try to share details of their mental disorders, the reaction is at the workplace often mimics the response in our personal lives – ‘get over it’, ‘buck up’, ‘everybody goes through this’, ‘do this or that’. This only furthers the isolation and intensity that often accompanies mental disorders.

Also Read: Online Lives, Offline Mental Health

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Secondly, the media does an inflammatory and harmful job of depicting mental illnesses at the workplace – they often conflate a specific individual’s violent tendencies or specific circumstance with mental illnesses being a disease in which all individuals have no control over their actions. It is entirely possible to live with a mental illness and not have control over how one feels, but still not harming other people. This harmful stereotype does two things – it reinforces in an individual’s mind the risk of revealing their mental illnesses at the workplace and it prevents other employees and the organization from doing anything useful except offer platitudes.

Thirdly, as the concept of DALYs reinforces, a lot of productive time is lost around the world every single day owing to a host of diseases. Yet productivity or work days lost due to physical diseases are seen as more acceptable – taking time off for a mental health break, is hardly normal in most workplaces. That in no way means people are not taking the time off or that people are not showing up to work under stress, unable to contribute effectively.

Anecdotally, it seems that mental illnesses have gone from being invisible in the workplace to being the elephant in the room that no one is willing to poke. This is not surprising, when the national healthcare policy is so lacking in resources (the true impact of the Mental Healthcare Bill 2016 remains to be seen), it is not in the nature of organizations/corporations to step in and fill the gap and nor can they completely.

There are some organizations that offer ’employee wellness’ programs, out of self-interest and realization that employee well-being transfers into productivity. I wonder if there will be a similar move towards programs for mental health and wellness, given that the prevalence and/or reporting of disorders such as anxiety, depression and bipolar is going up.

There are some organizations that offer ’employee wellness’ programs, out of self-interest and realization that employee well-being transfers into productivity.

This is a broad question which in no way will have a standard answer – think about the nature of work – is it in the formal sector or informal sector? What are the sort of work we are talking about? Is this a private organization or government agency? Are we talking about a metropolitan or a tier II city? What is the infrastructure already set up for this? How will gender play into this? Historically, we know that women are considered to be “prone to hysteria” and men to “be stoic and/or ragey” – these are generalizations that effectively mask or discard the existence of mental illnesses.

Of course, anecdotally it is also evident that individuals put into place small coping mechanisms here and there, to manage their mental health and continue to be able to work. But not everyone is able to do this, including something as simple as taking a day off to manage, say depression. Nor should everyone have to – not everyone has the ability to manage their mental illnesses through individual actions which are a tiny band-aid on a big problem.

I would like to conclude by saying that productivity is hardly the only measure of a human life. Not everyone has to work or work in the conventional sense to have value as a human being. But work is a significant part of life for many people and we already spend a large proportion of our lives at work.

Also Read: Why Celebrate World Mental Health Day?

Featured Image Credit: IOD

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