The Thread of Resilience … The Secret Potion for Striking an Ideal Work-Life Balance

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Gaining that ideal work-life balance cannot be left to an employee alone. An enterprise requires the individual and itself to work together. Building an environment that promotes more resilience oriented practices promote good overall mental health and be beneficial to the employee as well as the organization. Both employer & employee should understand that positive mental health can be fostered with constant commitment, and not merely as a cure. Therefore, one cannot separate the health of a workplace from that of their employees. 

The theme for World Mental Health Day 2017, was set as ‘Mental Health in the Workplace’, by the W.H.O. Since one spends a large portion of one’s waking hours at the workplace, we at Therappo thought it was important to participate in creating dialogue pertaining to the theme.

Partnering up with the Axis Bank and Psychology Dept of Nanavati Women’s College, a panel discussion was conducted at the Axis Bank Head Office in Mumbai with notable personalities from the field of psychology and mental health.

Panelists-TherappoPanelists included –

Dr. Avinash DeSousa – Consultant Psychiatrist & Founder DeSousa Foundation

Mr. Suresh Mehra – VP, Human Resources Dept. at Axis Bank

Dr. Cicilia Chettiar – Head of Dept of Psychology, MNW College

Ms. Ishita Sharma – M.A. Psychology, Actress, Dancer, and Founder at AAMAD

Mr. Sanjay Sarkar – Co-Founder of Therappo.com

The conversation ranged from questions about analyzing the need for mental health management at the workplace, to the need for privacy and safety to encourage “seeking help”. One aspect that was touched upon, in particular, was whether it was the workplace or the individuals themselves who were responsible for maintenance of a healthy environment, conducive to proper mental health.

“It is not about the workplace being healthy or unhealthy, but about ME as an individual and how I balance this”. We decided to delve further into this area and truly understand what should go into effectively striking that much required balance in our lives.

The line itself suggests that striking a balance and being able to compartmentalize the effects of work and personal events, is a responsibility that lies with the individual. Researchers, Westman et al., in 2009, said that work and non-work-related activities should be complimentary and work towards fulfilling an individual’s priorities at the time. However, one’s role and work environment may require and subtly encourage practices such as putting in overtime, having long work hours, taking on a lot of responsibility and commitment etc. These may indirectly affect one’s mental wellbeing. Studies on Indian organisations and workplaces also suggest that we have the longest working hours, and from a cultural point of view- a greater sense of hierarchy. Thus our work environment may unwittingly glorify stress, or propagate a corporate lifestyle that insists that one set aside only a couple of days to unwind. On the other hand, it may be a person’s genetic makeup, personality traits, thought patterns, unique experiences etc. all play a role in the choices that influence mental health as well.

Can one draw the line between one’s work and personal life, and strike that delicate balance?

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To answer this, we must also understand the stressors we face in our daily lives. Very often there are certain common work and personal elements that affect a vast majority of individuals, but are the two spheres mutually exclusive? Mr. Suresh Mehra was of the view that as social creatures, we cannot isolate workplace or personal attributes as the lone cause for poor mental health.

There may be other factors involved, or a combination of work and personal triggers, that contribute to one’s mental state. There may even be situations that are beyond your control that contribute to your state of mind. For instance, job insecurity, or abusive superiors etc. Therefore, it would be difficult for an employee to be able to control every factor while trying to strike a balance in their work and personal lives. Even a few audience members were of this view as they related anecdotes regarding the importance of balance and simultaneous lack of control.

The panelists also examined it from another perspective. The view that an employee’s personal and work life is indeed connected, and cannot merely be categorized into one or the other.

One’s work issues (and successes) tend to flow into one’s life outside the office and vice versa. There is even research suggesting that if an employee is able to create a proper balance, he or she may then sense that this flows into the different aspects is into an “equilibrium”. The main crux of the matter is one’s priorities. The same research suggested that one’s priorities are associated with the ability to strike a work-life balance. The reason this ability varies from person to person, is that the personal and work commitments they afford are based on one’s particular life experiences, aspirations and needs. The Australian ABC Health & Wellbeing website suggests that, “there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for work-life balance; rather, work-life balance is an individual matter”.

An individual’s ability to build self-resilience and other skills for balancing work and life stressors will influence how well he or she is able to strike that necessary work-life balance. In fact this is such an ‘individual’ quality that a person tends to feel or behave in a similar way in all workplaces she or she works.

So why it is important?

When you run an organization, you know that the employee is the backbone of the enterprise. Irrespective of employees’ skills at handling balance, a company still needs to have certain basic mental health management measures in place at the workplace.

