According to WHO, “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” This is an extremely important element in making any individual a resilient and empathetic leader for the future. Dr. Vidyut Lata Dhir, a certified psychologist and a professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership and Group Head of Design Thinking and Innovation at SPJIMR, felt the need to start a ‘space’ where students can have conversations about their insecurities and concerns. They can be part of an ecosystem of ‘psychological safety’ where each individual feels accepted and respected for who he/she is without feeling judged. With this intent, Vishwas was started in September 2015. Dr. Dhir leads Vishwas – a space to nurture mental well-being through its various initiatives like Flashback Fridays, Blogs, World is a Coffee Table and Weekending with Vishwas where students share their thoughts, feelings and life stories in informal settings facilitated by an expert. She also looks after the Counselling Cell to take care of the mental health of the students and get their concerns addressed by certified psychologists. InsideIIM spoke to her to find out why it is important to put stress on mental health and mental wellbeing now more than ever and how B-school managers can be good future leaders. These are the excerpts:
1.) Tell us about the origin of Vishwas a bit. At what point did SPJIMR realize that there is a need for a space for students to open up and talk about their concerns while they undergo the course?
We conduct Personal Growth lab that happens at the beginning of the MBA journey, an innovative pedagogy to teach Organizational Behavior in an experiential manner. Through weaving of concepts with curated experiences students set out on a path of self-discovery, appreciating individual differences and building trust in teams. Over time, I realized that when students discover their blind spots, personality, and decode interpersonal dynamics through the various psychometric assessments, reflection, feedback and experiential exercises they begin the journey of ‘knowing self’. They then want to know more and discuss and share their concerns, vulnerabilities and aspirations.
I used to have candid, crucial conversations with my students. Also we conducted counselling sessions whenever a student approached us, but somewhere around the beginning of 2015, I thought of giving it a more formal structure. So, Vishwas was launched in September of 2015, as a space dedicated to the mental well-being of our students. 'Vishwas' is Hindi for trust. Trust is a verb and action is needed to create and nurture trust. Vishwas, based on the principles of Positive Psychology, is an initiative born out of extensive brainstorming with various industry practitioners, psychologists and students. We help students become stronger by leveraging on their strengths as Martin E.P. Seligman says “Authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others.” This can happen only when they feel ‘psychologically safe’. One is more open-minded, hardy, motivated, and determined when one feels psychologically safe to make mistakes and share vulnerabilities and learn from each other.
When it comes to mental health, there are two ways of going about it: proactive, and reactive. Reactive is when you respond to events after they have happened. Proactive is when you actively work towards solving problems as a preventive measure. Sure, there are problems like depression, anxiety, psychoses etc. which require professional attention but there are other concerns that we all grapple with at some point in our lives, like feeling lonely, sad, demotivated, or lack of clarity. We at Vishwas identified the latter as an area requiring attention and are therefore, proactively working towards our students’ mental well-being.
2.) Take us through why you decided on going with Vishwas, which is Hindi for trust for the counselling and development Centre. How do you think it builds or develops trust amidst the students at large?
A few years back a student came to my cabin and expressed very honestly that when he entered other professors’ cabins he went to seek answers for marketing, finance, quantitative techniques etc. but when he entered my cabin he came with a ‘vishwas’ that he will get answers to his life. That is when I thought that this student had the courage to reach out to me with his fears and concerns but surely there may be others who are also seeking some answers and don’t know where to go or feel inhibited to share. The question that then came to my mind was “how can I reach out to them?” That is when the first idea of Vishwas was born.
The whole world is concentrating on the two T’s – techniques and technologies. But the pandemic has taught us that there is a third T which is the most important - Trust. Techniques and technologies are easier to build but trust; it is very difficult, it’s a slow and a meandering process. It’s analogous to investing in an emotional bank account, but one withdrawal here results in a zero balance and then needs to be built again, this time around it's even tougher. We at SPJIMR, thrived on trusting human connections by nurturing this safe space in the virtual world. The pandemic also taught us that we need to pivot in the VUCA and for that one needs to know one’s ‘Core’ and to be resilient and for that one needs to form communities of mental well-being. This is what we are endeavoring to do, through this process, we know the journey ahead is long but we believe we have taken the first step.
