In July last year, Madalyn Parker, a web developer from Michigan, posted screenshots of her boss Ben Congleton’s response to a sick leave request she had sent. She had requested a “mental health day" off work, and his positive response encouraging her to do so while applauding her honesty went viral on social media, with people remarking how rare and much-needed such a response is.

We live in a time where technology and global competition create stressful workplaces where people are under immense pressure to succeed and there is little sensitivity towards those who cannot “carry the load". People rightly fear that they will lose their next promotion, become the butt of office jokes, be delegated to less important work, or, worse, be fired. Prospective employers already reject candidates for “seeming unstable" or “unable to handle stress", that too gauged from just the way a person comes across in interactions. A 2016 survey of 200,000 professionals employed in 30 Indian firms found that 46% reported suffering extreme stress as a consequence of their work.

India also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, especially among young adults. Though the changes with regard to employee health have been sweeping, be it health insurance, work-life balance policies, maternity leave or even paternity leave policies, mental health is still the elephant in the room. This is almost entirely due to the stigma associated with it, which keeps organizations from tackling the issue in a productive way, even though it makes good business sense. According to the World Health Organization, mental health issues would cost India around $1 trillion in losses between 2012-2030. So how do we go from stigmatized environments to safe workplaces? Here are a few simple steps to get started.

S – Sensitizing the M word

This starts with improving the organization’s mental health literacy in the form of seminars, workshops and healthy discussions so that people have the facts and know how to talk about them. This will help people relate to their own experiences and those of their loved ones, allowing them to approach the topic from a position of empathy rather than stigma.

A – Accepting and normalizing

The next step is to create a long-term initiative where employees can engage with the issue of mental health and familiarize themselves with various conditions and the right way to talk to those affected. If we could talk to colleagues about mental health with the same empathy and kindness the way we do when it comes to a common cold or diabetes, then we would be one step closer to our goal.

F – Forming support structures

The biggest incentive for people dealing with mental health issues to come forward and seek the help they need is to have a prejudice-free, medically relevant support structure in place. It starts with equipping manages and leaders with the right tools and techniques to handle these issues. Providing coaching or professional support for individuals and having a network of medical professionals to deal with the more sensitive issues can go a long way.

E – Encouraging policy changes

Policy change is vital. From drafting policies and procedures to handle mental health issues, including mental health leave as part of the sick leave policy, to including mental health expenses in employee health insurance packages, every organization should be able to find a balance of initiatives that successfully aligns with its business model.

Until we can make our workplaces ‘S-A-F-E’, other options can be considered. If you’re currently dealing with issues related to mental health, and there aren’t any formal support structures, you could speak to a colleague or a senior you trust so that you’re not dealing with it alone. In the absence of formal policies and structures at the workplace, I would strongly encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional who can help you overcome your condition, without hampering your career or family life.

Mind Matters is a weekly column which looks to alleviate the stigma about mental health issues at work. Neerja Birla is the chairperson and co-founder of Mpower, a movement that aims to bring about a positive change in the attitude towards mental health.

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