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How to balance work and a pandemic

With employees reporting anxiety, depression and digital fatigue, companies are using counsellors, townhalls and hybrid office schedules to help people cope

March 09, 2022 05:16 pm | Updated 05:16 pm IST

A stressed out employee being comforted by a colleague

A stressed out employee being comforted by a colleague | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Undeniably, the pandemic has changed us. Two years of battling a host of mental health concerns ranging from stress, fears, uncertainties and anxieties, to dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one, has had a powerful impact on corporate structures. Companies are working on supporting employees by changing their approach to mental health.

”The issues in wave one, wave two and now with Omicron have been very different,” explains Piyali Maity EAP counsellor, who heads the client care operations of 1to1help.net, one of India’s leading Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers.

She adds, “Wave one was something no one was prepared for and we had a marked increase in distress calls. We set up a dedicated team just to attend to COVID-related psychological first aid, and to provide immediate support to those who were experiencing panic or high distress. When Wave two hit, people experienced death and loss very closely and we did a lot more of grief therapy, narrative therapy and group therapy intervention sessions”. 

Now, Piyali says, people are exhausted, fatigued with loss of sleep and appetite. “They reported feeling demotivated for a while and now want to give a healthy direction to their life. There has been a rise in health and wellness concerns where people want to stay fit and equip themselves to return to work. EAP usage has tripled in the last two years.” Under pressure to offer support to their employees, corporates have played a pivotal role in bringing the spotlight to mental health through the pandemic. However, it has not been easy to reach out.

Worried young employee taking a moment to herself

Worried young employee taking a moment to herself | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Deepa Agarwal, founder of Re-Link Consulting, an advisory firm, that helps organisations design mental health interventions says, “Organisations faced a massive under utilisation of the emotional wellbeing services prior to the pandemic. This was due to the many stigmas attached to mental health. We used different ways to sensitise employees: comedy, self-care videos, and manager training for recognising stress in team members.”  Adding that they work with more than 15 organisations across sectors — FMCG, IT, engineering, manufacturing — she says they have noticed a definite shift in people’s attitudes to mental health. “In fact, several people have started to work with therapists to overcome past issues, which they were experiencing before the pandemic too — marital and other relationships issues, self-esteem, grief etc,” she states. Nimisha Das, director HR, Kellogg South Asia, who oversees 900 employees at Kellogg and another 1,500 associates and partners within the Kellogg ecosystem says, “From the time we entered the pandemic, we have prioritised mental health for our people. Our Employee Assistance Program encourages employees and their families to access therapy from empathetic counsellors. To drive away the stigma attached to mental health issues, the leadership team of the organisation underwent counselling sessions themselves.”

Stating that “The uptake of this EAP has doubled since the start of the pandemic, she says they also started simple initiatives like Zero Hour Thursdays, where no meetings are scheduled on the second Thursday of every month, and Free-up Fridays, where teams are urged to not work beyond business hours on Friday evenings thus freeing up about 16 hours a month on employee calendars.

“The pandemic has also busted the myth of productivity while working remotely, hence the concept of flexi working must become an integral part of work culture in the future,” adds Nimisha. Stating that these “pandemic practices” are here to stay, Ashutosh Telang, chief people officer, of a private equity firm says, “They have become key ingredients of the talent value proposition. The core philosophy behind these practices is care and concern by an organisation. To the talent, these signify empathy in an organisation’s culture. Therefore, in addition to role and pay, talent will consider such organisation practices while making career choices.” COVID-19 has also had an impact on leave structure within companies. “We are encouraging colleagues to take leave in a continuous block from their annual leave balance. The intent is to help them switch off from work and refresh themselves,” says Ashustosh, adding “Mutual trust and compassion are key principles of our culture. We have unlimited sick leave — this was in place even prior to the pandemic.”

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