What is the role of work in our life? Is leisure really the opposite of work, or more correctly, is work merely the means to finance a life of leisure, if not right away, then in the future? The parable of the small fisherman and the big businessman captures some of these questions. We have versions of the story as one between a Mexican fisherman and an American investment banker, or an African fisherman and a British banker (as in the video linked here), or a Mumbai stock broker and a Goan fisherman - multiple versions of the same really. We could have a conversation on the class/ colonial/ race subtexts of these stories another day perhaps, but for now, taking the parable as is, does one look at it and say if work and ambition is about attaining a certain kind of leisure, then why not seek a measured leisure right away?
Then, on the other hand, is the idea of Ikigai - of what work can really be. Work as a life's journey, a way of being where what one loves to do, what is needed, what pays the bills and what one has the capabilities for meet in this wonderfully utopian space of Ikigai, where work is no longer a trial or a sufferance, but a joy that is worth the effort and the pain, and brings rewards and impact as well. Ah! What a space to live in where work is beautifully satisfying. Like the perfect curd rice, or that right on the dot tenderloin steak - or whatever rocks your boat, that keeps you going for more and more and you can stay engaged in it forever.
Then again, is it worth it if this search for Ikigai overshadows everything else? Should work be a priority over home, family, health etc? One would hope that one can have Ikigai but still be alive and happy in other ways as well.
Within this conceptual diagram of what Ikigai is, the idea of a 'Professional World' is where many of u find ourselves: Professional workplaces with people working to get better and better at what they are doing and getting better and better compensation for it.
This is also where much of the discussion on Mental Health in the Workplace happens. For a large number of us, the things we love and things we know the world needs become hobbies or social projects/ weekend volunteering, and the professional workplace is the mainstay that provides security and safety, and satisfaction to the extent it does.
Who we are at the workplace, and how the workplace is to us both are key for mental health. If we are but shadows of ourselves in the workplace and/or if the workplace is a tyrannical grindstone, work soon ceases to be even a profession and descends into drudgery, or worse. The tango between the worker and the workplace needs only either of them to mis-step for it to quickly cease to be the dignified profession it seeks to be and become a mockery of it at extremes being a slave-house or a den of ineptitude dragging a once-great idea into bankruptcy, in the tug between the 'Professional Life' and the 'Personal Life.'
Listening to her and thinking further about it, there are a few things that seem really key to good mental health in the workplace for the individual:
1. A keen respect for one's work, including an ongoing spirit to learn and improve
2. A balance between work with other passions, including love and joy, and letting one defer to the other when needed.
3. A willingness to fight against injustices, and win allies in the process that can help change unjust systems rather than stay under its tyranny
4. An ability to take help when needed, and to hold the longer-term view on life and living.
Mental health in the workplace is more personal than about personnel. When we know what place work has in our lives, and can expect and influence our workplaces to care about what's personal to each of us and help as they can, we will see greater mental health in the workplace.
Remember the last time you read an article where it was mentioned that “The neighbours had no clue as they had never spoken to this person who lived right next door” or “This person was staying here for 2 years but had no friends”? When we hear of neighbours being strangers (especially n the urban context), the word “lonely” is often loosely used to describe how life is today. I say loosely because people often tend to confuse being lonely with being alone. And yes, there is a distinction. Being alone can be a choice and it can bring happiness.
For instance, a lot of people enjoy watching a movie by themselves or spend an evening reading a book. In fact alone time can actually be quite relaxing. Loneliness is when there is an associated sadness – an empty feeling that could be triggered by several factors.
For many, the loneliness is so uncomfortable, that denial of the feeling seems the easiest way to cope – in fact sometimes this reaction is almost instinctive. One tries to superficially engage in interactions/work. However it is difficult to sustain and sooner or later the hollow empty feeling comes back.
To really cope with loneliness, the first step would be awareness; to go beyond the denial and superficial engagement. However, that is not always easy to recognize and we keep ourselves too busy to even be aware that we are lonely.
Once aware, acknowledging and accepting the lonely feeling logically follows. In that awareness, sometimes loneliness makes people feel more critical about themselves -they criticize themselves for being unworthy of others right when the need really is for more self-compassion. It is ironic that while we are aware of our need for compassion from others, we often don’t extend it to ourselves!
