A roadmap for CEOs to create an inclusive workplace for people with mental illness

Companies are shaped by their leaders, which is why CEOs must take responsibility for ensuring their employees feel supported and understood, not despite but because of their vulnerability to mental health conditions

Anisha Padukone
Updated: Apr 28, 2022 03:29:54 PM UTC

Anisha Padukone is CEO of LiveLoveLaugh, a charitable trust set up in 2015 to give hope to every person experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression

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Companies are shaped by their leaders, which is why CEOs must take responsibility for ensuring their employees feel supported and understood, not despite but because of their vulnerability to mental health conditions. Image: Shutterstock

Mental illness is one of the most significant challenges we face as a collective, and it also points to a substantial opportunity for us to show our best. The pandemic has shown us that mental health conditions can affect everyone. Perhaps this realisation has had a knock-on effect on our acceptance of mental illness.

Last year, LiveLoveLaugh’s (LLL) Mental Health Study (How India Perceives Mental Health – 2021) revealed that 92 percent of people would not only seek treatment for themselves but also support a person seeking treatment for mental illness. If this openness to treatment was heartwarming, equally important was the change in public perceptions of people with mental illness, with 65 percent of respondents believing that people with mental illness could find gainful employment and lead stable, healthy lives, double the 32 percent in 2018. Unfortunately, while awareness of mental health is higher than ever, as is the openness to discussing issues around mental illness, systemic change continues to lag.

This resistance is no more evident than in workplaces, where even with the promotion of diversity and inclusivity, mental health issues still face prejudice driven by misinformation and stigma. Companies must address the problem, but who will take responsibility for the solution? There is only one answer.

Organisations are often faceless intangible entities recognisable only by legal and financial systems. Modelled on Industrial Revolution constructs, irrespective of the sector, companies are designed for efficiency, quality, and accuracy. There is limited scope, if any, for subjectivity, uncertainty, and individual uniqueness to be recognised. This situation needs emotional intelligence and a shift in mindset and culture, all of which require the support of a company's leadership.

Companies are shaped by their leaders, which is why CEOs must take responsibility for ensuring their employees feel supported and understood, not despite but because of their vulnerability to mental health conditions. The reality is that organisations, especially in the Indian context, continue to be hierarchical systems that operate on a top-down approach. This places an emphasis on the key role of the CEO in creating a workplace capable of accommodating and managing mental illness like it would any other unique aspect of an employee’s profile. Here are some steps CEOs can take to provide a safe and inclusive workplace for their employees:

1) Leading by example - A large part of vulnerability and authenticity is leading by example. CEOs are human, too, after all, and they must take every opportunity not just to accept but welcome vulnerability and openness. The first step would be for CEOs to be open about their struggles and challenges, if any, demonstrating their humanness instead of hiding behind a veneer of perfection.

2) Offering crisis support - Mental illness can affect anyone, and that is why it is critical to have a support system that employees can turn to in times of crisis. Different people may need to address distinct challenges based on their circumstances and stage of life. A comprehensive support system can be invaluable in helping them cope while finding ways to balance work, recovery, and other priorities. Companies must offer organisation-wide support and educate employees about how they can access services such as financial aid, peer groups, specialist providers, and any other help they may need.

3) Establishing an inclusive performance review system - For action to be meaningful, it must have significant consequences. CEOs need to develop performance review systems that account for the specific needs of people with mental illness without hampering their growth. Destigmatising mental illness, offering time off for recovery, ensuring that these often-marginalised groups have a voice, and creating checks and balances to verify the fairness and integrity of appraisal processes are some ways in which CEOs can build a just system. In addition, diversity and inclusivity initiatives need to address employee growth and development to be taken seriously and make a genuine difference.

4) Modeling empathy and understanding - From a cultural standpoint, the most critical change is mindset and conduct. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for insensitive or discriminatory behaviour towards people with mental illness. Additionally, CEOs need to have a clear vision for an inclusive organization and do everything within their power to minimise, if not eliminate, toxic workplace behaviors. The change will not be instant, but the intention and action will support gradual progress.

As leaders responsible for shaping the direction of companies, CEOs wield immense power, and it is time for this authority to give rise to a more compassionate, understanding, and inclusive way of doing business. The last few years have shown us that we are all connected in suffering and health, and we must act accordingly. No more can we stand for societies, workplaces, or institutions that ignore the needs of its varied people. That time has passed, and so should the marginalisation that is characterised by discriminatory behaviour.

The writer is CEO of LiveLoveLaugh.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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