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Make conversations about mental health an important health issue at the workplace. Photo: iStock
Make conversations about mental health an important health issue at the workplace. Photo: iStock

Startup founders share personal stories to help employees focus on mental health

  • The covid pandemic has changed the discourse and attitude about mental health in India Inc.
  • CXOs and staff are aiming to destigmatize the act of seeking help from mental health professionals by sharing personal experiences

In the initial few months following the lockdown, Suhail Vadgaonkar (33), HR director of Urban Company, sought therapy. Like most people, Vadgaonkar found himself feeling very anxious about the uncertainty the covid pandemic brought in its wake. Instead of letting it fester, he paid heed to his friend’s suggestion to speak to a psychotherapist.

“I am fairly a social person. I thrive around people. Within a month of lockdown, I started getting very anxious as I couldn’t meet colleagues or friends. I wasn’t depressed but I kept fearing the worst, and found it hard to focus. It began affecting my productivity as I would stay up late and feel tired through the day," says Vadgaonkar.

Having felt better with therapy, he thought of sharing it with others in his workplace. What made him put it in action were two things : the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the internal pulse surveys indicating varying degrees of burnout among the workforce. While rolling out an office mental health policy, where company sponsors one-on-one counselling and therapy to any employee, Vadgaonkar openly shared his personal experience with everyone.

“I found therapy very useful as it gave me great clarity. After I shared my story, I had a lot of people reach out to me to know more about therapy," recalls Vadgaonkar. The adoption rate of the policy has been 8%, many grappling with anxiety to mild depression, in an employee base of 1200.

At Haptik, a conversational AI platform, as part of World Mental Health Day initiative, crowdsourced stories of how people dealt with their mental health issues within the organization, as it would be more relatable.

Design head Asis Panda (30) is one of the people who openly shared his experience of going through anxiety and getting therapy with the entire organisation.

“I want more people to genuinely benefit it as it has benefited me. I feel much better, calmer, confident and kinder to myself. And I want to increase the chances of people seeking therapy, which is hidden under layers of taboo," says Panda.

Being a manager handling a large team, Panda has been vocal about it within his team. During the pandemic, one of his team members approached him as she was contemplating therapy.

“She hadn’t made the leap because of some misconceptions and fear. Since I was vocal, she felt I would understand her situation. She eventually went for therapy," he says, adding that one doesn’t need therapy throughout their life.

The pandemic has changed the discourse and attitude about mental health in India Inc. However, certain perceptions and stigma remain in actually going to a mental health professional, despite several companies rolling out mental health policies for their employees.

Some CXOs and employees, however, are attempting to break this hesitancy of their teammates and colleagues by sharing their personal experiences and thereby, destigmatising the act.

A recent survey by LinkedIn shows 2 in 5 (39%) professionals are experiencing increased stress or anxiety due to covid, while a WHO-led study last year estimated depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

Not being a great mental space has an impact on a person’s productivity. In the past three months, Arpita Agarwal (32) has had four team members reach out to her expressing anxiety about performance, fear of losing job, etc.

The national head of partnerships and alliances at Dineout, a restaurant table booking startup, has been vocal about her anxiety attacks and visiting a therapist for it. Besides providing empathetic support, if the person is comfortable, she suggests therapists who they could get in touch with.

In spite of being open about her mental health issues, Agarwal believes there is still a lot of work to be done for people to consider it as any other physical health problem they treat.

“Those who approach me behave as if it’s a big secret. We need to normalize it, and more people need to talk about it at the workplace. Of course, there are people who say the person is using anxiety as an excuse at work. But you don’t owe them any explanation. I think more leaders have to be empathetic about people’s struggle," says Agarwal.

It also takes time to break down societal perceptions about therapy and mental health.

Anirban Chatterjee (31), co founder of online recruitment and education platform Tweak Skills, who himself has gone through therapy to deal with anxiety and stress as an entrepreneur, says: “You won’t make much headway if you tell someone to go to a therapist upfront. So, I shared my personal experience, which gave them comfort. I think women are more open to seeking professional help, compared to men as many feel talking about it or going for therapy is a sign of weakness. People who are ambitious have been more prone to anxiety during the pandemic as they expect a lot from themselves despite the situation being out of their control."

Who you seek help from also matters. There are people who may be sympathetic but can misguide the person with advice since they don’t have personal experience.

Vivek Khandelwal (33), co founder of browser push notification service iZooto, says you have to repeat it over and over again and with new faces to make it ‘normal’.

“When they hear from peers and from someone from a different organization, they are able to relate better and think of giving it a try. Peer angle generally helps a lot as many feel founders usually have founder-level problems, and that doesn’t apply to them," says Khandelwal, who has been open about his experience of therapy with his entire team during the pandemic.

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