Q&A: Integrating Mental Health Support into HR Policies by Shruti Garg

Q: How did you get into HR? What's your experience been like? And can you share your journey?

I started my career in HR recruitment, focusing primarily on hiring processes. However, life events like relocating to Germany due to my husband's job and taking maternity leave impacted my career path. Upon returning to work, I transitioned into an HR generalist role, which expanded my expertise beyond recruitment. My experiences at companies like Josh Talks enriched my practical skills and people connections.

Despite a brief period of unemployment during COVID, a mentor helped me secure a position at IPLIX Media, where I worked for two years. Currently, I'm enjoying my role at Finnet Media. Throughout my career, I've found joy in mentoring younger colleagues, and motherhood has enhanced my empathy, allowing me to connect more deeply with people. My journey in HR has been fulfilling, with a focus on supporting and understanding the needs of individuals.

Q: How has the mental health of employees changed over time, and is there a trend of decreased happiness and well-being compared to earlier periods?

When I reflect on the mental health of employees from when I started working to now, there's a notable difference. Initially, people seemed happier, better at handling their emotions, and able to connect deeply with others. While mental health issues existed, they didn't seem to affect individuals at the same level.

However, when COVID hit, it drastically impacted mental health. The enforced isolation led to heightened loneliness and psychological effects as people were confined to their homes without physical interaction. In the past, physical friendships were prevalent, unlike today's trend of scattered individuals busy with multiple commitments, including side hustles.

There's an observable shift. Previously, discussing mental health openly was challenging. People were more comfortable talking to close friends or in small circles, using conversation as a means to alleviate stress without necessarily labeling it as a mental health issue.

Nowadays, there's greater awareness and conversation around mental health, although some still consider it a fragile topic. Hormonal imbalances, environmental pollution, a lack of physical interaction due to hustling, irregular work hours, the pressure of maintaining an online image, and the "status game" on social media are contributing factors to the perceived increase in mental health issues.

The current situation involves more overt stress and a sense of inadequacy sparked by comparisons on social media platforms, where people frequently only highlight the positive aspects of their lives. This pressure, coupled with various societal changes, has led to a different landscape in mental health from what I observed earlier in my career.

Q: How do you believe evolving status games among different generations, from boomers to millennials and Gen Z, are adversely affecting the workplace culture?

Here are the points summarizing the impact of evolving status games on workplace culture:

  1. Social Media Pressure: Platforms like Instagram create constant pressure to showcase activities. The absence of a story’ can lead to feelings of inadequacy, affecting mental health.

  2. Comparison and Daily Exposure: Unlike occasional comparisons in the past, social media perpetuates daily exposure to others' seemingly perfect lives, causing continuous mental agitation.

  3. Generational Influence at Work: Millennials and Gen Z feel compelled to maintain a certain image online, often driven by the need to fit in or appear 'cool,' influencing their behavior in the workplace.

  4. Office Politics and Image Building: Both juniors and seniors experience pressure to present themselves a certain way online to align with workplace dynamics. Fear of losing opportunities or connections due to a lack of online presence adds stress.

  5. Impact Beyond Instagram: Besides Instagram, platforms like LinkedIn and the abundance of content-promoting side hustles intensify the pressure to excel in multiple areas, making traditional jobs seem less rewarding.

  6. Content Overload and Perceived Value: The abundance of content suggesting alternative, more glamorous lifestyles creates a sense of dissatisfaction with one's current role or life, adding pressure to achieve more for validation.

In summary, the constant exposure to curated lifestyles on social media platforms amplifies pressure across generations in the workplace, impacting mental health and altering perceptions of success and satisfaction.

Q: How do you see the challenge of feeling sadder on Instagram while potentially losing connections if you opt out of the platform? What are your thoughts on addressing this dilemma for individuals caught in this situation?

Maintaining a controlled presence on Instagram seems essential. Simply avoiding it completely isn't feasible. Instead, exercising self-discipline by limiting usage to an hour or two daily can be a strategy for survival. I've experienced this dilemma firsthand during my time at IPLIX, when not being on Instagram made it challenging to connect with colleagues.

