According to Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index report, that came out in late September 2020, close to one-third of workers in India have cited increase in burnout in the last six months with “the lack of separation between work duties and personal obligations as negatively impacting their wellbeing.” India had the longest workday span compared to the other countries in this survey. The top two stressors for Indian employees were the fear of contracting COVID-19 at work and feeling isolated or disconnected from colleagues.
There were several reports of an increase in focus on well-being of employees since the onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown in March 2020. Organizations like Mahindra, Johnson & Johnson, India, and TVS Motors provided support to their employees either in terms of telemedicine or webinars on emotional hygiene. Infosys emphasized employee well-being and business continuity as top priorities in the wake of the pandemic. Companies like RazorPay also tried to reduce work stress and burnout by having meeting-free days and no calls after 7 pm. Nevertheless, this latest report from Microsoft alludes to at least a lack of wide-spread effectiveness of the well-being strategies adopted by organizations in India.
Well-being has been categorized in multiple ways to include physical, emotional, economic, and social well-being. These different categories are strongly linked to each other and can hardly exist in isolation. One of the major questions that arises is whether the onus of working towards improving well-being resides in individuals or groups (family, organizations) or both. Intuitively it is a combination of both. Therefore, organizations that seek out well-being programs need to focus on both individual perspectives of employees as well as their own policies and programs.
The main underlying theme is that the employees’ well-being is paramount. This demonstrates compassion for the employee and could signal an emotional culture which actually cares about the individuals rather than just the financial performance of the company. Of course, the productivity of the employees and subsequent financial performance is likely to be optimal only when the individuals are not stressed out and facing constant anxiety about their own selves and their families.
What can organizations do?
Keeping in mind the fact that the two most stressful aspects for Indian employees were fear of contracting the virus and lack of connection with colleagues, organizations can formulate strategies to address both. Several organizations have continued work from home which is likely to reduce the incidence of infection, but there are still several companies that have started operating with employees in the physical workspace. ACT Fibernet has provided personal protective equipment to their field workers. Mahindra Logistics and Capgemini have provided online training for guidance of new behaviour in the workplace to promote safety.
Addressing fear of contraction of COVID-19 in the workplace
The first and foremost thing for the companies with on-site employees to do is to ensure that the physical premises are sterilized and monitored closely on a regular basis and this is communicated clearly to the employees. A lot of people in India live in extended families with elderly people with co-existing co-morbidities. Their fears are understandable and need to be addressed in the most transparent manner. Besides the obvious temperature checks and self-reporting of symptoms, information about the actual ventilation mechanisms and safety tips need to be provided to the employees before they return to the physical workspace. Some of the questions that need to be addressed and communicated to the employees include the following:
- What are the methods and frequency of disinfection?
- What are the locations for the sanitizer dispensers at work? Where are the signs to remind employees to wash their hands regularly and not touch their faces?
- How many people should get in the elevator at one time? Should people avoid elevators altogether, if they can walk easily?
- What are the screening protocols?
- What are the protocols in case of a cluster of infection?
- What is the support provided in case of infection?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has clear guidelines regarding cleaning and disinfection of surfaces in non-health settings, including identification of high touch surfaces, use of bleach/alcohol of a certain concentration for disinfection (spraying is not recommended on surfaces and neither are spraying tunnels or chambers useful), usefulness of gloves (not that helpful), and recommended practices while returning home and more.
Addressing lack of connection or feelings of isolation at work
Loneliness at work has not received much attention in the organizational behaviour literature but it has been highlighted in the current context, where people are often engaged in remote work and are lacking connection with people and have little to no avenues for socialization outside work. We conducted a research study to examine the impact of WFH on Indian employees since the lockdown, and one of the major challenges cited was the lack of human interaction. “Humans are social animals and the lack of F2F connection kills the rapport/bonding” noted one respondent.
One can have only so many informal conversations on Zoom. Loneliness at work is believed to be more situational rather than a personality trait and it can affect work performance. Sigal Barsade, Wharton Management professor and a prominent researcher in the field of emotions in organizations, recommends that this loneliness should not be seen as an individual’s personal problem by managers but as more social and situational. Any organization with a more positive emotional culture (norms and values at work) that emphasizes caring and compassion would be better prepared to face this isolation in this pandemic context. Regular check-ins using phone or video calls (but not texts) are helpful. Showing “compassion, caring, affection, and tenderness” to colleagues would foster a strong emotional culture of companionate love, even though this is not something people readily perceive to be related to work.
Several organizations have attempted to address this disconnect among employees by having employee engagement sessions like virtual gatherings, game nights, virtual happy hours, virtual book clubs, movie nights, or Workout Wednesdays or additional learning opportunities. Daily check-ins have been instituted at Sony Pictures Network India, where department heads talk to their team members daily. Companies like InMobi have provided counselling help for their employees for one-on-one conversations. But there is still a long way to go and a lot more that the organizations need to work towards to prevent burnout and anxiety amongst their employees.
One of the lessons from this unique pandemic situation has been an alteration in our perception of what individuals need at work, besides a salary and a sense of achievement of goals. The fact that we spend a large chunk of our lives at work makes it imperative that our social support at work is also strengthened.