Conversations on Emotional Wellbeing

It takes more than policy and permissions for conversations on mental health to become acceptable in work spaces. At the office, typically, schedules, timelines and being high functioning are paramount. Naturally, talking about the exact opposite, i.e., the inability to be high functioning, the discomfort with sticking to routine etc. need some support. This support comes in the form of a safe space, affirmation that there will be acceptance, and the awareness that there will be open conversations about how this impacts their work, their career, support they will get to prioritise and get back to higher levels of functionality.

To do this, we look at two angles:

Talking to others about mental health

Listening to and processing someone’s mental health realities

Talking to others about one’s own mental health

Step 1: Preparing

  • We live in a world where medical terms related to mental health are used casually in conversations. People say, “That ending of that TV series depressed me so much I didnt get out of bed”, “I was having an anxiety attack over that client presentation I had to make”, “I am PTSDing about that joke, all thanks to you”. So, if someone is experiencing mental health outage, it is important to

    • Talk to a competent mental health professional

    • Let them evaluate if the issue is chronic or acute and what intervention is needed

    • Get the help needed. Evaluate how this is impacting life outside of work, and work life

    • Make a decision about, “Should I talk about this at work?” To help make a good decision:

      • List down impact areas at work. List down who should be told about this (Ideally, your manager and colleagues, assuming that level of comfort with them)

      • Write down what you want to share. Think about this information from their point of view, and evaluate what their worries might be. Be prepared for a conversation where you have to provide a lot of information and bust myths. Ex. “I have been diagnosed with mild depression. How this shows up at work is, I have difficulty getting going in the morning, so I’m not able to come to work for early meetings. Then, I beat myself up en route, so by the time I walk into a meeting, late, I am looking surly. It is not a sign of disengagement at work - it’s anger at myself combined with anger at my physical inability to be disciplined”

      • Share how you are feeling currently. Unlike a cold and fever or a fracture, emotional illnesses are invisible. Also, conversations on mental health are very new to the workplace. So, take the effort to talk someone through what the problem is, how you are experiencing it, etc.

    • Ask for specific areas of help, such as, reduced workload/ responsibilities/ working hours; support from others; any other help you can think of

    • Ideate and come up with a plan on dealing with this. Share that tentative plan and see if others can add to this, ask for changes to help them/ help them help you.

Talking to your manager

If you decide to talk about this to your manager,

  • Go in with the realisation that your manager is responsible for your work output, and also for providing you support. Therefore, you need to have two diverging paths this conversation will take

    • Path 1: Manager as person responsible for your work output: You need to tell them what you think will be impacted. Be open to the conversation on how this impacts you. Be okay with some impact - the focus for you should be to get yourself back to an even keel, and not unfettered career growth. Listen to your own needs, and not socially conditioned needs for perfection. Think about the situation from the manager’s perspective - they have a client/ financial imperative. How does this conversation impact them?

    • Path 2: Manager as the person responsible for giving you support: You need to think of what you can ask of your manager. Can you ask for support by way of a sounding board/ support by way of relaxed timelines/ flexibility of work given to you? What else does the manager have the power to give you, without them feeling that they have to make an unfair decision of some sort?

  • Confidentiality: You can keep this conversation as confidential as you’d like. However, there continues to be stigma around mental health in India because many of us think that talking about it violates our privacy. We don’t necessarily feel that way when asking for time off for illness. Consider if it’s easier to explain decisions of timelines or work times being relaxed if the reason is made public on a need-to-know basis. If that makes sense, please be the one to talk about it to others in a meeting with your immediate team. Let people know at this level, if you’d rather they did or did not follow up with questions, support, etc.

Remember that there is an escalation matrix - if you feel uncomfortable for any reason, after any level of this conversation, please reach out to the People Ops folk.

Processing a colleague’s mental health challenge

Step 1: Preparing

Reflect on these questions. (Warning: There are going to be a LOT of questions)

What do I need to do, for a team member to feel safe enough to come up to me and say, “I’m going through a mental health issue”?

Some easy ones to start you off:

Knowledge:

  • Do I have enough theoretical information to understand terms like “emotional well-being”, “mental health”, “anxiety”, “depression”, etc.?

