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Why are your workplace mental health plans failing

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Image by Donald Giannatti

So you have signed up with a well-advertised "mental health" service provider, sent out glossy emails with the right ratio of memes and goodreads quotes on psychology, bought a ton of subscriptions to a popular mindfulness app and yet your workplace mental health programs are offering no real respite to your employees. In fact, they become more listless hearing about a new and ambitious drive to improve everyone's psychological well-being.

I am a psychologist and a mental health researcher with over a decade and half dedicated to working on mental health for individuals, organizations and communities. Here is my barefaced take on the reasons I have noted as contributing factors shipwrecking the best of workplace mental health initiatives.

Lack of specificity - Your approach is too generic to elicit any dedicated interest from your employees. Most people in urban and privileged environments today have access to quite a few knowledge platforms and by extension, mental health content. Social media pages dedicated to sharing common tips, tricks and techniques have amassed like toadstools after a copious monsoon. People want something more than recommendations about breathing and counting to 10 followed by drinking water. Workplace mental health programs and workshops that lack meticulousness and aren't tailored to your own group dynamics within your employee demographic are likely to fail. We aren't decrying the importance of universal concepts that would benefit any organisation attempting to inculcate a pro-mental health culture. However, you need to shape your approach with a lot more detail-orientation if you truly want to create a resonant plan for workplace mental health. 5 mindfulness videos isn't exactly that. Randomly lifted verbiage from the first 10 google searches about "anxiety" won't cut any ice either. Go deep, not broad. Pick a couple of critical areas and work your way up. E.g. A lot of people who deal with social anxiety already struggle with rationalizing their thoughts when they experience a formidable stressor. A trainer hectoring them to just "stop thinking too much" is neither helpful nor useful. Bringing a mental health professional who can help speak about the reasons for anxiety along with discussing the lived experience of those who deal with disordered anxiety is more likely to bring out more enthusiastic participation.

All posturing, no policy - Lack of coherent policy-making that supports an integrated approach to workplace mental health will be the proverbial fly in your ointment. Individualization of mental health ends up burdening the survivors and service users with the millstone of "self-development" instead of constructing a supportive and unified framework for truly being inclusive of mental health needs within your organisation. Workplace mental health must be structured on a community-centered model which helps in destigmatizing mental illness, emotional distress and psychosocial challenges along with psychoeducation and peer support. Moving away from a pathologising mindset involves norming - creating formative systemic pathways to how your organization views mental health. E.g. If someone has ADHD, are there internal standpoints which allow this employee to not be penalized for their error rate? Is it possible to find an inclusive method to help them get their work done?

Aiming for Pyrrhic victories - So you added 30 different wellness solutions to your employee's calendar and now they seem more stressed than before. Wonder what could have gone wrong.

"Here is a free yoga class to help destress you!"

"But I'd really like to not work over this weekend if possible. That would help..."

"But we are giving you a free yoga class ... why don't you enjoy that and then work over the weekend!"

"Actually... I just need a rest day and it will help a lot..."

"Alright, then we will see you in the free yoga class and then you can send me the report over the weekend."

The above exchange might sound hyperbolic but it is far too common in corporate corridors. Force-fitting "wellness" solutions that actually end up adding to your employees' task list is an avoidable fiasco. Organizations cram employee schedules with 15 different items that end up overwhelming the individual. They have to now manage their daily routines while trying to find out ways for completing this additional agenda. Folks who are having a tough time trying to balance on the tightrope of work and home responsibilities punctuated by the usual frustrations of commute, inflation, environment imbalances are now left with more minutia on their to-do list. The easiest way to avoid this is to engage in committed listening - ask what people need and pay attention to their responses. Do not get so enamoured by the enthusiasm to implement every buzzword-infused mental health scheme that you lose sight of some commonly evident ways in which you can help alleviate distress in your organizational setting.

The error of beginning at the end - Creating a workplace that is perceptive and inclusive when it comes to mental health begins at the top. Prominent organizational leaders have repeatedly been outed on social media for parroting toxic, regressive and careless dogma about psychosocial difficulties. Please check your top brass. Start by organizing counselling and educational sessions for them to help unpack their own challenges, stigmas, biases and platitudes. The entry-level population would benefit tremendously from non-judgmental managers. No amount of guided meditation can serve its true purpose if its listener has to battle prejudices from the boss on a daily basis.

It is a Pyramid Schema! - A schema is a mental model. Neuropsychologists like me study how the brain engages with the world at large through representations. Our personalities are shaped by our traits. Our traits are shaped by our habits. Our habits are essentially a collection of our responses. This pyramid is often ignored in organizational spaces. These responses define our behaviours. At the centre of it all is the invisible root of belief. Human behaviour is orchestrated by our belief systems. As a result, it isn't easy to modify it overnight and most certainly, it can't be done in a coercive and non-negotiable manner. A "team-bonding" dinner will ease some tensions between team members experiencing relational conflicts or overt competitiveness but it won't alter their beliefs about each other overnight. The only way that can happen is via a psychologically safe workplace which doesn't employ harsh punitive measures to manage behavioural difficulties.

Workplace mental health will remain a unicorn without an authentic admission of how any ruthlessly productivity obsessed enterprise deflates the human will to engage, be curious and battle threats as well as difficulties. The way forward has to be carved with care, a level of humility and a deft recognition of how to first create an organisational climate which doesn't shame people for their mental health needs.

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