Work From Home (WFH) was an alien concept for most Indians before March 2020. But the pandemic spread by the novel coronavirus has led to a new normal not just for corporate India but the government sector as well. Leading IT giants like TCS have even decided to move to a permanent WFH system by 20205. And even though COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on a lot of businesses’ financial sheets, a lot of them are actually happy with employees working remotely. Employees’ productivity is reported to have gone up, and companies are recording shorter timelines to launch new products. Meetings, too, are shorter and more efficient when done virtually. But hidden underneath this veneer of high productivity is a dimension of WFH that has not been talked about often, but is greatly affecting the mental wellness of India Inc.
Arjun Bansal, 28, joined a leading FMCG firm in early May, joining virtually from his home in Mumbai. A fresh graduate from one of India’s leading business schools, he considered himself fortunate to have a job at a time massive layoffs had just begun. But two months into the new job, Arjun is frustrated. Since everyone in his firm is working from home, he hasn’t learnt anything new since he joined the team and his boss us unable to attend Arjun’s phone calls, busy meeting deadlines for his own work.
Several miles away in Patna, Parul Jain, 30, has a very different problem. As a consultant with one of the Big Four consulting companies, she used to work from home even before the lockdown to fight the coronavirus was imposed. But she now finds herself working not just overtime, but also on a lot of weekends. “I am not working from home,” she says candidly, “but living in my office.”
Mentorship and Networking
It might well be an ancient cliché, but humans continue to be social animals, and this maxim has never been more important than it is now. As a direct consequence of working from home, employees are no longer able to meet each other, which las led to over 80% employees wanting to go back to offices, as per a recent survey. They miss bonding with their teammates and friends over games of foosball and table-tennis, and even simple conversations around the water cooler. Not only has this lack of social contact caused a great deal of anxiety among employees, but it has also impacted their ability to network with colleagues an senior management. “I got an incredible project just because I was able to network with my firm’s partner over a cup of tea. I no longer have that option,” says Gopal, a senior consultant with a leading consulting firm.
One of the biggest impacts that employees have felt is on mentorship. With mentors no longer available just across the aisle, it has become increasingly hard for employees to seek their guidance. Older employees do not find it very hard to connect remotely, but younger employees and new recruits, who want guidance or their seniors’ opinions are now having a hard time. On the other side, supervisors are worried that WFH will reduce team cohesiveness. “Connecting remotely might work for established teams,” says Vikas, a manager in a telecom company. “But new employees are finding it hard to fit in. They are no longer exposed to the ‘work culture’ that our firm has cultivated over the last decade.”
Mental Fatigue and Burnout
As per a recent survey conducted by a small agency in Kerala, 55% of all employees working from home worked longer hours when connected remotely. Since they are always connected to their laptops, many employees are often working late into the night or starting their days earlier than usual. “My manager sometimes calls me at nights, asking me to run some new numbers,” says Aditi, working with a leading bank. “I know how important the work is, so I generally do it when asked, even if it is at odd hours. Besides, it’s a very competitive landscape and I don’t do it, then someone else will grab the opportunity.” While connecting remotely, Aditi is also taking fewer breaks than earlier, restricting herself to a quick lunch and cup of coffee in the evening.
Employees have also found it very hard to ask their managers for time off when connecting remotely. “I can’t just ask my boss for a holiday because I am mentally tired. That would make me sound weak,” says Siddharth, a product manager with a start-up. In fact, a third of all employees interviewed by a talent firm found it difficult to ask for a leave while working from home. This contributes to rising stress and anxiety in employees. A UN report published in 2017 found that 41% of people working from home reported high stress levels, compared to only 25% office worker. With WFH no longer a choice but a mandate, these numbers are only expected to have gone up with employees simultaneously juggling household chores. Employees also feel that they are now spending more time with their families while working remotely, the quality of this time spent has gone down.
Exacerbating the Problem
Unlike the Western world, Indians generally find it difficult to exercise their boundaries in the professional space. This often takes a toll on their personal lives. Whatever little boundaries existed earlier have now been blurred by WFH being the new normal for the foreseeable future. The problem gets amplified when leaders impose their ambitions on employees and ignore their personal boundaries. As per World Economic Forum (WEF), 22% participants in a global survey found it hard to unplug while working from home.
WEF also found that a third of all participants felt that their professional efforts won’t be recognised because of lack of office contact while working remotely. Due to a lack of facetime with supervisors and senior management, employees also feel frustrated and unvalued. Since WFH is still in its nascent stages in India, employees feel pressurized to present their best selves to their managers in a constant race for high ratings and appraisals, which translates into employees stretching themselves beyond the designated working hours and not saying no to extra work.
Psychologists have long believed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which explains how humans are fundamentally looking for physiological needs such as food and water, after which they look for personal safety and job security. Only after each of these has been achieved, do humans look out for love, belonging, social esteem, and self-actualization to be their best selves. In the Covid-era, however, humans’ attempt to fulfil their self-actualization needs has diminished, and most are just content with a healthy family and a job that provides them security.
Beating WFH Blues- Creating a Safer Future
So what can corporate India do to make WFH healthier for all its stakeholders, given that it is going to be around in the future? A lot of consulting and tech companies have long allowed their employees to work from home, even though this has generally been for shorter durations. Companies from other sectors, like finance, FMCGs, and manufacturing have embraced WFH only recently, after the coronavirus left them with no alternative.
In the Western world, talks of allowing employees to avail time off work for mental wellness has often been debated. The current scenario where everyone- from the junior employees to the senior management- is working from home could be a cue for finally allowing employees to take holidays to recharge their mental batteries. This needs to be driven by the top management and instilled in the firms’ work culture to work, so the stigma associated with taking personal time for mental wellness is removed. ING Bank from the Netherlands has even started a pilot project wherein a select group of employees are allowed to take unlimited leaves as long as their tasks do not suffer.
Many companies, including American fintech giant Intuit, which was recently declared India’s best place to work, give their employees subscriptions to paid apps like Headspace, that promote mindfulness and mental wellness. Employers have also started reimbursing employees for online therapy they underwent while working from home, while others have setup internal counselling sessions where employees can reach out anonymously. A strong signal by employers can help alleviate a lot of pent-up frustration among employees.
Simple gestures too, can go a long way, such as an indication by leaders that they are available and willing to listen to their employees. Having fortnightly one-on-one sessions could be a good way of creating safe spaces for employees. Another fun way to make things interesting could be virtual happy hours, with strict ‘no work talk’ policies. In a recent online meet-up, a legal firm even roped in a leading cloud kitchen to deliver ‘gulab phirni’ to all its employees working from home, while a leading software company got pizzas delivered at all their employees’ homes during a call. To help employees develop healthier habits, leading SaaS solutions provider also provided its employees an allowance to procure the right tools for continued WFH.
There is no doubt that WFH is here to stay, even if firms switch to a ‘flexible’ model of WFH once the current pandemic subsides. Several firms have taken their employees’ mental wellness seriously and could be good examples for others to follow. The Western world too, could be used as a guiding light. This could be an incredible opportunity for India Inc to revolutionize the professional world and create nurturing, healthier workplaces at employees’ homes. The learning curve is set to be a steep one, but the rewards, equally promising.