“Art of listening is indeed a tall order”

Dr Nandini Murali, a doctorate in Women’s Studies from the Alagappa University, Karaikudi, defied stereotypes when she scripted an alternative narrative for herself dealing with suicidal loss. Her partner died by suicide when Dr Nandini’s internal GPS crashed. She resurrected herself and she authored a book titled “Life Behind: Surviving Suicide Loss” in which she expresses herself on how the pain acted as a catalyst for her self-revelation and transformation. Dr. Nandini Murali is a gender, diversity and communications professional and also an independent researcher in Indic Studies. She has been engaged with the social sector for more than two decades in the areas of gender, sexuality, masculinities and mental health. In 2018, she established SPEAK, an initiative of MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai, to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health. The initiative has set up an exclusive mental helpline named speakt2us for those in distress. Dr Nandini Murali, Principal Strategist at Avtar Group shares her thoughts on the changing corporate landscape with regard to facing “mental-health challenges”.

India Inc., has come to recognize mental health challenges as one of the critical elements to nurture a sense of belongingness among employees, particularly during the pandemic. The 2020 Best Companies for Women in India, a gender analytics study by Avtar and Working Mother reported 93% of the 100 Best offer active Mental Health Consultation support and 90% offer stress reduction counselling. This seems more like a reactive approach by corporates. How do you think can leaders ensure a system of process is in place to ensure inclusivity in a post Pandemic era?   

NM: I am delighted to see several initiatives in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) being integrated in workspaces. It tells me that DEI is no longer niche! However, that said, I am equally concerned. Because while it seems we get the Diversity bit right, it is still only one half of the equation! Therefore, the challenge now is how to get the Inclusion bit right, to get all employees included!  I am concerned that DEI doesn’t become yet another compliance box that needs to be ticked off!

Yes, it is true that most mental health interventions at workplaces seem reactive; a rather knee-jerk response to distress among employees. While this is necessary, we equally need to foster a culture that nurtures wellness in employees; a people first approach that foregrounds the person within the professional. Given the taboo and stigma associated with mental health conditions and the unique mental health needs of a diverse work force, this needs a lot of planning and envisioning. Clearly, tokenisms and one size fits all approaches are not the answers to such a multi-dimensional issue.

And, which are the ways in which managers can foster a culture of “listening” to their employees?   

NM: Managers need to create safe supportive spaces for candid conversations across all levels of the organization. Given that the art of listening is something that so few of us master, this is indeed a tall order! Creating a culture of listening involves acknowledging and being truly respectful of differences; of expanding individual and collective bandwidths to not only accommodate; not just tolerate but also integrate differences organically. It involves considerable degrees of self-awareness, self-reflection, intra personal and interpersonal empathy.   

Creating a culture of listening is also fraught with challenges. People need to be hand held to   acknowledge, engage and manage emotional reactivity—especially at a time when the space is being opened up to new ideas, challenges and beliefs that question the status quo. This is a necessary stage that normalizes conflicts and dissent because it is supportive of authentic responses that is possible only when employees feel safe and secure grounded in a “listening” culture. 

Conflict and dissent is vital in creating a culture of listening. It needs to be channeled appropriately. In addition, building mechanisms for employee feedback across the organization, especially bottom up (rather than top down) and easy accessibility to senior leadership decision making and leading by example (being a listener who practices active listening) and principles of nonviolent communication (heart centric, nonjudgmental compassionate) are other ways of creating a listening space that affirms, values and is inclusive of differences. Creating a culture of listening enables employees to bring their full selves to work; it creates safe supportive spaces that celebrates differences, enables unheard voices to be heard; unheard stories to be told and everyone feel unconditionally valued and respected.  

However, creating a culture of listening is only a precursor to the organization’s wider commitment to change. It also involves tweaking company policies, reexamining hiring practices, employee development and retention—in the light of the wealth of information that emerges from the ground.