Creating an Instagram account without actively posting content helped me follow and engage with others' stories. This allowed me to have common topics for conversation and enhanced my connection with colleagues, even though I maintained a zero-post profile.

In industries like influencer marketing, Instagram and YouTube are foundational. Being absent from these platforms means missing out on crucial trends and insights, impacting business interactions.

The internet, while revolutionary in offering vast knowledge, has also led to dependence on quick information. Tools like calculators have reduced our inclination to engage our brains fully, even for simple calculations.

Reflecting on the past, I've noticed how access to information via Google has changed learning methods. Mentioning experiences of going to libraries for research may seem outdated to younger generations accustomed to immediate online resources.

In summary, maintaining a controlled presence on Instagram and embracing technological advancements in learning are crucial, especially in industries heavily reliant on social media trends like influencer marketing.

Q: How do you foresee workplace changes or cultural shifts due to increased task automation and reliance on AI, especially considering that upcoming generations might be the last to engage in tasks without AI assistance?

Automating tasks or delegating routine work isn't inherently negative. The issue arises when reliance on automation leads to diminished cognitive engagement. I've observed this trend, even within myself, with decreased concentration due to excessive scrolling on platforms like Instagram.

Achieving a balance becomes crucial. As technology advances, mental health will likely become increasingly important. Presently, excessive screen time is impacting concentration levels and overall mental well-being. This pattern might persist, causing more mental health concerns in the future.

Moreover, the fear of job displacement due to advancing technology adds pressure. Comparisons regarding income levels, driven by online exposure, contribute to increased stress among younger employees, despite earning significant amounts that were once considered substantial.

Q: Why is it vital for workplaces to prioritize mental health through advocates who promote inner peace and a slower pace, considering the stress from comparisons and the career pressures faced by today's generation?

It's very important for workplaces to care about how people feel in their minds. They should have special people who know a lot about how our minds work. These special people can help everyone slow down a bit and find peace inside themselves. This is especially needed because many people feel a lot of stress when they compare themselves to others or feel pressure in their jobs. Having these special people who understand our minds better can make work a nicer and less stressful place for everyone.

Q: How do the six-month skill expectations and the hustle culture's long work hours affect the stress and potential attrition among the younger workforce?

The pressure to show continuous progress in skills every six months and the culture emphasizing long work hours significantly impact the mental well-being of the younger workforce. Expectations for rapid skill development create stress, leading many to feel stuck or unfulfilled in their roles, prompting them to seek new opportunities. Moreover, the hustle culture, which glorifies extensive work hours, adds to this pressure, fostering a mindset that views working excessively as necessary for success. These factors collectively contribute to heightened stress levels and the increased potential for young employees to consider leaving their current jobs.

Q: What fundamental principle is missing in the evolving societal landscape regarding mental resilience in professional life, apart from therapy or workplace mental health support?

In the evolving landscape, embedding mental health support into an organization's DNA is vital. Cultivating a culture where employees feel safe discussing their mental well-being without fear of judgment is crucial. Establishing HR policies that allow individuals to seek breaks when feeling stressed or burned out without repercussions is essential.

Moreover, involving employees in diverse activities beyond their daily routines aids in mental rejuvenation. Engaging in creative pursuits, like painting or pottery competitions, triggers the release of happy hormones, positively impacting mental health.

Flexibility also plays a pivotal role, particularly in MNCs, where providing employees the freedom to take breaks when needed is often lacking. Overcoming the stigma around mental health and breaks is necessary. Employees feeling pressured to remain constantly available can negatively affect productivity and, ultimately, the organization's success. Creating an open and supportive culture is essential for sustaining employee well-being and, consequently, business performance.

Q: How important is fostering workplace friendships beyond work discussions for combating isolation and enhancing employee well-being in an era dominated by virtual interactions and remote work?

The challenge of social disconnection and reliance on virtual friendships due to busy schedules is significant. With limited time for in-person meetups, many friendships are relegated to virtual interactions, exacerbating social disconnection and affecting individuals' well-being. Working remotely amplifies this isolation, as people miss the casual conversations, the bonding during breaks, or the camaraderie built during shared moments in an office setting.

