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The Female Quotient

Workplaces can help normalize mental illness. Here’s how

Published 19 October 2023 in The Female Quotient • 6 min read

This three-pronged approach, inspired by some of India’s most successful female entrepreneurs, can help compensate for government failure on a global level when it comes to mental health.

One in four people worldwide will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives, according to statistics quoted by Deborah Sawaf at a recent event organized alongside the G20 summit in New Delhi. Sawaf is Founder and CEO of Thalé Blanc and The Power Of Words brand, which supports mental wellbeing via clothing. 

Depression affects more people than any other mental disorder and is also one of the leading causes of disability. In some parts of the world, it’s still not a topic that is freely aired. “In India, it remains taboo to say you’re going to meet your shrink,” says Kalyani Chawla, Founder and CEO of Rezon Luxury Silverware, who has herself struggled with depression. 

The World Health Organization reports that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1tn each year.   Despite these figures, the global median of government health expenditure that goes to mental health is less than 2%, it says.

What can be done in the workplace to help, bearing in mind that mental-health conditions have a knock-on effect on multiple areas of life, including work performance?  

1. Systems for the margins “so we can cover everyone”

Companies are creating initiatives and entrepreneurs are building entire start-ups aimed at “creating new systems for the margins, so we can cover everyone,” says Raj Mariwala, who works with minorities at the Mariwala Health Initiative, of which she is Director, to try to remove unhelpful ties between mental illness and class or status. 

“If we create systems for the center, it’s only people like me who will be able to access a diagnosis and tools for living a life of choice and agency,” she says.

Mariwala says it took her until the age of 23 to have the right tools to be able to live with her own mental-health condition. “I have certain privileges. What would happen to people without the same access to agency and choice in terms of dealing with mental health, if it took me that long?” she says. 

The Mariwala Health Initiative is a funding agency for innovative mental-health initiatives, with a particular focus on making mental-health support accessible to marginalized persons and communities. Based in India, high on its radar are systemic oppressions based on caste, class, ability, age, region, gender, sexuality, and religion. 

2. Working on our wording 

When your company engages with the media, does it think about the language it is using and how much potential for change this could carry? 

Companies are creating initiatives and entrepreneurs are building entire start-ups aimed at “creating new systems for the margins, so we can cover everyone,”

Afsana Cherian Kapoor, Founder of People for Action, a 24hour helpline that deals with what its website describes as “the ongoing mental-health pandemic in India”, says that during her previous role at a United Nations Development Programme for HIV/AIDS project, she catapulted her work by convincing the media to use “the right language”.

“People used to say, ‘This person has HIV AIDS’. We proposed changing it to ‘a person living with HIV’. We created advocacy and awareness material, starting at the grassroots level and going higher. When we started the project, everyone was pumping in money for HIV. There was a big stigma, fear of the unknown, and discrimination.” The project also employed two HIV-positive people in the office to help effect change. 

Closely related to changing the language we use around mental health is improving how we verbalize our emotions.

“Thoughts about how we feel become our emotions, and our emotions become our experiences – which have memories. Teaching the young how to identify and verbalize those emotions is the starting place. The next step is advocacy – reaching out to civil- society leaders, political leaders, authors, and role models,” says Kapoor.

She also started a podcast on normalizing conversations about mental health and says her multiple projects on putting feelings into words are because “there is a need for crying and a crying need!” 

In the corporate world today, social media is a huge pressure, says Jyotika Jhalani, Founder and Creative Director of Janavi India, which seeks to empower India’s artisans and designers by creating wearable pieces of art. “I feel words can make a huge difference here. If we spread word of love, empathy, resilience, and speaking out, the world will be a better place.” 

She says she began her firm to do something for India, and to make India proud: “I decided to make Kashmiri shawls that were completely different. I started it in my son’s bedroom and we have gone from four to 400 people. I always thought fashion was about men.”

3. Making thinking habits as important as gym habits

Thinking about the way we can educate our teams to not only handle their emotions, but also understand the power of their thoughts, will be a powerful part of our toolkit.

“My challenge has been working out how to keep a team together: emotions. When you get upset, do you suppress how you feel? A lot of my team members come and tell me when they have a problem, but in the corporate world all that gets suppressed,” says Jhalani. 

The power of words
So-called “higher-order thinking” favors clear decision-making, creative thinking, and problem-solving: the stuff of astute leaders, but also of leading a better life

Design thinker Vishakha Singh, who trains people on thinking skills as Founder of Habits for Thinking, has a strong interest in consumer behavior and the power of words. Habits for Thinking hosts programs on related skills for corporates and start-ups.

Her SHIFT method, Simple Habits and Ideas for Forward Thinking, is a curated set of ideas to develop creative and critical-thinking skills, challenging the assumption that thinking is not a skill to be taught, but is simply picked up.

“I give a workshop called Voices in Our Head about how the brain functions and how that drives our behavior. Pause to do breathing exercises, remove the negative words, and add little joys (be empathetic, listen…),” she says. “Mind gym is a simple concept to remind you that the power is in you.” But that does not mean you shouldn’t seek outside help in tandem, she says.

It’s a win-win situation for firms and employees to teach such skills, as not only will they help on a personal level, but also in terms of work performance. So-called “higher-order thinking” favors clear decision-making, creative thinking, and problem-solving: the stuff of astute leaders, but also of leading a better life. 

This article is based on a panel discussion from The Female Quotient’s (FQ) Equality Lounge sessions at the G20 summit in New Delhi. IMD is an academic partner of The Female Quotient, which joins forces with companies and leaders to curate experiences, thought leadership, and solutions designed to achieve gender equality in the workplace and beyond.

Deborah Sawaf

Founder & CEO, Thalé Blanc and The Power Of Words Brand

Vishakha Singh

Vishakha Singh

Founder, Habits for Thinking

Raj Mariwala

Raj Mariwala

Director, Mariwala Health Initiative

Kalyani Chawla

Kalyani Chawla

Founder and CEO, Rezon Luxury Silverware

Ms. Jyotika Jhalani

Founder & Creative Director, Janavi India

Merlyn D’souza

Merlyn D’souza

Director, Music Mode and Founding Partner, Brand Musiq

Afsana Cherian Kapoor

Founder, People for Action, NamaH


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