It is essential that the need for a work-life balance be recognized, preventing any breakdown or burnout in one’s workforce. The recognition makes an employee feel acknowledged and in turn happier, the effect of which may spill over into his/her home life. Similarly, feeling like one’s work and personal spheres are in equilibrium may reduce any stress and baggage being ferried between the two environments. If one’s employees feel less stressed, it would also contribute to an increase in their feelings of confidence, a sense of responsibility over various things, and an increased concentration and output at work and at home.

As an organization, one benefits by having an employee that feels cared for and as a result has a positive state of being. This improves commitment to work and satisfaction with it as well. Similarly, balance at home may produce behaviours that in turn benefit the employer and improve job performance. Our discussion brought up Axis Bank’s initiatives for managing their employee’s mental health. As a bank, their work environment may be stressful and require the best from their employees. Therefore, their Wellness Program – WithYou, is important as it enables care for their workforce and for the workforce to remain in balance.

Another reason why it is important to acknowledge this need for balance is that when work-life balance goes into disarray, all sorts of conflicts may arise. This point was keenly highlighted by Dr. Avinash DeSousa, who said, “if you do not rest a sprain, it will turn into a fracture.” A common instance is work-family conflict, where an individual feels torn between their commitment to work and to their home and family. It can lead them to stretching themselves thin across the two, feeling stressed, overworked and eventually depressed. It may have an impact on their physical health as well, resulting in a constant sense of fatigue, irritation and lack of progress. It may even result in them being physically or mentally absent from work, reducing the output of the organization as well.

These issues were reflected in the statistics released by ASSOCHAM in 2016. Their research looked at the state of mental health in employees across various industries in India. They found that nearly 42.5% employees experienced depression or generalized anxiety. Employees in their prime working years, were the most affected. Nearly 81% of this group experienced depression or stress related anxiety. Their findings also supported the panelists’ view that- personal issues also add to work stress. This result was not limited to any one industry and could be noted across all Indian Private Sector companies.

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How do individual personality factors influence this?

The panel discussion also talked about external factors that influenced good mental health. These factors may have a trickle-down effects on striking a balance. A secondary reading also found that positive factors were important in increasing resilience.

Resilience is an individual’s ability to ‘bounce back’ or maintain good mental health in adverse situations. It speaks of a person’s ability to be able to plough through the situation in a positive manner. The level of such resilience you or someone else has, can vary based on a number of other factors as well.

According to Comcare, under the Australian Government, these are risk factors that may reduce individual resilience. They in turn affect an individual’s ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

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Many studies suggested that individuals who were more resilient, were able to recover from the stressful situation, and with fewer instances of falling physically or mentally ill- as compared to less resilient individuals.

Dr. Cicilia elaborated on this by sharing how as a practitioner she has noted that in the Indian workplace, employers very often face issues such as poor attendance, low productivity, frequent sick leaves, missed deadlines etc. These clearly show that resilience may play a role in balance even in the Indian context.

Research also found that this level of resilience influenced how soon an individual could return to work after any form of injury or setback. It was found that more resilient individuals were able to recover quicker, have better health, and were more positive about recovery.

Understanding how resilience plays a role in a such an individual process is important. This is because, as a writer from the ABC Health & Wellbeing website suggests- improving resilience in people can make them more active participants in tackling stress. An employee is then no longer a passive receiver of his or her circumstances. It empowers them with the ability and skill to cope and work through any situation. Therefore the balance truly lies between one’s stressors, coping mechanisms and resources. To be resilient, individuals tend to rely on these factors to be able to manage their setbacks and stressful situations. It’s these factors, as well as a good social support system that helps them manage the arising conflict that threatens to spill into their different spheres of life.

However, being resilient and only changing the way one recovers from a situation is not enough. Both individuals and organisations should focus on more than just recovering normalcy. Why go from a negative point in one’s state of being back to their original baseline alone? The aim should be to maintain one’s mental health at a baseline and improve it to a more positive state. Dr. Cicilia too made this important point during the discussion. She said, “don’t wait for rock bottom. There are two ways to go about it. You can go from negative to baseline, or go from baseline to higher.”

There are many stages along the way to deteriorating mental health for a person. One cannot simply address the entire issue by only focusing on what happens immediately after a situation has occurred. It is essential that the origin, the progress as well other cognitive patterns of thought be taken into account together.

