Why mental health is relevant to all of us

Going to work with a mental illness — how does it work in India?

Conversations about mental health and illnesses in the office create a more open and conducive work atmosphere

Conversations about mental health and illnesses in the office create a more open and conducive work atmosphere   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Exploring how inclusive policies might benefit both employers and employees

Before Reshma Valliappan became an activist for mental health, she worked several jobs — marketing research, bartender, bookstore manager. The only thing in common was that none of her employers knew that she is schizophrenic. “The one time a friend let the information slip to a colleague, everything changed. I was subject to sexual advances and taunting comments. Now, even if someone paid me a million dollars a month, I’d never return to a corporate job again,” says the Pune-based artist, better known as Val Resh (or The Schizophrenist), firmly.

Going viral
  • Last July, US web developer Madalyn Parker sent an out-of-office mail to colleagues explaining that she needed a break to “focus on (her) mental health”. CEO Ben Congleton’s response, however was the reason the exchange went viral on Twitter, with close to 16,000 retweets and 45,000 likes. He wrote, “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this... You are an example to us all.”

Valliappan’s story is reflective of what happens when those with mental illnesses are open about their reality, especially in the workplace. It is not just about missing out on water-cooler conversations; the fear of losing out on responsibilities and promotions is a big one. Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of The Banyan (a Chennai-based NGO providing access to health and mental health for the homeless), says, “There are a large number of persons with mental health issues who are already a part of the workforce. Unfortunately, owing to prejudice, and often times self stigma, information isn't always freely divulged. These barriers influence recruitment policies. Unidimensional portrayals often lead to their exclusion from active participation, resulting in further perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination.”

Talking stats

The numbers corroborate her statement: The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s study, ‘How India Perceives Mental Health 2018’, showed that while 87% of the respondents showed some awareness of mental illness, 71% also used terms associated with stigma. A 2017 study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research (across 35 countries, including India), reported “about two-thirds of employees who had suffered from depression either faced discrimination at work or while applying for new jobs”.

Recruitment drive
  • Lemon Tree Hotels: Earlier this year, the country’s biggest mid-market hotel chain hired 30 young people with Down’s Syndrome to work in the kitchens and restaurants
  • SAP India: Late last year, the IT company began hiring people with Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Oriental Cuisines: Residents of The Banyan in Chennai work at restaurants like The Marina, Copper Chimney and Bombay Brasserie

Recent laws, like the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016), provide a legal mandate for employers to ensure “reasonable accommodations” for conditions that are legally considered disabilities — mental health included. Amba Salelkar, a Chennai-based lawyer and member of Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, says that it is important to have these policies in place for more streamlined functioning. “When it is already part of the way the organisation functions, and takes into account the fact that a member of the team might have to have different roles and responsibilities, it makes the whole process easier on both the employer and the employee,” she explains.

While it sounds simple enough, the ground realities are far removed: employees hesitate to get a medical certificate to avoid being labelled. Counsellors appointed by the management are also not approached for similar reasons. Other employees may feel burdened with additional work, leading to strained interpersonal relationships. This aversion to seek help and speak about one’s mental health is something that Bengaluru-based White Swan Foundation wants to tackle on a managerial level.

Get on board

Manoj Chandran, CEO of the not-for-profit organisation, says that their primary aim is to educate people on mental health and illness by providing resources (accessible on their website). “With this knowledge, we plan to train mid-level managers, to whom the majority of employees report to. Once they know how to identify issues and empathise with their colleagues, it might help make the workplace a more inclusive space for those who are suffering silently,” he says. The programme itself originated from concerned IT companies who wanted to ensure that their staff were getting adequate mental health accessibility.

Gopikumar shares examples of employers “who take that extra step and employ persons with severe disabilities as well. Oriental Cuisines and Lemon Tree Hotels being good examples” (see box). For those in corporate set-ups, being flexible with work-from-home and remote sign in policies might also help, adds Salelkar.

As for Valliappan, she feels that quitting the full-time workforce was one of the best decisions she ever made — besides going off her schizophrenia medication that is. She finds her therapy, and financial freedom, in the art she makes and sells, fellowships that help share her perspective, and in general, “living a nomadic lifestyle”. “I’m happy that I get to travel and see as much as I do now, without worrying about a bank balance too much,” she concludes.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 5:57:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/surviving-the-workplace/article25071268.ece

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