The Coronavirus lockdown is now in its sixth week and the going—physical, mental and financial—is getting tougher by the day. Amid the talk of gloom and doom, is there any ray of hope? TiE Delhi-NCR, in association with Times Internet, organised a webinar on ‘Health and Mental Well-Being of Your Workforce’ recently. The panel, moderated by TiE Delhi-NCR President Rajan Anandan (MD, Sequoia Capital), comprised Manish Sabharwal (Chairman of the Board of Directors, TeamLease Services Ltd), Dr Shriniket Mishra (Chief Medical Officer, Hero MotoCorp), Dr Marcus Ranney (General Manager-India, Thrive Global) and Dr Suraj Baliga (Founder, Clinikk Healthcare).
The session was attended by hundreds of start-up founders and industry professionals and focussed on subjects that concern most leaders today—how to take care of employees, how to keep up employee morale while boosting productivity, what are the mental health consequences of lockdown, how to tide over the after effects of Covid-19, how soon can it be business as usual, what sacrifices are required in these times and many more. The one-hour session by experts also addressed questions from attendees in the end.
How is the contagion affecting the workforce
The opening comments by Sabharwal was indicative of the flow of conversation: “We have hired somebody every five minutes these 17 years and now it has stopped. Just like corona is very dangerous for those with pre-existing conditions, the Indian economy has a lot of pre-existing conditions which has made handling this lockdown difficult for us.” That is also because Sabharwal works with lakhs of employees in 4,000 cities “and most of them don’t work with their minds so they can’t work from home, they work with their hands and legs… It has exposed the class system between cognitive workers and 75 per cent of the labour force.”
Speaking for Hero MotoCorp, the “world’s largest two-wheeler manufacturer”, Dr Mishra shared how his company’s commitment to the well-being of its workforce is evident with it winning the Global Healthy Workplaces award in November 2019, the only Indian company to do so.
Dr Ranney revealed Thrive’s findings from a study on how stress and anxiety levels across organisations are changing. The World Economic Forum calls this the largest psychological experiment ever conducted covering almost a third to a half of the global workforce in 70 countries, he said.
Mental health of key concern
With the honeymoon period coming to an end, he added, isolation and anxiety problems are starting to crop up. In India, the average stress score in week 1 of Lockdown 2.0 was 6.1 with 28 per cent people reporting an extreme score (of 8 and above), “by week 2 it had already risen by 13 per cent to 6.8 and those with extreme scores to 46 per cent.”
The key, agreed the leaders, was engagement. Sabharwal shared how TeamLease is trying to keep employees engaged with online learning opportunities. However, there is little that can be done for a vast majority of the labour force as “only five per cent of Indians have broadband at home. We have opened up our online university to learn online, but they don’t always have the bandwidth, connectivity or space. We are all in the same storm but we are not in the same boat.”
Dr Mishra agreed that keeping employees engaged was key as “otherwise mental health issues would creep up” and shared how his company is also making e-learning available and offering virtual consultations for employees and their families.
Decoding the lockdown and its aftermath
There are three stressors, according to Dr Ranney: “1. Job security 2. Health and well-being 3. Family and relationships, which are manifestations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, descending down the pyramid to looking after our basic needs.”
“It is the reality versus expectation mismatch that is the seeding thought to the unhappiness creeping in combined with mindsets with which we came into the lockdown. Survival is the primal instinct. Secondly, people are feeling very restricted as to what they are able to do and what they can’t do and that ultimately manifests into stress, burnout and mental health issues,” he added.
We have read about work from home, some of us have done it, but in the cultural context that we live in and with no access to household staff and other help, our homes being turned to 24/7 schools, hospitals and restaurants, have only complicated it, he added.
“The first phase was the honeymoon phase, there was a lot of excitement in the system—it was about how to migrate the workforce to WFH, so digital tools became very important. It was followed by the adoption phase: how do I solve the problem of people actually utilising the platforms. Third came engagement, and we are coming to an end of that, a lot of companies made e-learning programmes available, occupying people to utilise the space in their mind.”
“Now it is the isolation phase—physical distance leading to disconnection from teams, leaders and colleagues. The question is when does the acceptance happen, and for founders and leaders, what does the transformation, the positive out of negative look like, what are the new leadership styles, new business models, culture of business? Smart organisations are already looking at it now, there will be some degree of hybrid model that comes through. Companies like the TCS have announced that 75 per cent of the workforce will be working from home even after this perhaps,” Dr Ranney said.
