'Time for compassion': Indian tech firms help young workers in Covid trauma

Employees observe social distancing markers as they wait for entrance checks at the HCL Technologies Ltd. Jigani campus in Bengaluru, India, in May 2020. (Photo: Bloomberg)
"I lost my father to Covid, I’m very stressed because I have so many responsibilities."

"I saw so many deaths when I was in the ICU. I wake up to the sound of the ventilator beeps in the night. I don’t know why I’m alive."

"I lost my mother-in-law to Covid. I shouldn’t have argued with her all the time. I feel so guilty that I can’t sleep, I weep all the time."

This is a sampling of the cries for help from workers in today’s India. The country is going through the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreak, a tragedy exacerbated by the trauma of seeing family and friends suffer as so many other countries emerge from the pandemic. Now Indian tech companies, which support Wall Street banks and Silicon Valley giants, are trying to figure out how to address the mental-health fallout for a generation of young workers.

Vijay Laxmi has never seen anything like it. The 31-year-old is an in-house psychologist at the tech services giant HCL Technologies Ltd., the source of the testimonials. She now counsels as many as 40 employees a week, four times the number during the first Covid wave last year. She’s had to ration her time and make sessions shorter because of the overwhelming demand.

For years, her job involved coaching staff through annual reviews or soothing love-struck employees around Valentine’s Day. Now, she sees people with trauma so debilitating they’re struggling to get through the next day. In one recent case, a 30-something employee was hit with severe insomnia and anxiety after losing her mother-in-law to Covid-19. The two had squabbled constantly and the younger woman felt intense guilt over her behavior.

“Employees are gripped by fear from the suddenness and the intensity of the second Covid wave,” she said. “The shortage of ICU beds, oxygen and medical supplies only adds to the anxiety and panic.”

While India’s coronavirus outbreak has infected 29 million and left more than 350,000 dead, the effect on citizens’ mental health has spread even wider. Tech companies like HCL realize the psychological impact on workers and their families will endure beyond the pandemic’s peak.

HCL and peers like Infosys Ltd. and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. have long been at the vanguard of employee welfare in India, in part because of a philosophy that a healthy workforce tends to lead to a healthy business. Managers stress work-life balance, while in-house psychologists like Laxmi have been standard for years.

But even these companies aren’t sure how to navigate Covid’s desolation. Tens of thousands of employees who worked assiduously though the pandemic’s first wave are now reporting panic attacks, phobia, extreme mood swings and incapacity. The companies’ task is more difficult because employees are toiling through harrowing circumstances while clients in places like New York and San Francisco begin to resume normal lives.

“During the weeks when the wave climaxed, many companies estimated a 50% to 60% productivity drop,” said Ashutosh Sharma, vice president and research director at Forrester Research Inc., which studies employee productivity.

Amid fears that such issues could damage India’s $194-billion tech services industry -- the country’s most important -- companies are trying everything from more therapy and counseling apps to yoga and mindfulness sessions. They’re even coaching managers to take it easy on staff, at least for now.

“So many young people are traumatized after seeing death up close,” said Apparao V.V., chief human resources officer at HCL, whose clients include Cisco Systems Inc., Airbus SE and University of California, Berkeley. “Many don’t recognize what they’re going through.”

One relatively new treatment that’s catching on is counseling via smartphone apps, which offer sessions through chatbots or one-to-one coaching with live counselors. Google-backed Wysa, one such startup, has tripled its active users over the past year to 300,000.

“At least 50% of the workers in any company are dealing with some kind of grief,” said Jo Aggarwal, co-founder and chief executive officer of Wysa, whose AI-guided bot provides 24-hour support. “No company can bury their head in the sand after such a mass tragedy.”

The startup has increased its client base from one company pre-Covid to 30 currently. Consultant Accenture Plc, with 200,000 staff in India, and analytics provider Fractal Analytics Inc. are among those whose workers are reaching out for help with issues like insomnia, anxiety and grief.

Tata Consultancy Services, Asia’s largest outsourcer, is experimenting too. It’s conducting yoga and meditation sessions for employees, and delivering well-being nudges digitally to their desktops. It’s re-training managers to become what they call “Emotional Health first aiders,” so they’ll show more empathy and sensitivity to colleagues stricken with grief and depression.

The outsourcer Mphasis Ltd. is treating the crisis like an all-hands emergency. The firm developed its own wellness app called Reach for staff and put together a No-Panic Covid mental wellness handbook. It also set up a telephone support line with professional counselors for its 30,000 employees in May -- which now handles as many as 10 calls an hour.

Nitin Rakesh, the company’s CEO, said companies everywhere should give special consideration to the toll of the last 18 months on the human psyche.

“This is a time for all of us to be compassionate leaders,” said Rakesh. “The second wave of Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted India, making it imperative to provide timely resources and offer the maximum protection possible to all our colleagues and their families.”

Rakesh, who’s based in New York, is personally reaching out to employees every day.

There is a cultural hurdle companies need to cross as they help staff. Consulting a psychologist or a psychiatrist is often taboo in India so companies sometimes camouflage their support. Workers are given access to “life coaches,” not psychologists, and they’re measured on a “happiness index,” rather than an anxiety or depression scale.

This may be one of the draws of a smartphone app like Wysa. Employees can tap the service with anonymity; if they use an AI bot, they don’t even communicate with another human being. Yet Aggarwal, the startup’s CEO, says the collective trauma that India is going through is also changing the culture of the country. The grief, anxiety and trauma are so widespread there is more openness to treatments.

“Something is very different now,” she said. “Covid has opened the doors to workplace conversations about mental health.

There’s a generational issue too. At HCL, the median age of the workforce is 28 so many of the employees who have lost family members and are feeling overwhelmed are quite young.

IT companies will have to lead the way in India in sensitizing employers,” said Laxmi. “We have a long way to go.”



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