An interesting development in recent years is the acknowledgement by powerful institutions of the importance of mental health. Corporate leaders have finally started giving due concern to the elephant in the room, and are putting in place provisions right from the precautionary ones to those meant to help people in need.

Amongst the prime remedies to mental distress are a distracting routine, fresh air, sunlight and the company of people who can help you take your mind off it, and boost your mood through light hearted, friendly and supportive conversations.

Just as businesses were getting serious about workers’ mental health, Covid19 set in. While many corporate employees rejoiced at first at the thought of working from home, their workload was increased and mounting distractions at home and the fear of being disemployed messed with their sleep at night.

Restrictions forced by the lockdown have imprisoned people in their apartments and put nearly all our recreational and wellness promoting activities on hold indefinitely.

Most service and IT enabled industries have been quick to act and mobilised their digital infrastructure to keep their business going as usual, with some initial turbulence. The manufacturing industry on the other hand is faced with its biggest dilemma in over half a century.

While the pandemic did shut down operations in the beginning, soon enough the business owners realised that it is not sustainable: they raised the alarm and summoned the workforce with stern warning of consequences for those who would not comply.

The manufacturing setup inherently offers difficult working conditions. Apart from all the physical health hazards ranging from extreme heat, deafening sound of machinery, dust to lights that seem to pierce through the eyes, in factories that run for all hours of the day the employees are often sleep-deprived and lack a well defined routine, as the routine topples almost every week with the changing shifts.

Those who work on the shop floor don’t get to celebrate festivals or other occasions regularly with their kith and kin, as a minimum workforce is required to keep the machines perpetually running.

This environment is not conducive to good mental health, and may well aggravate an underlying health condition. On top of that now Covid19 is here to play lead villain in their nightmares.

In manufacturing you can’t work in isolation, or sit in air conditioned control rooms to get the work done. The hot environment on the shop floor pushes people to the brink and makes them drop their PPEs helplessly for a gasp of air. Meanwhile all the reports of Covid horror pronounced on different media channels, and news of people on the shop floor getting infected drives their fear, putting their mental health at risk.

It won’t be a surprise to find people on the shop floor on the verge of having a mental breakdown at this point of time. It’s obvious even without accessing any media or news channels that the situation is only getting worse. As covid steps into our personal circles, if it’s giving chills to people living in the comfort of home, one can imagine what it’s like for those compelled to go out and be around other people, who come from different locations, and work in an environment that makes it very difficult to protect themselves for long hours.

Business owners should be wary of this, and plan their targets accordingly, making provisions for their employees’ mental well being.

The very first thing that needs to be done is to dial down production targets. This would reduce the rush and offer less reason for faltering employee motivation to comply with covid norms.

For factories that run for 24 hours, work should be divided into more shifts, so that people are around other people for less time.

The necessity of work to proceed, not just for the organisation but for the people as well, should be made clear to employees in a kinder way instead of issuing threats.

It is high time that the manufacturing industry, which has been lagging far behind in this regard, stepped up and started laying down frameworks for employee mental well being.

As an immediate precautionary measure the management and leadership must take up centre stage, leverage the digital media, and speak to and boost people’s spirits.

Meanwhile, instituting remedial provisions is crucial to help severe cases.

A program to connect employees with professionals to address their mental health has always been necessary, more so in a manufacturing setup— now Covid has highlighted the issues of mental health and made it extremely urgent for organisations to jump into action.

How organisations act in testing times like this will be remembered for long. It may go a long way toward strengthening the foundation of a company.

Dr Dhananjay Mankar is Assistant Professor, School of Health Systems Studies, TISS Mumbai

Vivek Kumar is an MA-ODCL student, School of Management Studies, TISS Mumbai