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Good health is a composite of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. However, often, mental and emotional wellness tend to get brushed under the carpet.

The World Health Organization officially recognizes workplace stress-related burnout as a part of corporate life, with reasons spanning work-life imbalance, physical or mental exhaustion, challenging work relationships and upheavals in personal life.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these concerns in the wake of social isolation, anxiety, and grief owing to uncertainty in various spheres of life.

A recent study by the Indian Psychiatry Society mentioned that within a week of lockdown 1.0, India witnessed a 20% increase in the number of reported mental illness cases.

Hence the onus is on organizations to respond with compassion and provide their employees with support for holistic well-being through outreach, communication, guidance and assistance, access to professional help and more.

Mental well-being in the business ecosystem

A 2019 survey found that 85% of the respondents believed that the employer plays a pivotal role in supporting the emotional health of employees.

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic redefining the very meaning of life, it has become extremely critical to consider the role of mental and emotional well-being in employee development and growth. It is, in fact, one of the several aspects that make up a holistic employee wellness strategy.

Organizations that focus and invest in the well-being of their employees have over the years built and evolved robust and all-encompassing employee engagement/experience strategies that take care of all aspects of employee wellness: physical, mental, parental, familial and financial.

This can be achieved through a 4-step framework, described in detail in the remainder of this article.

A 4-step mental health framework

This 4-step framework comprises elements required for establishing an effective and successful mental wellness program that promotes employees’ engagement and resilience within an organization.

1. Demystify mental and emotional well-being

The first step is to completely understand mental health and how it can be as debilitating as any serious physical ailment, if not more. Unsound mental health impacts emotional, psychological, and social well-being, influencing the way one thinks, feels, and acts.

It also has a direct correlation with physical health. For instance, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are some of the physical diseases with emotional or mental insecurities as their primary root cause.

In the context of workplace, employee mental wellness is directly linked to employee productivity, absenteeism, engagement, satisfaction and experience.

This is an area that needs attention in terms of policies, leadership and peers’ sensitization and trainings, employee assistance and engagement programs, access to professional help, programs such as yoga and meditation, sessions or webinars on financial well-being, etc.

In short, the need is for a wellness program that covers every aspect of life that can lead to stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns.

2. Conducive environment for mental wellness

This entails awareness and education around mental health, disseminated through word and action.

It is critical to educate all the stakeholders — leaders as well as employees — on how to identify and deal with stress, including recognizing early signs, attentive listening, what steps to take and how to reach out and extend help.

This means addressing the myths surrounding mental illnesses — as for some, mental illness simply means dementia; however, depression, anxiety attacks and fear are also mental stress indicators.

Building an effective strategy depends upon the active participation of all the decision-makers in its planning and execution. Business leaders need to walk the talk, be open to accepting the ideology behind mental well-being, and be trained to identify and deal with it, knowledgably and sensitively, if or when the need arises.

Communication, therefore, has a vital role to play here, guaranteeing a seamless flow of accurate information and understanding from top to bottom of the organizational hierarchy and removing the associated social stigma.

3. Evaluate mental health initiatives

The efficiency and impact of existing policies and programs should be continuously reviewed in the light of new stress triggers arising out of the changing business environment.

Case in point, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a new set of stressors, including new business operating models (remote working); personal stressors (taking care of children and elderly parents, managing household chores, fear and anxiety of catching the infection or losing a loved one to COVID-19); and financial insecurities (rising health care costs, etc.).

In very little time, employers have been faced with the daunting challenge of upping their employee assistance and engagement game to incorporate and provision for these additional personal stressors and insecurities.

To cite an example, it became essential to expand and evolve existing initiatives to include emotional well-being programs for employees’ children. New offerings have included demystifying COVID-19 in a simple and engaging way for the young audience and recreational activities to keep them productively engaged.

Technology too has played a very important role. Health care apps have helped spread awareness of the deep connection between physical exercise with mental stress levels.

There has been frequent online communication and leadership outreach to express solidarity and a united culture, sessions on topics varying from time management, child care, financial management and nutrition and health. Online tools have facilitated seamless transition to and consistent enablement of work from home.

The situation also calls for proactive and preventive mental health training on aspects like conscious and unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. Services such as telehealth and support helplines for employees, webinars and virtual programs for continuously educating and enhancing knowledge across the board are some of the "must-have" strategies.

Evaluating human resource policies plays a key role within building sustainable mental well-being strategies. Factors like flexi-work hours, leave policies, virtual or on-site counsellors go a long way in providing the much-needed non-monetary support to the employees during a crisis.

4. Sustaining the momentum

Organizations cannot afford to be complacent with the health and well-being of employees.

Initiatives and programs that work today may not be adequate to meet the needs of tomorrow. It is important to stay abreast of the changing employee requirements, life struggles and be prepared to serve in any eventuality to ensure deeper employee engagement and profound impact.

The aim remains the same — to provide a compelling, fulfilling experience to employees and their families.

The means to achieve this will evolve as per the demands of time and will be geared more towards personalized wellness.

This is because the intensity or reactions to the situation varies from person to person, depending upon factors such as age, maturity level, nature of the job, economic bearing, even the geographical location, hence the impact of the various possible triggers must be accordingly studied.

The way forward

Mental well-being strategies will continue to be revisited and evolved to include employees’ families in an even bigger way than now.

There will be an increased use of health care technology in terms of gamification, apps, wellness portals leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and a one-stop-shop offering to provide the entire spectrum of health services under one umbrella.

Also, the future of work is likely to comprise a hybrid model of a brick-and-mortar workplace and work from home, necessitating increased adoption of virtual programs to cater to the remote working population in the coming years.

There will have to be reiterated organization culture messaging to emphasize a sense of belonging.

Focused campaigns on mental health will help ensure there is sustained and renewed awareness around mental health concerns. Intensive programs will have to be crafted for more susceptible and minority groups such as LGBTQ+, and the differently abled employees.

It is also the responsibility of the management to assuage employees’ job-related insecurities by ensuring transparent and open communication on the importance of technology, and how it can offer new career options through reskilling/upskilling.

While it is too early to be able to gauge the full extent of the "new normal" unravelling at workplaces, employee health — mental, physical, emotional and financial — plays a pivotal role in ensuring the successful implementation of business sustainability and growth plans.

Therefore, an open, friendly work environment where people’s vulnerabilities are not held against them and the management is fully invested in bringing about a change in how mental health is perceived, would be a game-changer in the post-pandemic era.