Remote work has become a norm and a large percentage of companies are looking at continuing with the model in the future too. As a result, there are aspects like loneliness that have to be addressed. So, companies need to work around their employees’ mental health amid a remote setup. What are the challenges that in this arrangement?  

NM: WFM is fraught with multiple mental health challenges including blurring of boundaries between work and home, “struggle to unplug, “social isolation and high incidence of burn outs. Organizational policies need to be revised from a rights based perspective to accommodate, reflect and integrate these post pandemic challenges.

The workplace is in need of radical humanization and the need for ensuring work-life balance is imminent. However, that said employees too need to take responsibility for rescripting, rebalancing and re ordering their lives; stop playing the victim card and voice their needs and concerns in the safe supportive spaces already created in the workplace.

How does prioritizing mental health for employees help or benefit companies?

NM: Prioritizing mental health, a business imperative, leads to happier, balanced, fulfilled employees. It humanizes the organization and is reflective of a new workspace that is not only reactive in terms of responses to mental health conditions but also proactive in fostering wellness.

Need based mental health wellness training workshops, access to appropriate mental health services, interaction with mental health and wellness experts, creating availability and accessibility of appropriate reading material, encouraging  mental health help seeking behaviour  by destigmatizing  mental health conditions through candid conversations in safe supportive spaces  are some of the ways the workspace can promote  mental health wellness rather than illness. 

When company leaders personally lend their unstinted support to destigmatize mental health, it makes a big difference. By encouraging   employees to seek care when they need it, by sharing our own personal stories, and by validating that what people are feeling is OK, we can make an impact on our colleagues to help them find the courage and take a first step toward getting support.

There is a lot of difference between how men and women respond to matters of their well-being, and health. How is this response different between both genders when it comes to mental health?

NM: Yes, there are considerable differences between the way women, men and people across the gender spectrum respond to matters of well being and health.  Men, for instance, tend to sublimate mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, through instrumental means such as excessive work engagements. Since men’s role as protectors and providers is socially valued and work enjoys a high degree of social acceptability, it is so easy to miss the woods for the trees! This, often results in skewed work life balance and early burn out syndrome.

Women, on the other hand, are more expressive, more relational, and quicker to reach out for help—both for themselves and their families— when faced with mental health issues. In addition, women are more likely to seek help from and disclose mental health problems to their primary health care physician while men are more likely to seek specialist mental health care and are the principal users of inpatient care.

Would gender agnostic policies work for mental health in such a case? Or, do they need policies tailored to suit the various needs of the employees.

 NM: Certainly, gender agnostic policies are a definite no! Currently, we need gender inclusive and gender responsive policies and strategies to address the gendered impacts and gendered dimensions of mental health. Currently, policies and strategies are notoriously gender blind—a one size fits all approach that negates, ignores, minimizes, or trivializes the gender dimensions. This is particularly important when we have a diverse workforce with people across the gender spectrum. In my opinion, mental health which is not engendered is endangered! Effective strategies for mental disorders prevention and its risk factor reduction cannot be gender neutral, while the risks themselves are gender specific.  

For too many people across the gender spectrum, including women, experiences of self-worth, competence, autonomy, adequate income and a sense of physical, sexual and psychological safety and security, so essential to good mental health, are systematically denied. Therefore, an inter-disciplinary action to set policies which protect and promote autonomy and mental health  of people across the spectrum that is affirmative is essential. This is the way forward in creating Safe Inclusive Sexuality Affirmative (SISA) workspaces.

What are the common interventions used by companies?

NM: Creating access to sexuality affirming, gender sensitive a gender responsive mental health and wellness professionals (counsellors, psychologists, wellness therapists, psychiatrists) through technology enabled services (tele counselling, phone counselling, and email counselling), immersions/deep dives/learning dialogues are some of the interventions in vogue.  In the current pandemic, one to one sessions are often hybrid sessions that are a mix of virtual and in person sessions.  

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