Several Indian companies are coming through for their employees during the devastating second wave of COVID-19 and introducing policies that promise long-term change.
When Aparna had just gotten into the groove at her new job, she received the devastating news of her grandmother’s demise. She and her family left the city in a rush to attend the funeral. Just as her personal situation started returning to normal, the second wave came crashing – she and her family tested positive for COVID-19.
“I had just started working full-fledgedly after my prolonged leave when COVID hit. And since I was in a town where healthcare wasn’t up to the mark, it took me 2-3 days to get my results back, and I was falling more sick,” she said. But, she doesn’t recall a single moment where she felt forced or guilted into rejoining work. “[My boss and team] were accommodating and supportive. My reporting manager would check up on me and ask if there was anything she could do. They didn’t rush me.”
The current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused devastation we could never have imagined. The bleak sense of hope that prevailed during the first wave is nowhere to be seen this time. We have watched the complete breakdown of systems – healthcare, law and order, and governance have fallen apart all at once. Our timelines look grim every day, and our hearts feel heavy.
It has become impossible to ignore the toll this is taking on our work, and, the good news is that several companies are recognising it and taking action.
Reduced Working Days And Days Off
When the second wave was at its worst, The YP Foundation – a non-profit that aims to empower young people – announced 3-day work weeks for the month of May.
Their Instagram post said, “We hope this measure allows us the time, space, and bandwidth to process and manage the distressing realities of the pandemic.”
Prabhleen, the Director of Programmes at The YP Foundation, spoke to Kool Kanya about this decision. “We are a youth-led organisation, so we knew that our age group was the most severely affected. We realised that the energy to be present was really low. At that point, we needed to tell everyone that the organisation stands by them. We needed to tell them that we’re in this together.”
This decision proved to be impactful. “Somewhere, everyone acknowledged the fact that this is not expected of organisations today. This small initiative brought everyone together,” remarks Prabhleen. Many organisations in the social sector, she states, have switched to fewer work days.
Other companies tried a different approach. Feminism In India, an online media company, announced in late April that they were taking a week-long break.
While these steps are much-needed and very welcome, there’s always the task of ensuring work doesn’t get hampered. The answer is simple: Prioritising people over targets.
Speaking to Kool Kanya, Japleen Pasricha, Founder and CEO of Feminism In India, says: “Targets were not a priority at that point. For us, the concern was to inform collaborators and partners about our decision. The clients were also receptive. We’re aware of the fact that no one is capable of working at 100% capacity at the moment. It’s an unsaid thing to take it slow.”
Prabhleen concurs. She says:
This pivot in policies is pushing us to see our existing work structures differently and hope for a significant, more lasting change.
Changes In The Advertising Industry
The second wave was a wake-up call particularly for the advertising industry, which is notorious for its toxic work culture and lack of a work-life balance. The industry lost two of its well-known faces to COVID-19, which led to posts and articles calling for the entire industry to pause and reflect.
In an unrelated event, two noted advertising agencies in April – Edelman India and Lintas Live – declared 4-day work weeks for the month of May.
Shweta Sampat, Associate Vice President (HR) at MullenLowe Lintas spoke to Kool Kanya about the agency’s decision to declare a 4-day work week, which stemmed from the number of people who had either contracted the illness or were taking care of someone who had. “This comes from a space of compassion; it’s the need of the hour. It will give people time to rest, spend time with family, and relax. This time can be spent doing something other than work.”
As for work getting hampered, Shweta states that tasks are being shared and allocated across levels.
“The management has to come in to ensure that work doesn’t suffer. Say if a person is sick, their work is handled by the leader or their team members. Other than that, there’s a daily review of small jobs to check if everything is on track.”
Will this make a difference in an industry that is known for long working hours, demanding clients, and unreasonable bosses? Shweta believes that this step is a start.
“It’s the nature of the industry that we’re trying to beat. Advertising, for decades, has thrived on burning the midnight oil. It’s the crux of the industry – it’s based on discussions and exchanging ideas. But we’re evolving over time. In relativity, I feel that we’re setting an example and focusing on the wellness of our people. It won’t happen overnight, but we’re getting there.”
Leaves And Mental Health Support
It is their company’s acknowledgement of the situation and unwavering support that is helping employees during this time.
When Bhairavi* and her mother both tested positive for COVID-19, it was a matter of great stress as she was her mother’s only caregiver at the time. But regular check-ins and support from her workplace made her feel less burdened.
Soon after her diagnosis, her company announced an additional 14 days of paid leave for those infected. The company also assured her that they would help her procure medication, should she need it.
While Aparna’s workplace – a small company with less than 20 employees – does not have an established leave policy for COVID-19, there is immense flexibility regarding time off for recovery. They have also introduced a mental health leave policy, where employees are entitled to two extra leaves a month. Bhairavi’s organisation has set up one-on-one sessions with a mental health professional free of cost, with subsidised follow-up sessions.
It’s not just physical and mental health that has been flagged as an urgent matter in companies; even unpaid labour – or caregiving – has been getting its due.
Feminism In India has introduced bereavement leaves and an undefined number of leaves for COVID-19 patients as well as caregivers, along with flexible working hours where employees are allowed to work at their own pace.
The YP Foundation has also put its focus on caregivers by providing them with a 4-day leave along with flexibility in the number of hours they want to work. MullenLowe Lintas has provided monetary compensation, leaves, and assistance with medical aid for patients as well as caregivers.
Companies have been hosting mental health-related workshops, events, and informal catch-ups to keep their employees calm and motivated.
So, What’s The Verdict? Put Your Employees First
The first wave contradicted the notion that working from home wasn’t a possibility for Indian companies. The second wave has taken us a step further – it has reiterated that companies cannot ignore their employees’ well-being at the cost of profits.
“Listen to your staff. They are ready to speak. If we continue to invisibilise them, we’ll do more harm than we can anticipate right now,” says Prabhleen.
The development sector often thrives on targets and deadlines, so there is a pressing need to establish newer ways. “People cannot and will not stop working, but it’s important that they’re not working under pressure. It’s ok if people are not able to complete certain things on time. Sometimes, one should accept failures as learnings.”
Empathy and kindness – values that are sorely lacking in the masculine structures of the formal workforce – have proven to be important tools today.
Feminism In India had feminist policies in place long before the pandemic – menstrual leaves, mental health leaves, and work-from-home options to name a few. But the pandemic has given this a new meaning altogether. Japleen says:
Will the 4-day work week structure hold in the Indian scenario, where work almost always spills over to the next day? Shweta believes that even if that is the case, it’s comforting to know that one has no meetings or mandatory attendance the next day. “That little flexibility you get is important.”
What do the employees say? Listen to us, trust us, and treat us with kindness.
“Employees will have ownership towards their work if they are given flexible options,” says Aparna. Bhairavi suggests that companies should adhere to timings and refrain from messaging after work hours. She also believes that this is the time to relook at the division of labour within the organisation and balance out the workload for everyone. Acknowledging creative blocks – a common problem in creative fields – is also a huge plus.
With a crisis looming over our heads more urgently than before, the second wave has forced companies to relook at their structures and work culture. What COVID-19 policies has your organisation introduced for you? Tell us in the comments below!
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.