To really engage with your loneliness, you can ask yourself a few questions:
Strange as it might seem, there are some benefits to loneliness. Your loneliness could be telling you that you don't feel too good about yourself, and could benefit from working on your own emotional state. Your loneliness can be a crucial signal that your relationships are not as emotionally close or supportive as you really want them to be. It gives you an opportunity to engage differently.
So, go ahead. If you are lonely, listen to your loneliness - It might be telling you something really important for you.
The Vishaka Guidelines of 1997 and the subsequent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, have gone to great lengths to specify systems, processes and protocols to make the workplace safer and our lawyer friends tell us, are among the best such laws in the world.
While the law is quite rigorous, the implementation especially at the local district and state levels is still nascent. However, many leading corporates and institutions have gone ahead and implemented the Act in letter and spirit, often going beyond the law to cover all genders and taking a larger workplace safety view beyond sexual harassment.
That said, all too often, reporting and getting action on sexual harassment is a real ordeal, even in work spaces where all the policies and protocols are in place.
Often, the idea of where the incident(s) took place and whether they were at the office premises become the first line of questioning, and despite the growing virtual workspaces and blurring of boundaries between work and private spaces, and the wide definition of 'in the course of employment,' there is a reluctance to fully investigate a complaint if the incident happened outside the office. Secondly, despite very specific guidelines on how cases are to be documented, confidentiality is to be maintained, closure obtained and communicated, often action is through undocumented meetings, verbal commitments and actions oriented towards creating a 'compromise' especially where no hard evidence exists. Thirdly, leaks in the process mean the 'news' gets out, other employees take sides or form opinions and the work environment could become hostile for either or both the parties.
In the process, the complainant who is reporting an offense ends up feeling victimized all over again, or - on the other hand, the one complained about finds their reputation tarnished even before they have had the slightest chance to defend themselves. Many times, the process is exhausting emotionally and the parties just want to close and move out or move on, and that then can leave the complaints committee with questions of what is fair or just, and if they really addressed the complaint fully.
Point is, creating safe working spaces need to go far beyond documenting policies and procedures. Sensitizing all the people involved in the process is critical to its success, as is ensuring confidentiality and maintaining rigorous documentation. Wide-spread communication and keeping up awareness on the rights & responsibilities of all staff is important.
That said, while there are some baseless and malicious complaints intended only to hurt, the larger reality is that most complaints are genuine and yet victim-blaming continues to be the norm. The complainant's personal history, habits, prior relationships, performance history at work, history with the person in question and everything else gets dredged up. That needs to stop for more people to feel confident enough about the system and the processes to report any issues, and for the work place to be fully safe.
This post is inspired by a social media campaign by Himani Auplish aiming to increase awareness among the people about harassment after the harassment
In the USA, May is observed as National Mental Health Month. For much of the rest of the world, October 10th is the Mental Health Day, and some countries like Australia mark all of October as Mental Health Month. In India, the central agencies do mark October 10th, but there is no specific mental health month as such.
Whether a day or a month, the aim is to increase awareness of mental health issues, the need for assessment & care, and to destigmatise mental health. Mental health conditions tend to be given the short end of the stick, with a little more than a sneer and judgmental comments such as, "You just have to decide," or worse, "You are just looking for an excuse for your laziness."
In reality, mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety are very real and quite common. If understood and addressed, recovery is quite possible.
Fact is, quite often, we speak of mental health issues as what the mythical 'others' likely have. When the MHA publishes statistics that say 20% of all Americans are likely to have a mental health issue each year, how many do you think would pause to consider if they might be among the lot? Irrespective of nationality, I would suppose that we ourselves do not want to think we may have an issue, while it is more comfortable to look at others and say they might have an issue.
There is too much of an expectation we have from ourselves that we must, at all times, be perfectly well especially mentally, even if not physically. And that, needless to say, is just irrational. Mental health issues can happen to anyone no matter what race, age, class or community. While certain social situations do create greater distress, even the most privileged of communities are not immune to mental health issues.
So, what can one do? The simplest thing to do is to a quick self-check. Mental Health America has a great set of specific self-use tools that can help you decide if you might have an issue and if you cold use some help. Go ahead, click on the image and take a few minutes to check in on yourself.
You owe it to yourself.
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.