COVID- 19 is a real-life masterclass in how to build in a VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity] world, said a friend recently and I agree. The last four months have been a rude shock to humanity- a singularly disruptive event that has upended all things familiar and traditional. It has been a unifying force, reminding us that ‘people safety’ takes top priority across businesses globally.

And while remote working has always found its place as a best practice in many organisations in the past, the scale at which this has been adopted and implemented by organisations overnight, with the activation of lockdown, has been unprecedented. The euphoria in the early days of lockdown, of not having to spend long wasteful hours battling traffic and pollution, was short-lived. The law of diminishing marginal returns took over very soon with the excitement waning down with the monotony of the predictable routines. There is an ominous fatigue factor that is gradually seeping into our lives- fatigue defined by the sameness of every day, juggling between home chores, child/ elder care responsibilities and intense virtual meetings, and stretched calendar days with a ballistic intent to prove the productivity quotient on a high.

Not to dismiss the blurring of boundaries between the home and office, with an implicit expectation of being ‘available’ across time zones, that is the cause for burn-out setting in. The lack of physical spaces has also been a harsh reality for many, to reconcile with, as they were compelled to shift and adjust to work from home, as a non-negotiable option. The social and professional identity of people that were held sacrosanct in the two distinct spaces has seen an infusion that has been difficult to cope with, emotionally, especially with the older workforce that has been through years of conditioning in well- defined and structured workspaces.

A large section of the young workforce are also migrants who have ventured to big cities in pursuit of their dreams. Many of them reside under constrained budgets, sharing accommodation and facilities in rented homes. WFH has been a bitter experience for many such employees, stranded within the four walls of their shared spaces, away from their families. In India, there exists a primordial need to be with families to bond with and alleviate stress, which may have been missing out on through the period of isolation.

Managers globally have struggled with the pace of disruption and therefore the management of their teams working remotely. One of the most daunting tasks was imbibing and then facilitating a change in mindset towards virtual workspaces, abandoning the conventional belief that offices are essential to work and map productivity. The pandemic punctuated reset has demanded a radical rethink as leaders find themselves precariously perched at the threshold of the ‘future workplace’, with all eyes scanning their every move. These are defining moments when they risk exposure of their vulnerable self while being unsure of walking the uncharted path.

A potpourri of emotions has been precipitating through the lives, with no clarity on how much longer one needs to stay at home, maintaining social distance. With a steer towards the virtual ways of meeting and collaborating, employees are left bereft of emotional connection. Satya Nadella, in a recent interview, was openly vocal about admitting that work from home, in the long term, can be damaging for the mental health of employees, and there is testimony to his statement in the statistics quoted ahead. Employees have been going through an ongoing dilemma of what or how much is enough for maintaining job security- what actions may be conjured as a dereliction of duty and the grueling need for psychological safety in the work environment. Most employees are in survival mode, meaning they are working on getting through the day but are unable to foresee or internally process what has happened to them physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Many are experiencing burnout, particularly those working in essential services, healthcare services while there is the other segment of staff from the manufacturing, hospitality sector that has been impacted by job losses. The longevity of these arduous times is a true test of the emotional tenacity among people sans levels, grades, and genders.

And here germinates a profusion of ‘mental health’ issues. Currently, an estimated 2.6 billion people – one-third of the world’s population – are living under some kind of lockdown or quarantine. This is arguably the largest psychological experiment ever conducted. The Indian Psychiatric Society reported that mental health concerns have escalated by an alarming 20%, with an unprecedented rise in psycho-social concerns like family issues, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. Stress and panic attacks have increased by over 35%. Those with depression or anxiety disorders in remission are seeing a relapse. People are understandably in a perpetuated state of panic, which has also led to suicides.

Organisations are putting their best foot forward to safeguard employee interests at all times, implementing initiatives around policy creation, communication, training resources, and early-intervention treatment. However, the bigger reality around ‘Mental Health’ is also the acute lack of awareness on the subject and the societal stigma circumventing the issue. Revealing issues would make them vulnerable and isolated. It would mean risking their reputation and being viewed as abnormal and unfit for the job. Employers have an essential role to play in supporting employees with education about mental health and creating forums for an open dialogue. Providing resources that promote awareness can help create an accessible and positive workplace, one that fosters engagement and attracts talent.

This is a time when employees and leaders alike need a voice of hope, reassurance, and care to support their mental well-being. Employee health and wellbeing has become a top priority during this time and will continue to remain a primary focus for organisations. Few organisations have made dedicated efforts to continue to foster inclusion and collaboration, through open dialogue between leaders and teams.

At Sannam S4, we have bi-weekly global check-ins by the executive leadership team, to provide an update to all staff on developments and new propositions that are brewing.  Our CEO, Adrian Mutton has individually reached out to about 186 of our staff, over the last three months and engaged with each one, to understand their motivations and limitations through these restrictive times, to help cultivate a culture of free-flowing conversations throughout the organisation. Our Human Capital Team has been at the forefront, providing help desk facilitation for all the people-centric questions arising through the changing work dynamics.  We have been organising ‘Yoga’ sessions for our staff through the lockdown period, to alleviate the stress levels. We have also launched virtual support on mental and physical health, that allows individuals to come forward to share and discuss their feelings, apprehensions, anxieties, etc, in a safe space, sans prejudices. ‘Coffee with Sannam’ is a popular initiative for our staff to connect with colleagues in an informal set- up. Our motto is to constantly improvise and continue to stay connected with our communities.

Sustainable wellness programs are an integral part of boardroom conversations, addressing the intrinsic need to design all transformation with the people’s agenda at the core. All narratives which send out signals of hope, positivity, the human touch will be appreciated and remembered as brand recall, for organisations that have impacted lives positively. The vaccine might still look like a faraway dream, but compassion, humaneness, empathy are here to stay.

Contributor: Susmita Sen, Head of HR Advisory, Sannam S4

Stats: Indian Psychiatric Society

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