In fact, a study/prevention program was conducted in order to promote resilience in adults. It used cognitive behavioural and mental health promotion interventions. The aim of these strategies was to create a proper work-life balance and compare two groups of employees. Research found that the group guided with these strategies fared better in their work and home environments. They showed reduced levels of depression, and even stress. Their coping mechanisms improved and they displayed higher levels of effective output (Millear et al., 2007). Therefore, to start from the baseline itself and improve employee mental health, positive psychological practices can be adapted at the workplace by the organization.

 

Should resilience training be provided?

Yes! It should most definitely be provided both on an individual as well at an organisational level!

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Our panelists too were in agreement that an organization can help improve their employee resilience by implementing strategies at different levels within the workplace. Dr. DeSousa mentioned that while physical checkups are often conducted, mental health check ups are not. Thus, research suggests these that strategies could also be used at an individual level, for the employee looking to improve his or her own life balance.

As for how to go about it? We compiled a short list of methods and areas that are useful in tackling the issue of work-life balance and mental health that go hand-in-hand.

 

Corporate Programs to improve an individual’s resilience

These are important as they build skills and coping mechanisms in one’s employees wherever they are lacking. These programs can help one identify patterns of thought that help tackle setbacks better and in a more positive manner as well.

There may always be elements that are out of one’s control and perhaps an organization may also not have a resilient environment. However, at an individual level, one can aim to change the factors that are possible to change and build strength in different areas. Improving thinking and coping styles can therefore build resilience and enforce the advantages mentioned earlier.

Strategies to build these styles can include:

  • Acknowledging what is indeed working for an individual. It can create a more positive outlook by giving an individual, existing strengths to rely on
  • Having a reminder of previous aims and goals that have been achieved, as well as accolades or moments of accomplishment. These may even be in relation to previous battles against stressful situations.
  • An individual can learn to break down the problem into smaller sections so that it is easier to tackle
  • Adopt a more flexible form of working to allow room for mistakes or setbacks
  • Create space and time for oneself to take a break and reflect on a situation

Changing one’s individual lifestyle

This is known to improve balance between work and home life. These can include making time for enjoyable activities outside of work, as well as some level of exercise. Improving one’s diet such as reducing caffeine or sugar intake, as well as junk food snacks can also change the way one thinks., etc., All these have a potential overall impact on one’s physical health, and an improved state of mental health.

 

Creating a strong support network within organisations

Having someone to talk to and rely on can help ease a burden on one’s shoulders and mind. If an individual, feels heard and supported, it can help have a more positive outlook on situations that may even be out of one’s control whether they are at home or at work. These relationships can even increase feelings of self-confidence and induce a positive sense of esteem and worth. As a result, one may be able to cope with stress better.

Without these relationships, an employee may feel overwhelmed and this can hamper their growth and resilience. It can raise anxiety and depression levels as they may feel alone or isolated from their peers.

From the Indian perspective, having a strong social network in particular is nearly inbuilt into our culture. Most people live in larger families or have relatives residing nearby. People in different circles may be available when necessary as well. The sense of togetherness itself can work wonders at building resilience.

The idea now is to recognize and employ this vast resource that is available. As Dr. Cicilia mentioned, companies should work towards implementing and raising awareness about this aspect of mental healthcare, as employees are not the only ones who benefit; they may take it home to their friends and families too and measures like these tend to have a positive domino effect at most times. This would also, in turn, complete the network system, thereby strengthening it. This point was also suggested by Ms. Ishita Sharma, who believes that “one should not focus only on industries, but also schools, institutions, and even one’s own homes.”

Thus, the work-life balance does indeed have an important role to play in ensuring good mental health in an employee. There are also some aspects of this balance that are within one’s control and that can be worked upon. However, it is not as easily done. There may not be awareness for the need to undertake practices that lead to a healthy balance. There may be practices in place at work that promote behaviours that overstretch an individual and their resources.

In conclusion, Therappo’s founder, Mr. Sarkar, too said that the lifestyle propagated today can lead to a negative outcome, and so the workplace is a good place to introduce the idea of believing in seeking professional mental healthcare.

Therappo offers a completely integrated platform for programs for corporate mental wellness. It is designed to allow employees unobstructed access to counselling services at their own pace, in their own space.

The organization also reaps the benefits. Therappo’s Corporate Mental Wellness programs prove to be an easy to execute initiative at corporates without having to develop their own mental wellness programs from scratch. These further ensure that HR teams do not have to be buried in administrative tasks that come with regular EAP plans. As all aspects of usage are covered- Therappo also studies the outcomes of the initiatives. The platform looks for mounting issues as well as areas of growth and improvement. Thus, it also aims at improving initiatives to match the organisation’s needs. Coming on board, organisations can pave the way for their employees to seek assistance from a completely unbiased third party!

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