Sabharwal added, “It is unmodellable right now, we can find out how the recovery will be only once the lockdown ends. We can’t give false hopes to our employees so we have tried all kinds of means but the true antidote to fear is hope but that hope better not sound like (you are) winging it, a promise that you cannot deliver.”
How leaders should behave when the going gets tough
Sabharwal had an interesting take on this. “We forgot that resilience is as important as performance. Consistently, warm is better than hot or cold. Playing Ludo is better than Snakes and Ladders—it is more laborious, you know where you are going and will eventually get there, what most people don’t realise is that there are more snakes than ladders and the snakes are longer than ladders!”
“A leader is a dealer in hope but hope is not a strategy (in these times) and it is important for all to understand that nothing destroys the credibility of a leader than bravado. John Keegan was a military historian and one of my favourite books by him is the Mask of Command. He says, the key for a leader in a crisis is to keep the mask of command but I always remind people that it is after all a mask. Be careful with the bravado. Everything that we do to murder the virus is murdering the economy and the jobs at the bottom of the pyramid.”
Hero MotoCorp has been offering health and wellness services to its 33,000 employees, mostly involved in blue collar jobs, since 2002. Changing times is seeing leaders changing strategies and their CMD has been frequently interacting with employees in townhalls lately, said Dr Mishra comparing it with the earlier average of once or twice a year.
Rajan posed the question of how leadership behaviours should change to Dr Ranney. There are two aspects of this, said the Thrive India GM—leading the self and leading others through this crisis. “Individuals make up the unit, units make the team and team makes up the vertical and organisation. In the early stage, there was a lot of activity in the system, teams were working more. The feeling was that ‘I want to keep busy because I want to distract my mind from the reality of the negativity in the world’. The problem was that we are working more but not seeing productivity gains.”
Citing from the Thrive research he shared that some 85 per cent of respondents said they were expecting negative impact out of that work. “So we are filling the time but not getting anything useful out of it. The question is that as an individual what should I do to make sure I’m looking after myself, and the message is a bit cliched but when we sit in an aircraft we are told to put on our own oxygen masks first. There is a lot of truth in that. If I can’t look after myself, my home, family and children, I’m not going to have the physical capacity or the resilience and mind space to think about what I’m going to do outside of that.”
Find ‘micro moments of fun’
Dr Baliga said in their company they were “trying to over communicate. We have 15 minutes set aside in a day where anybody can join for a (virtual) chai time. Besides this we have regular and honest communication within teams as well as at the organisation level.”
Self-care basics are important, said Dr Ranney: “At least seven hours of sleep, adding some movement in the day however limited, staying hydrated, eating well, and most importantly, looking after our mind and leaning in more in the absence of household help—lending a hand in the chores, cooking, cleaning, cleaning the car, grocery shopping, or looking after the parents. As leaders, it is not about occupying the mind space but about creating space and empathy so the team can take up more responsibility at home.”
Seconding Sabharwal’s call for candid transparent communication, Dr Ranney added that 95 per cent of polled employees are asking their leaders to engage with them more, not to come up with solutions, but to communicate and set the expectation as to what to expect through this period.
He stressed on the need to utilise the digital products for “micro moments of fun, social interactions and serendipity that used to happen in the workspace, use the same tools to replicate those aspects.” The two things employees are missing most are relationships and nature, he felt. “Being home-bound we can’t do much about the latter but we can certainly strengthen bonds and build on those human relationships.”
Allaying fears in a crisis
Answering a question from attendee Ravi Talwar on how small companies can communicate the seriousness of the situation without demoralising the workforce, Sabharwal said: “Don’t ask for sacrifices that you are not making yourself. The messenger is more important than the message, saying something matters than what is being said in a crisis. If you are asking for salary cuts, first you take the biggest salary cut, get rid of all discretionary expenditures. We are overestimating people’s push back on a macro economic and anthropological cataclysm that Covid is.”
“I spent 30 per cent of my time in public policy and it makes you recognise that the world is second best at best. As long as sacrifices are proportional, reversible and fair and if you communicate with your people about your costs structures, revenues, algorithm for distribution of pain, you will be surprised at people’s willingness to put their shoulder to the wheel,” concluded Sabharwal.