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Productivity At The Cost Of Well-Being

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By Manak Matiyani: 

The mental health crisis we are seeing in India as a result of COVID-19 isn’t new—it’s just the old problem, in the new normal. Just as with every other aspect of the pandemic, the impact on mental health also intersects with class, caste, gender, age, and many other aspects of people’s identities.

At the YP Foundation, we work closely with young people—activists, youth leaders, and adolescents between the ages of 9-35—working on social change across India. For them, the uncertainty around education and employment, together with the economic impact on families, has been stressful.

Additionally, in our rapid assessment of the impact of the lockdown on young people, mental and emotional stress due to being confined in rigid patriarchal spaces or with people who hold contrasting political ideologies came up repeatedly. This is higher for those who had previously been part of alternative spaces. Restricted mobility and heightened family surveillance over the past few months have led to young people all of the sudden losing access to safe spaces that were once available to them.

Representational image.

But apart from the pandemic, we need to acknowledge some of the more deep-rooted issues related to work and well-being, particularly for young people.

As I approach this conversation, I want to acknowledge my individual privileges—I am born to an educated, urban family with caste and class privilege, and I currently hold a leadership position in The YP Foundation. All these factors shape my experience of well-being and make me less susceptible to certain stressors. I enter this conversation well-meaning, but I have not trained in, worked on, or been directly affected by mental health-related crises.

My perspective is thus informed by my learnings from communities of youth and adolescents supporting each other through small and large crises. It also comes from principles of feminism, community engagement, and training in listening, responding, and working alongside young people to enable leadership. Based on conversations I’ve been a part of, this article aims to outline how to be mindful about young people and well-being at work.

Young People Are At Odds With The Systems They Work Within

Previously ‘mental health’ in India was largely associated with clinical psychological issues. Today, however, a lot of young people are aware of the concept of well-being and are leading the discourse on actively investing in and nurturing it. In fact, talking about it is becoming normalised, and this conversation is gaining a lot of traction.

A lot of young people are aware of the concept of well-being and are leading the discourse on actively investing in and nurturing it.”

Yet for the most part, the institutions, systems, and contexts that govern and shape our lives, were neither designed, nor have adapted to this growing need among young Indians. We thus find ourselves in a situation where societal structures and organisations continue to ignore mental health and well-being despite its impact. Worse yet, it’s often young people who have to work to be heard, taken seriously, and demand proactive steps in this direction.

Why Is This The Case?

We often glorify toxic work cultures

Promoting a culture of efficiency and productivity at the cost of well-being can take a long-term toll on mental health. And young people often feel heavily burdened by this expectation and culture. We have seen that the aspirational and celebrated image of ‘work-as-life’ and immersion in a cause is a common narrative among young leaders and entrepreneurs. This can lead to acceptance—and sometimes glorification—of stress.

Within current work systems, competition and accountability tend to be held up in ways that create anxiety and individual stress. Even when we are watchful of team members’ workloads, we cannot deny the expectation of showing commitment by putting in long hours. This is perhaps because work systems are designed to be accountable to goals and tasks, and not to values.

We do not have alternatives to competition-based systems for individual growth learnt from the education system and embedded within organisations. This is now heightened by the pandemic and working from home, where we are constantly available, seldom switching off, and do not have the respite of physical separation between home and the office.

Dominoes falling down
Promoting a culture of efficiency and productivity at the cost of well-being can take a long-term toll on mental health. Picture courtesy: Pixabay

Workplaces that thrive on insecurity to create a pressure to perform can often be highly competitive, unforgiving, and debilitating for individuals. While this may not be the case at all organisations, our experience tells us that it is the case in some. As we move to ‘professionalise’ the development sector and increase efficiency, insights on building equitable, empathetic, and collaborative workplaces to provide people with a sense of trust have taken a long time coming.

