By Deepa Narwani

Interview with Ashok Gopal, Head – People Development & Employee Wellbeing, Mashreq Bank

Employee mental health and well-being have been focused on for the last few years but really came under the spotlight during the pandemic. Organisations looked at entirely new ways of working, as many of the old rules and role structures were thrown out the window. Suddenly, multiple family members were all stuck at home, trying to navigate their daily lives online. As a result, the pattern of working with colleagues and clients changed quite significantly.

Ashok Gopal, Head – People Development & Employee Wellbeing, Mashreq Bank, will be speaking on the crucial topic of employee mental health and well-being at the upcoming HR Summit & Expo (HRSE) Dubai on Monday, November 1. In an interview ahead of the summit, he said there was a lot of insecurity, uncertainty, and negativity across the world because of the health concerns related to the pandemic.

He said: “During the early days of the pandemic, the operative word was one of uncertainty and trying to discover new ways of working, all of which had an impact on an employee’s emotions and state of mind. So, well-being became a central focus. Earlier, even when people spoke of well-being, a larger focus was placed on the physical aspects. But due to the pandemic, the mental aspect, the emotions, the uncertainty, and trauma, all had to be factored into what one would look at as part of a well-being programme, across the world.”

Gopal has worked as a consultant across different geographies for several years, and a lot of his work centred around what needs to be done to create more engaging workplaces. “That’s been a lifelong passion of mine,” he shared. “The need for creating engagement is something that has existed for a long time. An engaged employee will probably put in discretionary effort compared to someone who doesn’t particularly care for the company or the job. What makes up engagement evolves with time, but the need for engagement is universal. It’s good for the company, individual and the society.”

Well-being is central to success

The world will probably not revert to the way it was pre-pandemic in any part of the world. Instead, the concept of the hybrid workplace is going to be prevalent, with organisations continuing to operate in a primarily virtual world or hybrid setting.

“Winston Churchill once said, “Never waste a good crisis”, quoted Gopal. “It would be tragic if we don’t take lessons from a crisis and learn how to implement them well when things return to a semblance of normalcy.”

Today, well-being is being acknowledged as something crucial to the way an individual performs. Earlier, there used to be a lot of discussion around employee satisfaction and employee engagement. However, the new mantra that organisations should focus on, emphasised Gopal, is to have well-being be central to their overall agenda. There needs to be an integrated approach around well-being. Recognition needs to be given to the fact that an employee wears many hats, and the hat of being an employee is only one of them. They are part of a family and community and have certain specific personal responsibilities and expectations regarding what they want to achieve in life.

When it comes to the UAE particularly, he highlighted, a large expat population is based here, and that is an important dimension that needs to be kept in mind. Any well-being programme needs to take these nuances into account.

Furthermore, when it comes to mental health, be it in the workplace or at home, the recognition that stress, mental challenges, the emotion of not feeling good are not things that should be swept under the carpet. Speaking about this should be normalised without the fear of being judged and with the hope that help will be provided. “This thought process needs to become part and parcel of the society,” he added. “At the moment, many people are talking about translating it into something sustainable. However, returning to normalcy doesn’t mean companies can return to old habits and structures – that would be a fatal flaw.”

At HRSE Dubai, Gopal will also be discussing the importance of individual’s taking accountability for things they need to do for themselves. Individuals can’t outsource their well-being and need to be more than equal stakeholders when it comes to well-being.

Additionally, when it comes to mental health and well-being, he stressed, it would be a tragedy if it were only thought about it in the context of it being a day, a week, or an event. It is something that needs constant attention and nurturing. If it is not thought about daily, the chances are that any intervention will be suboptimal in terms of its impact.

“This big message that needs to be recognised is that you can’t compartmentalise something like mental health. Every single day, everyone has their ups and downs. So, how do you factor that in terms of thinking about engagement further? I would encourage the corporate world to be think about it on an ongoing basis,” he concluded.