By Afnaan Qayyum
A hundred companies in the UK recently announced four-day workweeks without pay cuts. Meanwhile, there is an emerging debate in the U.S. over labor rights and workplace wellness. “Better late than never,” they said about the world’s richest economy.
The business motivation for introducing employee wellness programs lies in increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and improved worker morale, which helps achieve organizational goals more efficiently. It makes one wonder: will companies in the developing region of the world follow suit? Can making mental well-being a priority of organizations be financially viable in a resource-scarce, developing economy (like Pakistan)? “It sounds like a first-world problem,” I can almost hear many respond.
It could not be farther from the truth. Unsurprisingly, Common Mental Disorders (CMDs) have the most significant impact in developing countries where few safety nets and laws are present to protect employee rights. Developing countries are more likely to enforce strict attendance policies, which means employees must continue working, even if unwell. Add this too pervasive stigma, and you get employees who may be unable to recognize their illness, or worse, associate it as a sign of weakness and become fearful of seeking support. With productivity already diminished owing to invisible illness, the emotional labor of exhibiting ‘acceptable’ behavior in impoverished settings only speeds up burnout. Higher levels of presenteeism in such conditions lead to even lower productivity, innovation, and labor retention.
The impact of such inconsiderate policies is magnified beyond just an employee’s professional performance. Tailored interventions are needed to positively impact employees’ quality of life to improve broader socioeconomic sustainability. Such programs need to be considered social capital investments rather than workplace costs, not only for the organization itself but also for the state. They open an unchartered area of intersectoral collaboration between seemingly distanced sectors. One example could be to treat workplaces as primary care intervention settings for improved screening and overall health of the population.
Intervention programs may center on enhancing autonomy and inclusion, introducing reward schemes, offering mental health/crisis counseling, implementing supervisor training for positive relationships with employees, and providing employees with opportunities for career development. It goes beyond Human Resources and having an anti-harassment policy (the bare minimum and legally mandated); such policies need implementation across the operating model. It is a golden opportunity for front-runner organizations in Pakistan to become leaders in championing workplace wellness – all while benefiting from enhanced performance, fulfilling corporate social responsibility, improved brand image, and increased attraction of new staff!
Of course, this part of the article targets those in top managerial positions. Those of us working below these tiers may feel powerless in the spaces we occupy. After all, we wouldn’t have needed this discussion if organizational infrastructures were built with inclusion in mind. Even mid-Senior level managers may feel there is little in their control if the top management refuses to align its priorities accordingly. Yet, there are many ways we can support ourselves and our colleagues without incurring any material costs.
The mere recognition of how the system benefits some at the expense of others itself is a feat when we allow it to inform our actions. For example, as a man, you do not need to be responsible for sexism to recognize that the system benefits you because of your gender. Acknowledgment of how our privileges and oppressions shape our daily experiences allows us to empathize with other identities. It encourages us to move away from tokenizing diversity and contributes to the team’s sense of belonging. It discourages us from arrogantly assuming the role of allies to acknowledging the need to ask how our support is best needed. The importance of our role comes in both as a supporter of safe spaces for others and ourselves. Each person in an organization deserves to be heard and understood. Your organization has at least as much to gain from listening to new perspectives as you do. Because otherwise, if perspectives go unheeded, even well-intentioned policies can backfire.
Tell your story. Be loud. Claim your narrative. It is exhausting, sometimes even crippling, especially when your mental health is at stake. But even when it is just one seemingly insignificant ripple at a time, it matters, I promise.
The author is pursuing an M.A Global Policy Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or afnaanq1 (Twitter).