The case for counseling at the workplace

India has one of the largest women dropouts in the workforce. Some counseling can help change that; the economic benefits are enormous

Updated: Oct 18, 2018 10:50:36 AM UTC
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A 2016 report by The Wall Street Journal found that Indian millennials spend more time at work than their counterparts in twenty-five other countries, an average of fifty-two hours a week. The fast pace and stressful world has led our employees to struggle with work-related stress and personal issues. Mental health challenges can affect an individual’s performance. It will lead to increased absenteeism, lowered productivity, and stressful peer relationships.

Life altering decisions like wedding, parenting, and care for the elderly add an additional dimension of stress, especially for many Indian working women.

The overwhelmed Lakshmi
The Indian Goddess of wealth – Lakshmi, is celebrated for her strength, abundance and power. However, many of her Indian sisters face a different reality in their workplaces and at home.

In India, women are less likely to work than they are in any country in the G20, except for Saudi Arabia, and in April 2017, a World Bank report found the sharpest workforce participation drops among both, illiterate women and India’s most educated women.

While men and women are equally ambitious, certain factors impede the career ambitions of many Indian women

» Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework, child- and elder-care (i.e., unpaid work). As per some studies, Indian women spend more than five times as many hours as men on unpaid care work. This is the reason why workplace flexibility is one of the most frequently cited reason for employees to join and stay with a company, as it gives them a sense of ownership over what they do.

» The “anytime performance model”, one that requires employees to stay connected to work 24X7 through devices, requires a sacrifice of family time and hence makes it more difficult for women executives to juggle busy careers and a demanding family life.

» For any group of professionals, building networks with people to share experiences and to brainstorm their problems, is integral to learning and growing in their career. However, as statistics have indicated, India ranks fifth lowest in having women at top leadership positions. In India, women occupy only 7.7 percent of board seats, while in the US, women hold 19.9 percent of S&P 500 board seats. Hence, there is a lack of role models and people to learn from.

The opting out of the workforce by Indian women has far reaching implications. As per The Economist, if India were to rebalance its workforce, the world’s biggest democracy would be 27 percent richer.

In an era of ever-intensifying competition for talent, companies that can attract and retain women professionals are likely to succeed. This has been shown by various studies including one by Catalyst, which found that Fortune 500 companies with women on their boards had significantly higher returns on equity (53 percent), better sales (42 percent), and a two-thirds greater return on investment (ROI) than companies with all-male boards.

Many Indian organisations are recognising this and have instituted programs and policies to retain women professionals. Initiatives include flexi timings, work from home options, mentorship, learning and development programs, and parental leave. These initiatives are a step in the right direction and should be celebrated.

However, given the rising stress levels on the one hand, and opting out of the workforce for women professionals on the other, a deeper intervention is needed that can help empower women to manage expectations from both, family and employers. One of the key ways of doing this is by providing counselling to women professionals in a structured and ongoing manner.

Case for counselling of women professionals
As per CIPD UK, counseling is used to help an individual improve performance by resolving situations from the past. It can help people learn to manage themselves. Unlike coaching or mentoring, which are future oriented and help in skill building, a counselor can help get to the heart of a problem that disrupts the day-to-day activities of an individual by reflecting on the past. Counseling typically deals with behaviours and thoughts that impact performance and productivity, as opposed to knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to improve performance and productivity.

Counseling can be organised in a face-to-face format, where the professional has a one-on-one session in person. This can also be organised online, or via phone. Another way to do this is by group sessions. Going to a group counselling session can be helpful as it can help women professionals discuss their issues with people who are going through similar life situations and help them forge a support network.

A counsellor at the workplace can help in leveraging core capacities of employees and aid in creating a culture of greater synergy, especially from a learning and development standpoint. It is known that what happens beyond the office walls and inside the walls of our homes, has a direct bearing on our workplace productivity. Counselling can be an effective and preventive people management strategy for organisations to help employees, especially women professionals, better manage stress, gaps in expectations, and work-related issues, as it can cover a gamut of topics like anxiety, change in job role, marriage, issues with colleagues, and so on.

These interventions can help women professionals feel more aligned to the organisation, feel cared for, increase their self-awareness regarding their thinking patterns, and forge support systems other than what they may have at home. In turn, it can help them become more effective at their job, leading to a greater sense of achievement and thus impacting their decision to forge long-term careers. Research has continually proven that there is a strong link between an employee's psychological well-being and her productivity at work.

Embedding counseling in talent
Many organisations these days offer counseling services through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). A counseling service offered by an EAP often includes both, in-person counseling, as well as a telephone-based helpline.

There are other ways by which counseling can be embedded in an organisation's Talent strategy and eventually, align it to the overall business strategy

Support from leadership
One could identify and appoint mental wellness champions from business leadership, who could be responsible for demystifying the stigma around mental well-being and share the importance of counseling. This can also help build a culture where women professionals feel safe to share their struggles and seek support.

Embed counseling as a key skill for new managers
All newly promoted managers can be taught basic skills in counseling, as it can help them reach out to their team members and take preventive interventions early on. For example, if a manager observes an increase in absenteeism, missed deadlines, lower quality of work and an increase of errors at work, one can engage in a healthy conversation and help the professional seek support.

Organisations can promote employee network groups
These communities create a safe space for professionals who go through similar experiences and help share best practices, hardships, and advice. Simple meet ups for coffee, or a quick fifteen to thirty minute conversation can help substantially. This is especially true for women who might have apprehensions about re-entering the workforce, as positive affirmations through employee networks can help ease the anxiety.

In order to retain professionals, especially women professionals, it is a business imperative to weave counseling as a tool in various initiatives and build leadership support around it. It can decrease burnouts, absenteeism, and costs related to turnover.

Eventually, we need to view counselors as modern day business partners who can help our women professionals manage stress and problems brought about by personal and organisational changes.

While stress and pressure is a modern day reality, one can hope to deal with it through counseling.

The author is a Partner and Chief Talent Officer at Deloitte India.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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