"For many people, the lack of social interaction caused by the pandemic has had a profound effect on their mental health," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Mental wellbeing is a key element of our holistic health which is often overlooked and fervently desired at the same time. While the pandemic has exacerbated the issue for many, it’s existence pre-pandemic can hardly be questioned.
On this World Mental Health Day, we discuss the importance of mental wellbeing support at the workplace especially for our large growing migrant population, investigated through the Buddysystem project within our Building Holistic Health portfolio. This project is being implemented in a few factories of Shahi Exports - India’s largest exporter of readymade garments.
Let’s start with a story.
To continue our efforts of having a positive impact on worker wellbeing at GBL, our team visited a hostel for female migrants working at the Shahi garment manufacturing factories in Bangalore to discuss why a large share of migrant women choose to leave, often so soon after joining. Aware of the common reasons, such as family emergencies, we wanted to observe if there were additional pressures that we could identify and address. In particular, prior conversations with migrant women and factory staff indicated that loneliness and social isolation may be contributing to high attrition. These women have largely relocated from rural villages and provincial towns to work at a garment factory. After the initial excitement of moving to a new environment dissipates, loneliness may settle in. Hence, in our visit to the hostel, we especially wanted to learn about any new friendships or relationships the women made after migrating to Bangalore.
Giggly and nervous, the women greeted us and we met them one by one. As we spoke at length about their lives in the city and at work, it became clear that some of the women were unhappy. One broke down at the thought of her children who she had left with her mother in Odisha. After separating from her husband, she was the sole financial provider for her children. Another young woman from Jharkhand, who joined less than two months ago, asked us when she could leave the factory. When we expressed our concern, she mentioned that she missed her parents, who were worried about her living in a new city without any family nearby. If there were an emergency, it would take her parents three days to reach Bangalore.
Our conversations with the migrant workers confirmed that loneliness is a pressing issue on its own and is closely linked with other stresses of migration. Adjusting to a new city and work environment can take a toll on physical and mental health. In particular, manufacturing positions entail repetitive mechanical work and high work pressure to reach daily production targets . In this context, the strain is further exacerbated by loneliness: migrants lose proximity with their close friends, family, and additional social support back at their native homes.
It is commonly known that the garment manufacturing industry is plagued with low retention despite being a medium of economic mobility for a large migrant female workforce with low skills and low education levels. The female migrant population constitutes a large share of the workforce, most of whom are new to the factories.
The large share of new female migrant workers suggests that many women are eager to take garment factory jobs, even if it means moving away from their family, friends, and villages for this opportunity. Of female migrant workers who started working at three garment manufacturing units under our purview in 2018, on average, about 40% dropped out within 6 months of joining. (On average each unit had ~520 female workers). Our conversations with the female migrants at the hostels perhaps hinted why.
Although most research on loneliness focuses on the elderly, evidence suggests that the young migrants face high rates of loneliness as well. It is a growing, global issue: 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in the USA, and 23% in the UK always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated. A study in Bangalore found that 37% of the elderly surveyed reported being lonely. Strikingly, a report by a Chinese trade union in 2010 concluded that “the defining aspect of the migrant experience” is loneliness. (Economist, 2018)
To develop a program, we sourced ideas from conversations with female migrants and academic research on loneliness. The women told us that they looked forward to their workstation-cleaning breaks, which allow them to socialize in the factory and have a moment of reprieve from production. Conversations with colleagues sitting next to them, commuting to work with roommates, having company at lunch, and other cursory yet salient social interactions can contribute to reducing loneliness. In addition to pleasant exchanges, the deeper friendships that female migrants formed provided significant improvements to their wellbeing, both personally and at work. Some told us how their relationships at work evolved into strong bonds of trust, whereas others conveyed that they preferred to work with their close friends on the same production lines. From these conversations, it became clear that supporting women in the development of positive friendships and work relationships would be well-received.
We then turned to academic research on loneliness for tested strategies. Despite being an increasingly widespread burden, there is a lack of evidence on methods to reduce loneliness. However, initial results suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a promising intervention. CBT aims to improve mental health by altering negative thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and developing personal coping approaches to solve current problems. Though traditionally delivered by psychologists, previous studies have demonstrated that lay individuals can be effectively trained to deliver mental health interventions at low-cost. This is especially important for developing a flexible program that can reach thousands of migrant garment workers and remain a viable, core program in the factories.
Combining these insights, we have designed a low-cost, scalable, and tailored Buddy System Program to tackle loneliness among the migrant women. This program pairs a new migrant worker (junior buddy) with a longer tenured worker (senior buddy), selected on the grounds of shared language or village they migrated from, or if they work on the same factory floor and reside in the same hostel. Though it may not be necessary to always pair people up when they are working, there are definitely situations that call for it.
The senior buddy will be a point of contact for the junior buddy in the new environment, providing her with social support and friendship. We envision that as new migrants are introduced to the factories and hostels, having senior buddies who have been through the same experience will smoothen the transition and reduce loneliness. Some senior buddies will be trained to provide Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to the juniors. After designing the program with both migrant input and research insights, we will evaluate the interventions with a randomized controlled trial in order to see its impact on the wellbeing of migrant workers and how it translates to improved business outcomes.
This study, under GBL in partnership with Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd., has received funding support from USAID's Development Innovation Ventures. The U.S. Agency for International Development administers the U.S. foreign assistance program providing economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 80 countries worldwide.
It merits attention that the high migrant share of the workforce is not unique to the garment industry. We foresee that our findings will be applicable across multiple industries and the large number of low-income migrant workers that they employ, creating the opportunity to improve the wellbeing and economic prospects of millions of young migrants around the globe.
Lastly, it is but the folly of human nature, that the qualities that surface in the face of an unanticipated crisis are often the most difficult to find in prosperous calm. Being cognizant of and paying attention to your mental health is definitely one. Pandemic or no pandemic.
Start now, pay attention, take care.
This article is adapted by Mansi Kabra, Senior Marketing Manager at Good Business Lab. Get a copy of our zine to access the original piece on Buddysystem written by Andelyn Russell, Mamta Pimoli, Saswati Mishra.
Image credits: Nayantara Parikh