  • Do I have a sense of the pervasiveness of this issue in urban India? (For example, these references are not surprising for you)

  • Do I know what are okay/ not okay responses to someone talking about mental health (their own/ in general)?

Further reading:

Close to 50% of urban India has mental health issues

How India sees mental health

The cost of not thinking of this as a crisis

Impact on business

70% of India that’s not a part of this conversation

Help isn’t at hand

Openness:

  • Have I thought about my own mental well-being, and thought back to stages in my life, where I might have, not been a 100% well emotionally. Are there times, with hindsight, when I could have worked better with professional/ medical help

  • Have I talked about mental health as a topic in general to anyone in the office?

  • Have I opened up about my own mental health questions/ worries/ struggles with anyone in office/ outside?

  • Have I signalled openness to talk about this topic?

STEP 2: The conversation. Listening & holding space

If someone wants to talk about their mental well-being, a few things to do in the first conversation:

  1. Schedule a 1-1 meeting

  2. Prepare for that meeting by

    1. Checking own biases

    2. Getting ready to listen

    3. Be mindful not to diminish their realities

  3. In the conversation

    1. Allow the team member to lead the conversation

    2. Allow the conversation to meander

    3. Be prepared for the colleague to be feeling more sensitive than normal

    4. Ask questions to understand them better (Indicate that if some questions sound raw, they’re owing to inexperience and not intended to hurt). Ask questions such as -

      1. How are you feeling now?

      2. When has this been going on since?

      3. What’s changed for you in this period?

      4. What’s hard for you to do? What’s easy?

      5. How has work changed?

      6. What help can I give you?

      7. How can others (team/ others) help?

    5. Listen with openness

    6. Don’t be a naysayer (“You are so privileged, why do you believe you have these issues?” “This happened to my friend, they just pushed through it”/ “Don’t be oversensitive”/ “At least, you’re healthy”/ “This is nothing, this one time…”)

    7. Be respectful towards their experience

    8. Not minimise their stated challenges

    9. Accept what they are saying in entirety

    10. Ask what help they might need from you

    11. If shared in confidence, please don’t talk about it with others, unless you feel they are in danger of hurting themselves. If the latter, bring it to People Ops/ one of the founders, get help.

If a team member is talking to you about this because you are their leader, an additional few steps are -

    1. Ask what is required of you

      1. Is it an FYI and an ask for heightened awareness and understanding?

      2. Is it for information and preparation for possibly more leave/ shorter working days/ any other need they are feeling currently?

      3. Is there an ask for immediate reduction in working hours/ days/ time off/ other support that might require further checks with others?

    2. Ask for time to look at this in context of the larger work picture and come back to them

    3. Let them know that you would like to talk about this with your manager and People Ops and get an okay from them. Let them know the reason you are asking this. Check for discomfort in giving an okay. If yes, allow them time to think and get back to you.

Step 3 (relevant for leaders): Evaluating impact

In addition to the above, where you are preparing for the conversation, checking your biases, checking how you feel about receiving this information, reorienting yourself if needed to being supportive, you have more work on hand. Read on -

Impact on delivery of work

  • Assess if the person is on

    • Tight deadlines

    • Long working hours

    • Detail focussed tasks

    • Facing demanding clients

    • Working on client site

    • Other challenges that might make it harder for them to deal with this

  • Evaluate if there are options to

    • Move the person out of the project into something more suitable for them, without negative impact on their emotions/ sense of value

    • Move the person without significant adverse impact on client/ project, with no data shared to the client that has been shared by the team member in confidence (this is an internal matter between you and the person, your manager, and People Ops, at the maximum. The team member decides who else to share this with)

Impact on the team member’s career

  • Ask yourself, if any action you are considering will have an impact on the team member’s career.

  • If the team member gives you an okay to talk about this with your manager and People Ops, get more opinions on impact of work on the person and best possible way of helping them.

