Let mental health take a priority at work, say pschologists
Last year, India topped the list of the most depressing country in the world, according to a survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The country was followed by China and the United States of America.
This year, a study on mental health conducted in the USA found that experiencing symptoms of negative mental health at work is a norm and not an exception. 60% of the people studied claimed they experienced symptoms of a mental health condition in the last one year. And it was prevalent among all levels of seniority across professions.
It also found that 60% of these people had never talked to anyone at work about their mental health and troubled employees were least comfortable about discussing this with the Human Resources Departments comprising even senior leaders.
They were, however, open to helping others. Employees were also twice as likely to feel comfortable, giving support to a colleague, than asking for it.
In India, awareness about mental health is gaining popularity, but it is only limited to the personal front. A troubled or high pressure workplace is looked at as a part and parcel of work life.
But now, more and more people, especially youngsters, are choosing to move away from workplaces that adversely affect their mental health.
During her first job with a popular news channel in Bengaluru, Monika Monalisa had encountered a boss who was highly partial towards those he favoured. “If you are in his good books, things will sail smoothly for you. But you have to keep him happy. He liked subtle flattery and was also elitist. I could work my way around him for three years but then our team made a mistake once and the entire blame was put on me,” says Monika.
“My boss’ attitude towards me changed. I was being treated poorly and was not being given opportunities which others were being given easily. Since I realised that I had struck a dead end career-wise, I decided to quit,” she says.
Monika then took up a job at a popular daily’s online team under a journalist whose name we will change to Uday. It was a decision that she later realised was equal to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
“Within the first few days I found out that Uday liked to keep his team on a tight leash. Which meant that if our shift began at 5 pm, we have to reach office by 4.50 pm, login to Skype and inform him that we are in. Any delay, even it is by five minutes, was not tolerated,” says Monika.
In the online team, her responsibilities included scanning news agencies and uploading relevant stories on the website and to keep updating it. The job required constant attention, but even with two or more people on the same job at the same time, no one was allowed time off.
“He never said it out in words, but he never liked us taking even a coffee break or talking to others during the shift hours. He would say that while we were away, we missed taking in stories that other news websites have already published. We would not even get a chance to use the washroom. I had to ask someone else to keep an eye on the agencies while I rushed to the loo,” recollects Monika.
Speaking about how this attitude led her to feel harassed, the 32-year-old says, “I used to live in BTM and the office is in MG Road. With the kind of notorious traffic we had, it used to take me one hour to reach work. Sometimes, I would get late by around 5-10 minutes and during each of those times, I would be called in for a lecture to his cabin.”
“Once, I had met with a small accident, but had still limped my way to work. I was obviously late and once Uday saw me arrive, he strode out from his cabin towards me and was about to tell me off publicly when he noticed my muddy jeans and stopped. I had to explain to him that I had fallen of my bike while commuting and he just turned around and left abruptly,” says Monika.
She also claims that she was dissuaded from talking to her colleagues in other teams as according to her boss, “it would distract” her. “Imagine, I am stuck to that desk for hours and can’t talk to anyone but my team mates, can’t go out for breaks, have lunch or dinner within 15 minutes flat.
We had to alert him on Skype that we were leaving for meals and then text him again when we are back. And he would take a note of the time we had taken for it. While other teams would easily take at least 20 minutes for each meal, if we took more than 15, it meant either a long message on Skype about how we should not take so much time or a lecture in his cabin,” says Monika.
After a year of this, things became too much for her to bear. “Coming to work felt like working for Hitler. He would also hold grudges and dig up old incidents for trivial matters. I then approached the HR and found that in the past, a large number of people had complained against Uday but no action was taken against him,” Monika says.
When HR did not act on her complaint either, she decided to use Uday’s words against him. “His attitude was always like it’s either my way or the highway, so this time, I chose the highway,” she says.
She quit her job and moved onto another media company where she has successfully completed three satisfactory years.
Psychologists say that even though we do tend to normalise a high-pressure work environment in our country, it is important to understand when it is affecting or mental health and to move on accordingly.
Chennai-based psychologist Dr Suryakumar says, “If your work environment is such that you are not able to put your hundred percent into your job, you are losing sleep and feeling anxious because of it, these are signs that indicate that you may have to consider to change your job.”