Fostering workplace friendships beyond mere work-related interactions could potentially alleviate this issue. Creating spaces for employees to engage socially, share personal experiences, and bond beyond work-related matters could help mitigate feelings of isolation and foster a more supportive work culture.

Q: How can an organization prioritize fostering values of friendship, typically deemed secondary to productivity, and elevate it to a top-tier priority amid numerous crucial organizational needs?

Creating connections within an organization can be facilitated by establishing clubs based on shared interests. For instance, at my previous workplace, we initiated hobby-based clubs by collecting employees' top hobbies and forming groups around them. This allowed individuals to come together regularly, engaging in discussions unrelated to work. Additionally, I encouraged teams to interact by tasking them to find common ground with two colleagues and discover three shared interests. Personally, I maintain regular contact with employees, discussing their personal and professional lives every month or so, aiming to humanize our interactions beyond formal HR exchanges. These efforts fostered a sense of camaraderie and individual connection, which I believe should be a top priority within organizations, as understanding the complexities of human nature and building relationships greatly impacts business dynamics and employee well-being.

Q: Do you anticipate the HR role evolving to prioritize mental health or wellness in organizations within the next five to seven years, and if so, how will it manifest?

In the upcoming years, HR's role will likely center on prioritizing mental health through various key strategies. Implementing supportive policies within the organization will be crucial. To achieve this, HR will initiate discussions on mental health awareness, emphasizing its significance. Providing basic mental health training to employees is essential, allowing them to offer initial support, practice active listening without necessarily providing solutions, and guide individuals to the organization's mental health resources.

Training programs should promote empathy, encouraging employees to understand each other's struggles and offer genuine support. In difficult situations, such as managing an underperforming employee experiencing personal distress, HR will advocate for creating safe spaces. This might involve allowing an individual to take time off to address their emotions and recognizing the need for a supportive environment. Ultimately, HR's focus on training and fostering empathy, especially among leadership, will pave the way for a more supportive and understanding workplace culture regarding mental health.

How HR trains and instills empathy in employees, particularly leaders, will significantly influence the organization's approach to mental health in the future.

Q: How might the approach of Gen Z HR differ fundamentally from the current practices in the workplace, considering your experience and perspective?

The approach of Gen Z HR professionals might significantly differ from current practices, especially in terms of empathy and courage in advocating for employees' needs. It seems that some HR professionals from older generations might not be as empathetic and could be more compliant with management directives. In the future, HR professionals should possess the bravery to advocate for employees and ensure that management comprehends that their function involves caring for the most critical asset: the workforce.

Regarding the role of AI in HR, while AI may advance and handle certain tasks, it won't entirely replace HR due to the human element HR professionals bring. AI can learn various aspects of HR, such as psychology, mental health, and individual differences, but it can't replicate the essential human touch required in managing diverse employee needs and interactions.

Q: Will HR initiatives focusing on mental health in the workplace evolve gradually over time, like addressing racism and sexism, or will they prompt an instant change similar to the impact of the Me Too movement on HR policies?

It's anticipated that within a maximum of five years, organizations will be mandated to establish a dedicated mental well-being policy or department for employees, much like the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) policies. Similar to how POSH faced initial misuse, mental health initiatives might encounter a similar challenge. Nevertheless, implementing an anti-harassment policy specifically addressing mental health concerns is crucial. Some toxic bosses tend to create stressful situations, and having supportive policies is essential, especially for employees who may not speak out due to financial dependencies. Therefore, a compulsory mental well-being initiative would ideally balance the advantages and disadvantages in organizational settings.

Q: Will the current loneliness pandemic have an impact on the implementation of mandatory mental well-being initiatives in organizations?

The ongoing loneliness pandemic indeed contributes to increased levels of anxiety due to reduced social connections. I believe organizations should focus more on fostering social gatherings and interactions beyond virtual platforms, like the initiatives seen in Mumbai, where colleagues connect and unwind after office hours. Physical gatherings have a significant impact compared to online connections, yet technology serves as a vital resource when physical interaction isn't feasible. So, finding a balance between physical and virtual connections is crucial for addressing the loneliness epidemic.

Do you work in HR?

Email abhash.kumar@springworks.in and let’s talk :)

Note: All views expressed in this interview are personal and not linked to any organization.