The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives for the past 18 months, with no end in sight. The pandemic has claimed millions of lives, crippled healthcare systems, and dealt a severe blow to the economy of every country. Further, it is silently affecting our emotional well-being too. India has already endured two waves of the pandemic, with the second being particularly brutal. And, this has had a severe impact on the mental health of millions across the country, putting further stress on our already stretched mental wellness support system. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), India has only 0.3 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 people and one of the world’s worst mental health indexes.
Women have it worse. Owing to multiple reasons, women tend to be more vulnerable. Indian society has long considered women as its primary caregiver. Hence, managing priorities both at work and home is often a much tougher balancing act for women than men, and the pandemic has only deepened the pre-existing inequalities faced by women.
Within the formal sector, women have faced more severe job and income losses as compared to men. Between March and April 2020, 15.4 million women lost their jobs, which is 37 per cent of the female workforce versus 28 per cent for men. India has already registered a decline in female labour force participation, from 34 per cent in 2006 to 24.8 per cent in 2020, as per United Nations Global Compact India Study.
Most women who lost their jobs had to give up their dreams to manage primary care-giving duties while ‘the men’ in their house looked for financial stability. Consequently, this also led to women having limited or no access to mental health services, which can help them bounce back. Preliminary research shows more women have left the workforce altogether after the second wave of the pandemic. Young women who were laid off due to the economic crisis didn’t bother looking for a new job.
For many, economic independence and employment is closely linked to self-fulfilment. The lack of employment opportunities or a support system to gain and retain employment impacts women’s mental well-being adversely. Further, India Inc. is losing future women leaders who could lead us to greater gender diversity and equality. Mental health issues may further hinder the pace of women empowerment.
For women who managed to hold on to their jobs, there is another set of challenges. Since the beginning of work-from-home during the first lockdown, many women are working in double shifts with paid and unpaid responsibilities. To be precise, an average Indian woman spends 21 per cent of her time doing unpaid work, says an ORF article. At the same time, an average Indian male spends 5 per cent of his time doing similar work. This is in addition to the existing gender pay gap.
Long working hours, along with added responsibilities of virtual schooling and family care, causes additional emotional fatigue among women. The repercussions of increasing mental health issues are being seen in women, irrespective of hierarchy, position and background.
The Double Whammy
Fear, anxiety and, in many cases, the loss of loved ones have also affected the morale of employees. While men had to deal with a fair share of challenges, the pandemic had impacted women more severely.
Women, in many cases, are also living in greater fear of domestic violence, since the start of the pandemic. Lockdowns leading to social isolation and confinement with potential abusers increase the risk of domestic violence. The National Commission for Women (NCW) registered an increase in complaints of domestic violence, by 2.5 times in April last year. Another study found a 131 per cent increase in domestic violence complaints in May 2020 in the districts that saw the strictest lockdown measures, compared to other districts.
Further, In India, 63 per cent of adult women own a mobile phone (compared to 79 per cent adult men), but only 21 per cent use mobile internet (compared to 42 per cent adult men). This digital gender divide has worsened the inequity in access to information, support systems, education, health and work opportunities.
All these factors have led to an adverse impact on the overall mental wellness of women. Unfortunately, mental health issues have always been under-discussed and ignored in India. A recent research conducted by Gi Group India, titled ‘All in the Mind: The state of mental health in Corporate India’, revealed a lack of seriousness about mental health issues. Less than a quarter of the surveyed respondents claimed to be fully aware of mental health problems. That being said, the World Health Organization estimated that 7.5 per cent of the 1.3 billion Indians have suffered from mental illness at some point.
Taking Baby Steps
The road to dealing with mental health challenges is long and bumpy. However, the pandemic has, to some extent, made employers realise the value of mental health and well-being. As a result, organisations are now taking a keen interest in mental health issues and are adopting tangible steps to address them proactively, but we still have a long road ahead of us.
A one-time session or a talk is a good start, but it won’t solve the problem. Empathetic leadership—understanding the context and experience of the employees and giving them flexibility—is the need of the hour. Research has proved that compassionate leaders have a positive impact on productivity, loyalty and mental well-being of their employees. Leaders must be open to listening and respect the emotional requirements of others. Organisations should also consider conducting a quarterly quality analysis to encourage and motivate their employees to discuss their issues frankly.
What we are witnessing is just the tip of the iceberg. These mental health issues are deep-rooted in our society. They are a grim reminder of how desperately India Inc. needs to take drastic measures to address the issue of mental well-being of employees.