Suryakumar also feels that in these situations, employees must communicate with employers and let them know that they are not comfortable with certain things.
“Employees need to be more assertive and speak out for themselves. Nowadays, most employers are aware about the importance of mental health and if their subordinates approach them with a problem of this nature, they are likely to address it. If, however, they do not pay attention to it, then the employee may consider leaving the organisation,” he said.
This is exactly what TS Balaji (name changed to protect identity) did. The 30-year-old’s previous boss at a content developing company would always keep him on his toes. “I would receive work related messages from her even late at night. They were not even urgent and could have been sent the morning after,” says Balaji.
“There have been times when I was on leave and she would constantly keep e-mailing assignment details and text me to keep it updated. I could never take break from her,” he says.
This affected Balaji so much that he started getting panic attacks. “Every time my phone would ring, I would be scared to think that it was a message from her and it was getting exhausting and frustrating. It began to affect my personal life too. I could not focus on my family as I kept expecting messages from her even when I was not at work,” he says.
Balaji did try to speak to his boss about the situation, but it backfired. He says, “She doubled up the work and kept taunting me in front of my colleagues during group meetings.”
Things reached a point where Balaji’s father was diagnosed with cancer and his boss refused to sanction his leave. “I was aghast! She took the matter so lightly. My father had stage three pancreatic cancer and she was telling me about how much work would pile up if I took leave. That’s when I decided that enough was enough,” he says.
He did go home to take care of his father and started looking out for job opportunities. “I quit a month later and still look back at that phase as a nightmare,” says Balaji.
Of course, with the economic slowdown upon the country now and jobs getting scarce, people are holding tight to their jobs, no matter how toxic the work atmosphere is. And this is a worrying situation, because uncertainty and depression are a potent mix for any person.
Thirty-two-year-old Harika Buddhavarapu, an HR executive from Hyderabad spent more than three years in a multi-national company but had to quit when her boss interpreted her medical concerns as inefficiency.
“My job required me to work at the computer for long hours and every day I had to respond to at least 200 e-mails. After a point of time, my eyes began to water constantly. When I consulted a doctor, he suggested that I ask for a different role so that I have to spend fewer hours in front of the computer,” said Harika.
“I spoke to my boss about this and thought that she understood my situation, but then, she sent an e-mail marking all her bosses as well that I was trying to shirk work because of my eye-problem. I was taken aback, but I responded to it offering to show my doctor’s certificate, if it helped. But the damage was done,” she added.
“It was a matter that should have been kept between the two of us, but after that incident even our off shore teams came to know about it. Once, during a global conference call, I was even asked by one of the seniors in US, if I was okay. I felt like my privacy was violated. I quit and was given poor ratings,” Harika said.
She then was selected for a PhD programme in the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. Harika moved cities expecting a fresh start, but she was not prepared for the “male chauvinism” that she faced there.
“I was the research associate there and was allotted to work under a professor who had a reputation of being arrogant and brash so I was extra careful with my work. But the harassment began soon enough,” said Harika.
According to her, she was supposed to help the professor distribute documents among the students during the class. She was also the point of contact for students if they had any queries regarding this professor’s classes. Harika would be notified earlier about the class plan and she would carry the documents accordingly. Once, in a class, the professor asked for some papers that were not supposed to be distributed that day.
“When I told him that I don’t have it, he began to shout at me in front of all the students. I felt humiliated,” said Harika.
When she brought the matter up with the professor later, he brushed her arguments aside and began to ignore her work. “At the end of the course, I received the best rating among all the associates from the students and the worst from the professor. This attracted the attention of the faculty and the professor was mildly told off by the dean,” Harika said.
Dr Kalpana, a counseling psychologist in Chennai says that it is important to feel peaceful and stress free at work. “It is a balance of pleasure and pressure,” she says, adding “If you experience more pressure than pleasure at a job, then for the sake of your mental health, you should take steps that make you happier.”
Stress of a job is individualistic, Kalpana says. “This varies from one person to the other. Some may enjoy heavy, high pressure work while it may be too much for someone else to bear. Hence, it is important to communicate freely with bosses and colleagues so that they are aware of how you feel and can act accordingly.”
If, however, employers do not offer a helping hand, then it is advisable to not work with them anymore, says the doctor.