How to balance work and a pandemic

As employees report anxiety, depression and digital fatigue, companies are turning to consultants, town halls and hybrid office plans to help people cope

As employees report anxiety, depression and digital fatigue, companies are turning to consultants, town halls and hybrid office plans to help people cope

Undeniably, the pandemic has changed us. Two years of battling a variety of mental health issues ranging from stress, anxiety, insecurities and fears to grief over the loss of a loved one had a profound impact on company structures. Companies are working to support employees by changing the way they deal with mental health.

“The issues in wave one, wave two and now with Omicron were very different,” explains Piyali Maity EAP Advisor who leads customer support at 1to1help.net, one of the leading Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers in India.

She adds: “Wave one was something no one was prepared for and we’ve had a significant spike in 911 calls. We have set up a dedicated team to deal only with psychological first aid related to COVID, providing immediate support to those experiencing panic or great distress. When the second wave arrived, people experienced death and loss very closely and we did a lot more grief therapy, narrative therapy, and group therapy intervention sessions.”

Now, says Piyali, people are exhausted, tired, sleepless and have no appetite. “They reported that they felt demotivated for a while and now want to put their life in a healthy direction. There is a surge in health and wellness concerns with people looking to stay fit and gear up to return to work. EAP usage has tripled in the last two years.” Under pressure to offer support to their employees, companies have played a crucial role in putting a spotlight on mental health during the pandemic. However, it was not easy to reach them.

Worried young employee taking a moment

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

Deepa Agarwal, founder of Re-Link Consulting, a consultancy that helps organizations design mental health interventions, says: “Organizations faced massive underutilization of emotional wellbeing services prior to the pandemic. This was due to the many stigmas attached to mental health. We have used different ways to raise employee awareness: comedy, self-care videos and manager training to identify stress in team members.” She adds that they work with more than 15 organizations from different sectors – FMCG, IT, engineering, Manufacturing — and says they’ve noticed a marked shift in people’s attitudes towards mental health. “In fact, several people have started working with therapists to help them overcome past issues that they also had before the pandemic — marital and other relationship issues, self-esteem, grief, etc.,” she notes. Nimisha Das, Director HR, Kellogg South Asia, who oversees 900 employees at Kellogg and an additional 1,500 employees and partners within the Kellogg ecosystem, says: “Since we entered the pandemic, we have made the mental health of our employees a priority. Our Employee Assistance Program encourages employees and their families to seek therapy from compassionate counselors. To remove the stigma associated with mental health issues, the organization’s leadership team undertook self-counselling.”

She explained, “Usage of this EAP has doubled since the pandemic began, and she says they’ve 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 being urged not to work past business hours on Friday evenings, freeing up about 16 hours per month on employees’ calendars.

“The pandemic has also shattered the myth of productivity in remote working, so the concept of flexible working needs to become an integral part of work culture going forward,” adds Nimisha. Ashutosh Telang, chief people officer of a private equity firm, explains that these “pandemic practices” will continue: “They have become important components of the value proposition for talent. The core philosophy behind these practices is caring and caring for an organization. For the talents, this means empathy with the culture of an organization. Therefore, in addition to role and pay, talents will consider such organizational practices when choosing a career.” COVID-19 has also had an impact on the vacation structure in companies. “We encourage colleagues to take a contiguous block of leave from their annual leave balance. The intent is to help them unwind from work and refresh themselves,” says Ashustosh, adding, “Mutual trust and compassion are key principles of our culture. We have unlimited sick leave – that was before the pandemic.”

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