After over two years of getting used to working in pandemic-induced isolation and often stretching work hours — but in the comfort of one's home — employees are now in a limbo, wondering if they will be able to cope with the reality of office life. Read what workers and mental health experts have to say about the fallout of burnout and how corporates should optimise overall health.
As the COVID pandemic recedes, we are back to the ‘old normal’ — of physically working at a desk in an office with real — not avatar — peers and bosses hovering around us. But as we return to offices after getting used to the idea of working in our pyjamas from home, comes the delicate concept of mental readjustment. Employees are reporting the high stress of expectations and pressures, and ‘quiet quitting’ is a thing.
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“Working from home for almost more than two years has changed many things. There is more burnout, no sense of time, overworking because we have lost the sense of time and boundaries because of working from home. And now that we are going to the office, we are expected to show the same ‘unpaid overtime’ that was very much prevalent with remote working — with the added stress of travelling and moulding with the work place,” said 31-year-old Shivam Sinha who works as a senior level software engineer in a Hyderabad-based IT company.
Sinha believes that the concept of always going above and beyond with our work really blurred the lines during WFH. “It’s this idea that if I don’t put in the extra work then my job will be at risk,” he added.
Sinha’s recollection of the work-life imbalance is very similar to many of those who are returning to offices. The recent trends of employees engaging in quiet quitting and companies like Meesho offering 11-day 'Rest and Recharge' period has put mental health in workplaces firmly in focus.
Adjusting to the new normal
“In our society, we don't have the concept of keeping mental health as a priority so we always tend to push our limits and that results in burnout,” says Hydrerabad-based clinical psychologist Sangeetha Reddy.
Even the government of India is working on launching a national tele-mental health programme and a toll-free helpline number soon to enable wider access to mental health assistance across the country. "The pandemic has accentuated mental health problems in people of all ages,” said Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman while announcing the programme in the Union Budget 2022-23.
As the COVID-19 crisis has plagued the world for the past two years, people have struggled to do their jobs, whether in hospitals, restaurants, shops, or schools.
As a result of working from home, it has become more difficult to distinguish between one's professional and personal lives — and workers may not even realise how intertwined these two lives have become.
“Working-from-home deadlines stretch beyond logging off time, Zoom meetings have no end button and nine-hour shifts have become full-day shifts, I almost forgot the concept of logging out,” said an IT sector employee on the condition of anonymity.
Furthermore, with offices opening now, it's unclear whether people will be able to draw clearer boundaries as they settle into new hybrid work models, or if work and life are now irrevocably merging, he added.
Anirudh Raghunath, who has been working as a localisation executive for the past one-and-a-half years echoed the same emotion and said as a newbie, during the third month of his job he pushed himself to the brink to meet the deadlines to impress his seniors and managers. “It got to the point where out of 24 hours, 12 hours I was in front of my laptop,” added Raghunath.
“The pandemic has been different for different workers, there’s the difficulty of giving up habits they formed at home; for others, there’s the prospect of facing slights, insensitive comments and cliques. And for many it’s about not being able to meet the expectations that were formed while working from home,” said Reddy.
According to The Conference Board survey — of 1,300 predominantly desk workers based in the US — more than 40 percent of respondents said their mental health deteriorated during the pandemic while burnout levels increased.
It is crucial to understand that the pandemic hasn't been the same for everyone so its impact on work from experience varies from person to person. Some people had a great time working from home, and for some it was a challenge, said clinical psychologist Snehal Singh.
“A lot of people are also getting overwhelmed by the sudden introduction of group activities, workshops, webinars, etc for mental health. After the pandemic, people will take their own timing approach to adapt to the change as one size doesn't fit all, so participation in well-being activities and initiatives couldn't be made mandatory,” added Singh.
Another report by a McKinsey study of more than 2,900 people published last year mentioned that more than one-third of those who had just returned to the office said going back had negatively affected their mental health.
Learn to say ‘no’
Although times have been tough, employees have found their own way of keeping mental health on top of the agenda. Taking out time for yourself and doing one thing that breaks the daily work routine is very important, advises Reddy.
While Harihar G. Menon, a software engineer based out of Hyderabad, likes to write and sing to keep himself engaged besides work, Anirudh Raghunath drags himself to the gym every day to release all the stress.
“I've also started setting clear boundaries now, when I'm off work, it means I'm off work and I have developed a bond with my manager where I can say directly that I'm getting burnt out and I need my workload distributed,” added Raghunathan.
Meanwhile Reddy suggests employees learn to say ‘no’ when work gets too much. “It’s a really hard habit to form but it’s important to say no, other than that distributing your day, forming a to-do list every morning can help you to have some balance,” she added.
What can companies do? Lots
Company policies form a very important role in an employee's mental health as it benefits both of them. “Creating wellness solutions to help employees maintain optimal well-being at the workplace is no longer a nice-to-have but a necessity to increase business performance, employee engagement and talent retention,” said Lalitha M Shetty, AVP – HR & Talent Management, Omega Healthcare.
She added that with the call to return to work, companies can start by understanding employees' needs. Prioritising and planning for their post-pandemic mental health and having a proper organisation's return-to-work strategy is crucial at this stage.
Indian companies lose $14 billion a year due to employee absenteeism, attrition, and other factors caused by poor mental health, according to a Deloitte report published in September.
Companies in India need to start with the basic core of being empathetic towards their employees, according to Amrit Singh, Co-founder and CRO, Loop, a healthtech company. He advises companies to make available a collection of resources that provides coping skills for frequently encountered mental health symptoms and also provides access to a roster of mental health experts and professionals.
“Companies can also encourage employees to designate ‘work time,’ ‘focus time’ and ‘downtime’ to ensure a proper work and personal life balance. Respecting employee holiday time is also a good way to ensure they completely switch off from work and come back re-energised,” added Amrit.
From an employee perspective. 23-year-old Hyderabad-based Cianna Francis believes that a hybrid model of working can help employees make the transition to this normal easier.
Arjun Ranga, Managing Director, Cycle Pure Agarbathi, advises companies to establish exact health and safety policies for the workplace that prevent harassment and bullying and can help employees adjust better after two years of isolation.
Those smaller steps like offering flexibility, keeping regular checks on employees, having involved and meaningful conversations with them and educating the leadership with resources and information on mental health can really help in creating a good workplace for the employees, added Ranga.
Beyond group insurance
Even before the pandemic, employee well-being was a hot topic. Post-pandemic, employee well-being has become more important than ever, and employers must find ways to accommodate this growing need for empathy.
Experts and employees suggest that now, employee wellness is more than providing their employees with group health insurance or personal accident insurance; it's about optimising their overall health and other factors that impact it, like mental health, financial health, emotional health, stress management, work-life balance, and flexibility.
Also read: How much India spends on mental health