With over two decades of experience as an academician, a psychologist, and management consultant I have personally observed the importance of forming a psychological safety net in an organization. There is evidence to prove that it leads to trust in teams, increases productivity and sparks innovation. Through my experience as a professor at SPJIMR, I have been fortunate to have interacted with not just with hundreds of students but also working professionals in the industry. Increasingly professionals from the industry have become unabashed about the need for safe spaces and mental health services for employees in the corporate world.
There has also been a perceptible cause for concern among business management students regarding their psychological well-being given the levels of stress and competition to out-do each other and themselves. Many have courageously stated that being away from family and being home sick is exacerbated by the perceived lack of a social support system- a group of trustworthy deep connections where they can be ‘just as they are.’
I would also like to reiterate that Vishwas and the counselling Cell at SPJIMR are two separate verticals that fall under the umbrella of mental well-being. While Vishwas is more about having agenda-less and candid conversations with a group of people which also integrates yoga, origami, dance and music; the counseling cell offers one-to-one counselling with a trained and certified psychologist.
3.) A lot of MBA students come from different parts of the country. First, adjusting to a new city like Mumbai becomes a challenge and then to the overall pressure of daily classes, assignments, lectures, projects and more. How do you make sure that Vishwas absorbs this pressure from students?
We at SPJIMR, are taking baby steps to create an ecosystem of ‘psychological safety’ (Amy Edmondson, 1999) through different interventions. Some people are open to talk and share while others prefer to write and share. Through Vishwas we offer them spaces like “the world is a coffee table”, and during Covid-19 through April, 2020 to December 2020 we had “Weekending with Vishwas” every Sunday. We got featured in Economic Times as we had touched 1000+ lives through this simple but unique initiative. We also collaborated on 4 such sessions with the Global Business School network (gbsn) for their annual conference in 2020. When the world locked out we opened up with these sessions for people to have agendaless conversations which soon became crucial conversations and much sought after as a respite from the fears and anxiety of the unprecedented times, by students, staff, faculty and alumni. In a safe space people had candid conversations without the fear of being judged and connected at the human level on a virtual platform!! . Almost like a virtual hug!! We now have these sessions twice in a month. For those who like to express themselves through writing, Vishwas has a blog page. Every Friday for the last 3 years we post a blog written by one of our students, staff and faculty through the initiative of “Flashback Fridays.” Till date we have + 150 blogs and alumni tell us that they look forward to them as it reconnects them to the institute.
Vishwas aims to create and nurture a space, where people are comfortable being themselves and every individual is ‘accepted and respected.’
4.) Once the students are on campus, one major stress or concern that always stays is ‘placements’. What if I don’t get through? What if I am not good enough? Anxiety shoots up during these times. Is there a way with which Vishwas helps the students? Any particular story that you can think of where a student has gone through severe phases of anxiety and came out with flying colors.
The culture at SPJIMR is open and we pride ourselves for the ‘faculty - student connect.’ This is a strong safety net for students and they reach out to faculty throughout the year. But yes, especially during the placements they need to get assurance, guidance and the right direction. There are faculty mentors, students buddy, alumni mentors who reach out to the students. Nevertheless, sometimes there are bound to be emotional upheavals, FOMO, lack of clarity and every year a few students do come to me to discuss about their concerns. In one of the weekending with Vishwas session, we requested SPJIMR alumni of 2008-2009 batch to share their success stories and explain that a lockdown/covid-19/ pandemic or any disaster is just a phase and not the end of their life or something which defines them. What they do, how they come out of this, will eventually define them and help them become successful.
