Dr. Pragya Mathur Kumar
(PUBLISHED IN INDIAN MANAGEMENT DEC 2019 VOLUME 58 ISSUE 12)
Suman started feeling tired of walking the tightrope, struggling to strike a balance between her diverse roles. Her excellent performance in the organisation was instrumental in paving the way for greater responsibilities and a promotion.
At the same time, her two teenaged children were working on her nerves like never before. Their future plans seemed nowhere in place. She started having bouts of guilt and sleepless nights. Did she do the right thing by pursuing a career while her kids grew up in the day care? As she stood at the threshold of the next level in the organisational hierarchy, she found herself in a state of turmoil. Health issues began to creep up and she found herself gulping pills more frequently than ever before. She began to withdraw from social events in a bid to reduce the guilt of ‘not being a good parent’ and started finding herself at the receiving end of endless complaints at home. She wished there was someone she could share her situation with, but did not want to involve colleagues or a family member. She was not looking for a solution. All she wanted was a patient ear—a non-judgmental, empathetic response that would help her think more clearly. She had read an article about a new initiative certain organisations were offering—having a counsellor in the workplace to enhance employee well-being. She wished her employers would do the same. That was just what she needed; someone who could help her to help herself without being judgmental. Someone who understands the need of a person to vent out emotions that build up while trying to deal with an environment, which is threatening or demanding. We live in an age of anxiety—from small children who are struggling to cope with absentee parents to professionals who constantly find themselves in the middle of an exceedingly competitive environment. The overwhelming stressors employees have to deal with often create an imbalance that is tough to correct. In addition to the challenges on the domestic front, the employee often has to deal with heavy traffic while travelling, evasive targets, information overload, difficult co-workers, demanding boss—the list seems unending. Technological advances like the mobile phone and internet connectivity have created a web that entraps a person for extended durations in his role at work. 24/7 access and inability/unwillingness to ‘switch-off’ has started manifesting in cases of burnout, mental health issues, and even suicide. The well-being of employees is a burning issue and must be given the place of importance it truly deserves.
Interventions for achieving work-life balance
As a diverse workforce is becoming a norm, there are novel challenges that are emerging. Expectations keep growing. Work-life balance is being recognised by many organisations as a goal that demands interventions/initiatives such as stress audit, clan culture, flat structure, employee-friendly policies, gym and incentives for healthy lifestyle, resonant leadership, employee recognition, equity in appraisal, relaxation training, employee counselling services, peer support schemes, better job-person fit. In the words of Rick Hughes, lead advisor for workplace at the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, “Workplace counselling is an employee support intervention that is usually short-term in nature and provides an independent, specialist resource for people working across all sectors and in all working environments. Giving all employees access to a free, confidential workplace counselling service can potentially be viewed as part of an employer’s duty of care.” Even though counselling services may not be the perfect answer to all the issues that impact employee well-being, they will surely create a positive atmosphere. In a fast moving world, skill sets become redundant and create a training gap wherein employees must upgrade their capabilities continuously. Managers feel the need to develop leadership skills and become change drivers in their own organisations. The changes in external and internal environment of the organisation requires employees to have a responsive and growth mindset. The scenario at work and at home becomes a see-saw, wherein employees often find themselves struggling. Is there a way out? Indeed there is.
Research evidence supports the workplace counselling initiative
There is a growing research-based evidence for the efficacy of workplace counselling. A 2010 study by McLeod showed that workplace counselling interventions have been found to reduce sickness absence rates in organisations by as much as 50 per cent. This fact clearly demonstrates both the cost-effective nature of counselling and the positive impact it can have on an organisation’s productivity. 1to1Help.net, a professional counselling company, conducted a study, The Mental Health Status of Employees in Corporate India, in which over 6000 employees in different cities, across organisations voluntarily completed the depression scale. It found that one out of every two employees in corporate India shows signs of anxiety and depression. As much as 80 per cent of the respondents, who exhibited symptoms of anxiety and 55 per cent with symptoms of depression, were going through it for over a year before seeking professional help. The study observed that the number of people who were at risk for suicidal behaviour went up from 2.1 out of 10 (2008) to 8.21 (July 2016). These findings are alarming. They also point toward the need for timely intervention to prevent escalation and mental health issues with reference to employees. Prolonged stress due to personal and work contexts was also identified as a trigger for mental illness. There is a strong case for employee counselling services, which would be a boon to those who postpone professional help because it is not readily available.
There is evidence to show that workplace counselling leads to happier, more secure, and positive employees. I have interacted with employees in different organisations and found a very enthusiastic response to the proposal of having a counsellor within the organisational setting. Among the many benefits of this initiative, the psychological dimension is perhaps the most important one. Employee engagement and commitment would be the positive outcomes. It would send a strong message that the organisation not only seeks contribution from employees in accelerating its own growth but also cares about their well-being.
In the future, workplace counselling will become an important resource for organisations that wish to be on the fast track. Building bridges and stronger relationships with the employees can become much easier if organisations realise that they do not hire just the hand but the ‘whole person’. Organisations need to focus on developing a bond based on respect, trust and empathy. Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, believes, “Employees come first and if employees are treated right, they treat the outside world right….”
The time is right for counsellors to be part of the organisational system
There is a rather strong case for providing benefits that make employees feel valued. The time is right for organisations to provide workplace counselling. They will have easy access to a professional who is trained to listen attentively and help them improve the situation. Studies have found that workplace counselling contributed to significant improvements in most attitude-to-work factors: skill use, job demand, clarity, feeling valued, interpersonal contact, competence, work spillover, adequacy of pay and job satisfaction. Mental health issues can impact performance at work by leading to absenteeism, lower productivity and poor interpersonal relations. According to Dr Chaitanya Gulvady, VP- HR Health Management, Siemens Limited, the patient-to-psychiatrist ratio is low in India, and therefore a counselling service at the workplace is a good idea. He feels, “If mental disorders go undetected and unaddressed, it will affect the morale, performance, and productivity of the team, and ultimately the company will suffer.”
In addition to their original training, the workplace counsellors would have to develop an understanding of how organisations function. They would have to fit in the shoes of a partner who can provide psychological support and help employees to manage stress and challenges of professional and personal life. Workplace counselling is the need of the hour. Time for a wakeup call; are the pilots of organisations of the future listening?