  • Will there be a slowing down of their career progress? If the answer is yes, how can we communicate that gently, and with care. In doing so, make sure you are

    • Sharing data to support what you are saying

    • Putting yourself in the shoes of the person and thinking through how they are experiencing this

  • A good comparison here is physical absence due to illness. If someone has, say, had a fracture, and is out of office for two months out of six - owing to absence, their performance review and resulting career graph movement will be impacted. Similarly, if someone is out of office for a few hours a day for four out of six months, there will be an impact. It is important to see this impact as a normal outcome, and not a failure of any sort; and help the team member focus on rebuilding coping mechanisms/ healing mechanisms to help them cross the chasm they’re facing.

Impact on the team & client

  • Evaluate if there is any impact on the other team members or clients. For example, if a team member says they are struggling with a depressive episode, and want to work for 5-6 hours, or as long as they have the energy, and take it on a day by day basis, moving some work to others/ rethinking timelines with clients might be a foregone conclusion.

  • List potential changes and possible ways to execute these

  • Ask the team member if they are up for thinking through these. Share options. Invite them, if they are up for it, to identify other options.

  • Come up with a list of ways to solve these, with the team member taking the lead on what they feel works best for them.

  • Take time for both of you to think through this solution, its implications etc. Schedule the next meeting

  • In the next meeting, talk through, close all loops and shake on the plan. Expect changes and deviations from this plan to happen once it starts to take effect. Part of it could be the plan itself, part of it could be the team member’s discomfort. Be okay with both. Take support from others to make sure you are.

  • Commit to backing the team member up, and for real-time support as they need it

  • Invite them to talk about their struggles with others they are comfortable with. The idea is that, if there is a difference in how someone is working, there will be questions asked. If they are not answered by the manager, it will seem strange. If the individual takes the lead to bring others up to speed, sharing what they want, with whom they want, that helps keep conversations open, while giving them ownership of the situation.

Step 4 (relevant for leaders): Conversation to loop back your understanding & impact on their work

Confirm understanding:

  • Check with the team member about their state of health.

  • See if they are getting professional help. If not, encourage them to. Provide support needed for this (medical resources, people who have taken help in the past, etc.)

  • Tell them what you have understood of their problem, their ways of dealing with it and their ask of you.

  • Tell them what you can do for them

Impact on the team & client

  • Be candid about the impact on their work, the team, the client. Since nobody works in a vacuum, talk to them about the inevitable impact, but remind them that they are not being seen as the cause of the problem. Organisations plan for such outages, so having an outage is normal, acceptable and we’re here to support them.

  • Talk to them about the delay in career progression, if there is one. Remind them that this is not the most important thing right now - healing is, and that’s what they should focus on.

  • Ask them how frequently they’d like a conversation on this topic, and schedule that in.

  • Ask them, in time, if they’re feeling upto handling more responsibilities, how they would like to be onboarded back again. Make that plan happen.

Remember that there is an escalation matrix - if you feel uncomfortable for any reason, after any level of this conversation, please reach out to the People Ops folk.

The emotional well-being of team leads and managers

It is important to remember and acknowledge that team leaders and managers will go through the same emotional strife cycles as the rest of the organisation does. When that happens, they have to take into account the responsibilities that come with being a people manager: responsibility towards work delivery and towards career goals of team members. Often, leaders will put their own needs last, despite identifying a stressful or burnout situation they find themselves in.

It is critical for leaders to recognise that when not well, they are putting themselves at risk to further fatigue and loss of motivation to work. They cannot lead as well as they would have done, and that is not fair to their team members, in addition to unfairness to themselves.

What can leaders do:

  • Accept that these things happen and that it cannot be scheduled to convenient times.

  • Ask for help from your managers, peers and team members. Just the way you would've been there to support others, imagine that they would want to be there for you.

  • Start putting a plan B for times when you can't be a 100% available and scale up team members to meet the challenges.

What can team members do:

  • Ask what help the leader needs and assess if you can give that help. If yes, give that help.

  • Ask if you could take on some of their tasks, and complete these with autonomy.

  • Reach out to the manager's manager or to someone else in the organisation, for doubts and questions.

  • Take the pressure off the manager who is struggling with asks of them.

  • Make sure you let them know what you are doing, and get their buy-in, beforehand.

To be an effective leader, it is important to remind oneself that in taking care of self, it becomes easier to take care of others. What we demonstrate as desired behaviour gets picked up and becomes culture over time. Care towards self will pave the way for care for others.