Systemic discrimination affects the well-being

Systemic discrimination also makes its way into gossip, ‘jokes’, and bullying that make workplaces toxic and stressful. Specific forms of discrimination and stigma can become triggers and long-term stressors. The conversation around racism within the development sector has been renewed in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

A similar conversation around casteism and other forms of discrimination within the social sector in India is imperative. Queer activists have raised the issue of codes of dress and behaviour as key stressors in the workplace. Similarly, the women’s movement has been conscious of gendered norms, expectations, and bullying at work which is also taking new forms in the current times.

Development organisations are often themselves devoid of diversity. The same narrative of efficiency and resources that create individual stress also become barriers in bringing in specific diversity measures within recruitment and staffing structures within organisations.

Where Do We Go From Here?

How do we move from well-intentioned to well-equipped in creating supportive workplaces, relationships, and ecosystems for young people? Development and activist practice offer some experiential learning on how to engage with diverse contexts and narratives of mental health and wellness. In addition to what has also worked for us organisationally, I go back to these guiding principles:

Recognise that investing in well-being is an input, not an ‘add-on’

As activists, leaders, and organisations working on social change, we are always accountable to donors. And understandably, donors often expect a certain level of efficiency, productivity, and rigour. But at the same time, we’re also accountable to ourselves and the people and communities we work with. How do we manage deliverables and well-being simultaneously?

We’re often caught in between the two, but rather than having well-being and deliverables at loggerheads with each other, can we shift our perspective to acknowledge the impact that well-being has on deliverables? Budgetary advocacy experience tells us that promises must be backed up by financial commitment. While at YP Foundation, we are still far from having a well-being budget, flexible funding and capacity building grants have helped us dedicate resources to this consciously and advocate for the same with funders.

The first step in expanding this conversation on mental health and well-being is to make clear and concrete commitments while involving those who are impacted in the creation of systems, policies, and programmes. If we start viewing well-being as a necessary input that can positively impact our work, we might be able to find more room for this in our budgets.

Representational image.

Be accountable to long-term change, not just immediate impact

As a sector, we need to create specific programmes that support development organisations to improve policies, build capacities, and invest in strengthening their own systems.

Including budgets for wellness, staff retreats and organisational development is an essential part of supporting social change. Donor commitments have to go beyond the immediate impact on the ground, to make the sector more diverse, reflective, and aware in enabling community-led change.

Donor commitments have to go beyond immediate impact on the ground, to making the sector more diverse, reflective, and aware in enabling community-led change.”

A set of diversity and wellness requirements in due diligence cannot be the only way to enforce change though. Support includes investing in repositories of policies and processes that are easily accessible which small organisations are unable to invest to create. This has to be coupled with investments in the ability of small organisations to build systems and bring in growth to access higher funding. This is critical to enabling professionals in growing organisations to cope with increasing stress on their journey. These investments do not have to be in competition with, but rather enhance, on-ground impact.

Push innovation in other domains of work

Among the kinds of innovation that we are pushed to develop in our work, there are precious few to prioritise and ensure the well-being of development workers alongside the expansion of development work. We need more innovation to create trust-based systems, employee collaboration, and recognition of what systems need to be broken down so that better ones may be built.

This pandemic is also a moment for us to turn inwards as development workers. There is enough evidence to suggest that the mental health of social impact professionals is in need of dire attention and that gender and age are distinctive factors of mental health issues. It is our prerogative then, to champion the wellness not just of our communities, but of our teams as the community that will lead the transformation of social change on the ground.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the author: Manak Matiyani is a feminist queer activist and the executive director of The YP Foundation. His work is aimed at facilitating youth leadership of social change with a focus on gender justice and sexuality rights.

Prior to heading The YP Foundation, Manak led a national youth-led campaign against gender-based violence and a fellowship programme for young social entrepreneurs at Commutiny – The Youth Collective. He has also worked with a range of grassroots groups, citizen’s initiatives, social organisations and campaigns as a trainer and facilitator.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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