Tawhida Shiropa is the founder and CEO of Moner Bondhu, a platform for mental health and well-being support based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for which she has been listed in Vogue Business 100 Innovators 2023. Moner Bondhu has been in action since 2016, working towards SDG 3.4 to provide accessible and affordable mental healthcare. Tawhida Shiropa has also secured a €100,000 investment from Tommy Hilfiger as part of the brand’s Fashion Frontier Challenge. She is a certified NLP practitioner who has led over a hundred mental health and well-being training programs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her organisation provided one-on-one counselling to 32,000 people in Bangladesh and ten other countries with the assistance of the UNDP COVID-19 Crisis Response Project.
In a recent conversation with Bangladesh Brand Forum, Tawhida Shiropa spoke about Moner Bondhu, her journey as an entrepreneur and the challenges and remedies of mental health for professionals.
BBF: You have recently been named in the Vogue Business 100 Innovators 2023 for Moner Bondhu. Would you like to share your experience and feelings about this great achievement?
Tawhida Shiropa: This was such a wonderful and fulfilling experience. We have received many recognitions so far for our work. We are a start-up organisation, and getting recognised on global platforms and magazines like Vogue has boosted our motivation. Of course, recognitions like this come with a greater responsibility of living up to it, but they also teach us to be responsible and motivate us to work better in the future.
BBF: Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind starting Moner Bondhu and how it has evolved since its inception in 2016?
Back in 2015, while I was working in Prothom Alo, I suddenly noticed that my mother became very quiet. I wondered whether it was due to a fever or if anything uncomfortable was happening in her body. This continued for about 15 days, which was very concerning. We visited about ten hospitals, but no physical issue could be identified. Then, one of the doctors recommended consulting a psychologist. After we consulted a psychiatrist that I know from my family, we learned that my mother has been suffering from depression. I always felt like a great kid who knew everything, and our family bonding was powerful, but I still felt like I had failed to notice what my mother was going through. I asked the doctor what could be done in such situations. He said that it is imperative to change our lifestyle and our perspective on life.
As the caregiver for my mother, I felt emotional at that time and didn’t have the privilege to show my vulnerability to anyone. That inspired me to create a safe space for people to seek professional mental health support quickly.
BBF: Moner Bondhu is widely known for giving mental health support to garment workers. How do you think this impacts the productivity of the workers and the overall RMG-sector dynamics?
As a person, I have always been very passionate about working for women, and Moner Bondhu, too, has a significant female workforce. So, I started thinking about the women who need mental health support but don’t have the privilege to approach aid. That’s when I thought of working with the RMG sector. The 3.3 million workers in the RMG sector have a considerable contribution to our economy. They lack mental health privileges and are unaware of such services. So we contacted the then-president of BGMEA, Dr Rubana Huq, who is now the Vice Chancellor of the Asian University of Women.
The initial days were challenging for two reasons – one was to prove ourselves, and another was to understand the situation and mental health of the garment workers. We were able to gain the trust of the workers, and they felt comfortable reaching out to us. These workers have trouble managing their anxiety and work altogether, so by focusing on the cognitive and behavioural aspects, we could help the workers unleash maximum productivity while taking care of their mental health. We have been working with dedication and gradually collaborated with 70 factories. Very recently, we have also launched our mobile app through which people can quickly and conveniently reach out to us.
BBF: Moner Bondhu’s innovative approach to mental health support has garnered many recognitions. Can you share some success stories or examples of how your organisation has made a significant impact on individuals and workplaces?
I think the best accomplishment is when our services improve our clients’ well-being and day-to-day anxiety and save them from self-harm, including suicide attempts. Of course, we try to make them realise their quality of life, and that’s the biggest accomplishment, along with the recognitions and awards we have achieved. At present, many big corporate companies like Banglalink, Beximco Pharmaceuticals, etc., as well as their employees, are very keen on mental health. This is a great change, and I am proud of the fact that we have been able to contribute to this arena. Moner Bondhu has launched some exciting games based on mental health, too. Through these games, they can measure their stress, know about their anxiety factors and learn how to manage them without coming to counselling sessions.
