COVID & Burnout: Why Indian Workplaces Should Normalise Mental Health Leaves

The post-pandemic world has helped legion understand the momentousness of mental health.

6 min read
Hindi Female

The post-pandemic world has helped people understand the importance of mental health. From new ways of education, connecting, being at work, and accessing services, one has learned things that are of precedence and significance in life.

A number platforms have come up, with new helpline numbers and runners promoting and supporting mental health ideas. There are apps that act as psychologists, apps that provide one with a mental health buddy to keep them company when they are down.


We All Have 'Blue' Days

“It is a great way of providing support. The mental health sector is booming post-COVID-19, it is fulfilling to be a mental health buddy to someone in their lows”, says Hajira Firdouse, who works as a therapist (mental health buddy) at 'Being-my mental health friend' app. But despite all these measures, has there been any mainstream change that has come about post-COVID-19?

We've all had days where we feel low, question ourselves, and our coping capacity hits rock-bottom. Be it intrinsic or extrinsic, we’ve had days when we can put up a fight and continue working. But after the threshold is reached and crossed, we want to either freeze, flee, or fawn.

We need a break. Even if it means a few days or a day. The ways of mending and healing are different for different people.

Some catch up with musketeers, some read a book that was bought with great vigour but is now accumulating dust. Having said all this, there is still no accountability demanded of workplaces for making people sick. Some workplaces have a toxic unsaid culture of making workers work for longer shifts without sufficient breaks. They set an unconscious base to a sedentary life, which only makes things worse.


India Not Far From 'Karoshi' Fever

To add to this is lack of sufficient sleep, no fixed exercise routine, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of time for socialising, which worsens general health and well-being.

Japan has emerged as an inspiration for developing nations. But in reality, it sees a lot of workplace deaths due to 'Karoshi', which is literally translated as “overwork death", a Japanese term relating to occupational unforeseen mortality. With the growing trend of over-shifts in India, we are not far from catching up with the 'karoshi' phenomenon.

It is becoming more common for people to suffer from 'burnout' or 'collapse'. This is a cerebral pattern, as it arises as a prolonged response to habitual interpersonal stressors on the job. A lot of workers call in sick when they are unable to manage how they've been feeling mentally. Why is that so?

Though we have advanced in various fields, it's still considered weak to show that you are struggling mentally and that what you're presently dealing with has gotten the better of you. Highs and lows in a relationship, a rough patch in marriage, children issues, empty nest syndrome -- despite all these concerns, why do we still need to call in physically sick with a running temperature while it’s our minds that want rest?


Why India Must Lead the Change

Various resources are available to teach us how to word our leave dispatches with a physical ailment. But what about mental health? In India, particularly, there is still stigma and prejudices attached to the field of mental health.

While interning under Dr B V Kapur, a renowned psychiatrist from Bangalore, we saw people coming for consultations in disguise to escape their relatives or acquaintances who might just happen to be there at the wrong time. The fear of being branded with a mental health 'disorder' or label is real.

Indian state laws generally give about 15 days of earned or regular leave at a time. Workers also sometimes get 10 days of sick leave and 10 days of casual leaves. By adding one section to 'blue' days, India can be one of the first countries to promote the mental well-being of workers.

But why should India be one of the first countries to adopt and authorise mental health sick leaves? As per recent statistics from UNICEF, published on 5 October 2021, “children in India feel reticent to seek support for mental stress". The study, conducted by UNICEF and Gallup in early 2021, compare children and youthful grown-ups from India and other countries. It revealed that only 41 percent of Indian children and youthful grown-ups aged 15-24 years believe that it's good to get support for mental health problems, compared to an average of 83 per cent from 21 countries.


Another concerning result of the study revealed that India was the only country out of 21 other nations where only a minority of young people felt that people experiencing mental health issues should reach out to others. In every other country, a majority of young people (ranging from 56 per cent to 95 per cent) felt that reaching out for help was a pertinent way to deal with mental health issues.

We are talking about our country's future workforce here, who have been culturally conditioned deeply or have developed inhibitions about seeking mental health support and services. And therefore, it's all the more important for India to introduce sick leaves in order to promote the significance of mental health.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment should also bring in policies on sequestration, where the individual is not forced to reveal the kind of mental illness they suffer from, or the disclosure of the same is made a choice. It should also cover the employee's right to sequestration against any kind of discrimination.


The Viral Tweet on Mental Health Leave

The findings, which are previewed in The State of the World’s Children, 2021, also showed that around 14 per cent of 15-24 year-olds in India, or one in 7, reported frequently feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things (anhedonia).

In 2017, a tweet about a lady who wrote to her employer asking for two days’ leave for mental health issues got mixed reviews. The employer replied, "I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health. I can't believe this is not standard practice in all organisations. You are an example to us all, and you help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work."

In response to the story, numerous people opened up about their work and how they faced aggressive responses when they asked for a mental health leave or were told that anxiety is not an illness and that they would need a doctor’s certificate to get the leave. So, these workers had to resort to saying "I'm not feeling well" rather than mentioning the dreaded "mental health" word.

Let’s hope India becomes a trailblazer and adopts a policy to encourage and throw light on mental well-being.


How Do You Take a Rejuvenating Mental Break?

Do things that feel therapeutic to you. Focus on yourself. Do not do things that will seem like a chore, like cleaning that wardrobe that seems to be exploding from all directions, catching up on the laundry pile or email, or even running errands.

Do things that would put you at ease, like catching up with an old friend, reading a book, watching a documentary of self-dating with nature. It could be anything. This day is for you and should be all about you, the larger goal is to reduce the stress that overwhelms you. We have often heard that one cannot pour from an empty cup. So, refill yourselves.

It is not about discarding or absconding from your work but healing so your mind can feel relaxed, positive, and get ready for a productive comeback. Mental health days are necessary for healthy, happy workers and a better workplace overall.

Mental health is a sensitive subject. But remember, even if it it's off-putting for a few, we should talk about it, because there are far more people now dealing with silent mental tornadoes than ever before. We need to talk about mental health in the same breath as physical health without getting tangled up in shame. Let this change begin with us.

(Zulekha Shakoor Rajani is a counselor and educator based out of Bangalore. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Literature, and Journalism from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, another bachelor’s degree in Education (B.Ed.), K-Set qualified (Psychology), a Master’s degree in Psychology, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Guidance and Counselling. She practices DBT therapy with clients. You can reach her at,

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Mental Health   labour laws   coronavirus 

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