Infact this batch is expected to be more resilient and patient, which is a virtue! They also addressed the queries, anxieties of the 2020 batch placement seekers. The SPJIMR Alumni have been very enthusiastic and kind to share their placement stories of the financial year crisis. This is the true power of being a part of the SPJIMR family. Anyone is just a call or email away. Another story that I can tell you is that of a student who came to me because he was one of the last ones to get placed. When we had a conversation, I realized that there was a lack of confidence and low self-esteem because of job rejections. A few hours spent with him helped him realize his potential and clear his inner chatter and feel more hopeful and optimistic. That is the key! Be the mirror and reflect back the strengths and the solutions that come from within. Tiny changes can lead to huge impact during these times.
5.) You are a psychologist yourself, who has taught graduate, post-graduate and executive level students in some of the best institutes in the Asia Pacific region. What according to you makes the B-schools a hypercompetitive space and how should students take care of their mental health?
When students get selected in a top B-school like SPJIMR it is because they are all best in their own respective fields. When they come to campus and interact with other students from across India, they meet many others who have similar if not the same skill sets as themselves. Now they are the best amongst the best! This leads to ‘FOMO’- Fear of Missing Out and eventually they get into a hypercompetitive mode. Also, with rigor of the courses and competitions galore they set out to run a race to out beat others. It’s here when we ask them to step back to step up and press the pause button and make conscious choices aligned to their own ‘core’ and their leadership journey
Another aim of Vishwas is to inculcate the importance of connecting to one’s emotions . Emotions are an important part of life and one of the ways to become emotionally intelligent is to enhance our ‘emotional vocabulary’ (David, 2016). The ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. These ‘psychological safe spaces’ where people share openly also builds Empathy. This helps us to understand deeply what the other person is feeling. It is this enduring consideration of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions which facilitates connections. These are the kind of leadership qualities the world needs and this is what we in B Schools should nurture and develop! Lastly, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are human and bound to make mistakes, so we need to be kind to ourselves too!
Now more than ever, is the time to start having conversations around mental health and spread the awareness around mental health and destigmatize mental illness. WHO, WEF, UNESCO and independent research worldwide are crying out loud that the next silent pandemic is brewing in the form of mental illness. Our students will be the future business leaders of tomorrow, they should not only be able to ‘cope’ but ‘thrive’ in their lives so that there is sustainability and innovation in the world!
We also have sessions by experts from the field of mental health professionals so that our students are aware of some signs to watch out for and reach out for help when they need and thereby, better able take care of their mental health. We also invite our alumni and people from their industry to share their failures, so that students are able to learn from them.
6.) You have almost 3 decade’s experiences on the back of your shoulders and you have seen a lot of people going through stressful journeys in their lives? Has the awareness around mental health shifted in our country from where you started? Do you also think that the radical changes in the world that are taking place is making students more prone to varied mental illnesses?
There is definitely a positive shift in the awareness about mental health in our country. I observe that some people do share about their mental health concerns and also encourage those who need help to reach out for help. Very few of course, even in cities like Mumbai, so we can imagine the state in the smaller cities. We still have a long way to go. There is still the ‘fear’ of the mentally ill which needs to be replaced by ‘care’ for them and its imperative to have open conversations around mental illness. The pandemic has accelerated the need to be aware and reach out for help when needed. We need to encourage people to share their concerns with others and when the stress or anxiety is coming in the way of everyday functioning one needs to reach out for professional help.
Yes, the radical changes in the world are adding to this silent pandemic of mental illness. These changes are happening in all aspects of our lives, personal, work, education etc, taking one example, while technological advancements are definitely making some aspects of our lives more effective it is also leading some to be slaves of social media and research shows that it leads to social isolation and poor social connections. For our mental health, we need to stay grounded using our 5 senses and take notice of things and people around us.
Global organizations like World Health Organizations, UN, and World Economic Forum are talking about it at the global level. UN stresses that, “Our mental health directly influences how we think, feel and act: it also affects our physical health. Work, in fact, is actually one of the best things for protecting our mental health, but it can also adversely affect it.” The World Economic Forum has also shown the losses we incur for not paying enough attention to mental health. It states that, “Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion every year in lost productivity - and take a terrible human toll.”