BBF: Winning the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Frontier Challenge is a significant achievement. Could you tell us more about how this recognition has impacted Moner Bondhu and its mission?
It was a long and rigorous process which took about a year to complete. We weren’t expecting to achieve it. I saw a link to the fashion frontier challenge on Linkedin and randomly decided to apply. The challenge consisted of four rounds. After we cleared the first round, we got serious about it. We started thinking of innovative ways to spend 32 exclusive hours with Tommy Hilfiger’s team for the next Amsterdam round. An incubator program by Google was also conducted, and we’re still working with them to develop new interventions. Tommy Hilfiger also selected me to attend an MBA-equivalent program at INSEAD, one of the top business schools in the world.
BBF: In the context of the fast-paced work environment, what are the most common triggers for mental health issues that professionals experience in Bangladesh, and how can Moner Bondhu help address these specific challenges?
In this era, work-life issues are very prevalent. Some may prioritise their career, while others may prioritise their family life. But we usually fail to do so in a fast-paced work environment, which can be bad for our mental health. Two other important factors for maintaining sound mental health in the workplace are empathy and good communication. Constructive feedback assertive and open communication can minimise triggers for mental health issues to a great extent.
There’s another thing that can be detrimental to our mental health, that is getting anxious over others’ success and comparing that with our own. While our peers are shining in life, we might get the feeling that we have achieved nothing significant. One way to deal with it, Moner Bondhu believes, is knowing our purpose and priorities. Once we have figured out our goal, everything else will start getting sorted as well. It helps us to work on our careers and success while appreciating others.
BBF: On that note, Professionals working 9-5 often face high levels of stress, pressure, and anxiety. How does Moner Bondhu support individuals dealing with issues?
Firstly, the present work culture demands more hours than 9-5, which, of course, is an added pressure. Sometimes, the workload can become overwhelming for one person. At times like this, as team members, offering to delegate the work can help the said person heal. If this is transformed into a culture, it will be easier for colleagues to ask for help when needed, and the other colleagues can move forward to help depending on their workload. However, it is also essential to set boundaries and learn when to say no. To keep your colleagues engaged and invested in work, the team leader must give everyone their due credit and the scope to relax and re-energise.
BBF: Stress and anxiety can be amplified due to mood swings and other discomforts during the menstrual period. How can colleagues and HR cooperate with the female employees during this time?
Based on the diversity in the workplace, two such natural situations may arise. One is menstruation, and the other is menopause. Suppose a female worker starts menstruating while at work or stains their clothes; the environment of the workplace should be such that it doesn’t become an embarrassing issue. It is important that every employee, irrespective of their gender and biological cycle, feel comfortable at work. As much as it is important to cultivate this culture in workplaces, education must start at home and in educational institutions.
BBF: Does Moner Bondhu offer services for the welfare of the employees?
Yes, Moner Bondhu provides different customised programs to companies based on the requirements that apply to all the employees in a company. We also include diversity, inclusion and gender equality in these programs. We design a customised “Employee Wellness Program” to provide mental health and wellness services to the employees. Programs like this also help companies to understand the management through different angles and develop a mutually respectful, nonjudgemental and, in some cases, confidential environment for the employees.
BBF: Do you have any suggestions for professionals for maintaining a healthy work-life balance? What are the programs of Moner Bondhu that they can approach?
Nurture the good qualities that can make the workplace better and healthier and practice gratitude and gratefulness. The most important advice would be to take some good time out yourself. Apart from that, you can always contact Moner Bondhu through our “Employee Wellness Program” and other programs. The services can be acquired both physically and through our tech-based assistance program. We provide exclusive and customised training, counselling sessions and interventions, problem-solving skill training, and constructive feedback while maintaining good communication.
BBF: Lastly, do you have any suggestions for the employers?
Addressing the employers, I would like to say that it’s time to rethink policies, adjust to the changing times and focus on the areas hardly covered in the last couple of years. The environment of workplaces is changing along with time, and employees need to be given a space to vent and relax amidst the work pressure. Otherwise, it might be challenging to cope with the changing dynamics of the world. So, it is crucial to incorporate progressive benefits and incentives for your employees.