Still, there are countries where even the basic awareness around mental health is missing, let alone access to it. Very aptly, the theme of this year's World Mental Health Day is 'Mental health in an unequal world'. “Yet there is cause for optimism. During the World Health Assembly in May 2021, governments from around the world acknowledged the need to scale up quality of mental health services at all levels.”
If we have to make the next generation of leaders who bring out the best in themselves, in others and their communities, we have to prepare students early on to be resilient, emotionally intelligent and be able to also deal with mental health issues. They need to be aware and open to discuss freely about the mental wellbeing of their people. And creating a psychological space like Vishwas, is a step towards that goal.
7.) What is the best part about being associated with SPJIMR and Vishwas? What do you look forward to the most?
We call ourselves the SPJIMR ``family”, where we can build relationships and friendships that last a lifetime ! The best part of SPJIMR, is it’s an agile organization with an entrepreneurial spirit ! I have had a certain amount of freedom within the boundary that is set when you are running an initiative like this. It gives me the freedom to be as creative as I want, be it to design new courses or new initiatives. Or make certain choices. At the heart of all our Non classroom learning courses is design thinking where we have immersed ourselves in the lives of the people whose problems we wish to resolve . There is no set solution to mental health issues but by creating a prototype like Vishwas, we are trying to find some paths to help them. We are constantly taking feedback at the ground level and by following an iterative process trying to redesign this space on the go. Nevertheless, one thing we have realized is that people need a ‘space’ to be themselves and feel it's ok not to feel ok at times, where no one is judging them but in fact, people are listening deeply and tuning into them!
It is only at SPJIMR where a passion of a person is backed by institutional support for the benefit of its students. Vishwas was my passion and I could nurture it further only because I am supported by the management, encouraged by my faculty friends and the momentum was given by the Vishwas team of selfless volunteers from across programs who join in every year and my research associate. One grows more when one gives more and personally working in this space I have grown both personally and professionally. I have built deep meaningful relationships with students, and there are alumni who are in touch with me even after graduating many years back. This is the treasure I hold very dearly!
I’ll share a couple of lines that students have written about Vishwas:
-“The sessions at Vishwas whether in college or in online mode have served as a means to feel heard. I always have the assurance that there is a safe place where people listen and don’t judge. Vishwas has helped me regain my Vishwas in myself.”
-“Vishwas is an amazing platform for people to share who they are. In a B-School setting amidst lock down, Sunday Vishwas' event was a bliss!”
You see, not everyone needs therapy, but surely, we all need someone who listens to our story and understands us.
8.) How are you planning to help the new batch that will be starting on-campus activities after long?
Once we start on-campus activities I would have regular meetups in small numbers while keeping the covid protocols in place with participants across various programs. We have a beautiful campus with open spaces and a lake so we can meet in the open too. We would be continuing with initiatives that were carried out in the past like ‘World is a Coffee table’ in the offline mode and ‘Weekending with Vishwas’ in the online mode. We will take our initiatives in the hybrid mode for now and slowly move to align with the situation. Nevertheless, even in the online mode, Vishwas has successfully touched many hearts, here at SPJIMR.
Every year volunteers join Vishwas and they do so, without any expectations as they get no extra credit for that. They join purely because they have the capacity to feel for another human being. Vishwas has no formal structure. There is no student-teacher boundary. We are open to suggestions and new initiatives and each time someone has a brilliant idea all of us put in efforts to execute it.
The batch that has already gone through online classes and would be joining the workplace will also have their own set of ‘adapting’ to do in the new normal. We at Vishwas will also help students to cope with the new shifts that are taking place both in their academic world and for those who will soon be starting their professional careers.
We are entering into a new world where the set norms of a corporate job is changing, with employees focusing on their mental wellbeing, putting work-life balance ahead of hefty paychecks and managers understanding that micromanaging is pointless. In such times, we are open to rethinking, learning and relearning best practices in mental health care from around the world. We now look forward to the new batch of students and to help them achieve success and happiness in their respective lives.
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