As the Deputy Chief Human Resources Officer at VFS Global, Nirbhik is responsible for streamlining the HR function, ensuring greater operational synergies between the HR function across all regions and support the CHRO in strategic HR matters and policy development. He is based in the organization’s Global Support Office in Dubai. A Human Resources professional with 29 years of experience comprising 16 years of leading the HR function globally for renowned service sector companies, including Hospitality (hotels) and Financial Services, Nirbhik brings with him expertise in several key HR functional areas such as Talent Management, Succession Planning, Learning and Development, Performance Management, and Coaching and Mentoring. He has led large HR teams across multiple locations and been responsible for managing substantial HR budgets.
“I just can’t seem to log off. I am working longer than ever before, which is putting a huge strain on my personal life. In turn, I am distracted in the Zoom meetings as there is no break or shift from the stressful environment I am in 24/7. I feel I am getting anxious and don’t feel like I am on top of things and most importantly happy, like I used to be.”
This chat with a colleague who chose to confide in me, lingered on long after the conversation was over and made me think harder about the new realities of working. As the pandemic intensified, millions of professionals had to suddenly embrace full time remote working. While it did bring with its certain advantages of reduction of commute times and better productivity, the hours of digital meetings made maintaining a work-life balance more difficult than it already was.
Seeking the right balance beween the job, household chores, childcare and, in some cases financial uncertainty, were issues of major concern even before the pandemic. However, in the last year and a half, mental health to come to the centre of most ‘employee wellbeing’ conversations. The recent LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index highlighted balancing work with personal needs, ‘not making enough money’ and ‘slow career advancement (25%) as the biggest factors affecting the mental health of employees in the country.
Burnout, anxiety, and a feeling of isolation, if not handled at the right time in the right manner can snowball into more serious, long-term consequences that are harmful not just to the employee but organisations as well.
What causes mental health problems?
When you live and work in the same place, it’s natural to feel like your life is playing on a loop. Most remote workers follow a routine that involves waking up, working and repeating this everyday, while being confined to the four walls of our homes. Such a lifestyle coupled with pertinent issues like job security, losing a loved one and being completely isolated, has only intensified mental health struggles.
Another factor that has contributed to employee mental health concerns is the blurring personal and professional lives, resulting in employee burnout. According to Microsoft’s October 2020 Work Trend Index survey, nearly one-third of Indian workers said that they have experienced increasing burnout during the critical months of the lockdown. Burnouts are expected outcomes of untimely work hours. The idea of working from ‘home’ made employees feel like they should be working longer hours to prove that they can be effective from the comfort and luxury of their homes with no time speant on commuting anymore. With hybrid work models becoming a part of the new normal, it has become imperative that organizations have a more holistic approach to employee wellness, and not evaluate corporate wellness programs solely by their return on investment (ROI). It is important for businesses and leaders to delve deeper into the changing paradigm of looking at workforce productivity and create a resilient workplace, one that places mental health at the core of it.
What can organizations do?
The very first step in dealing with the stress of working from home is to remind employees that they are not alone in this situation. It is important to remember that human capital after all is ‘human’ first and requires care and support to thrive.
A recent analysis by Deloitte on the stock performance of the S&P 500 Index companies found that the companies that scored high on health and wellness, appreciated 135 percent compared to its peers.
While corporate organisations are increasingly becoming aware of the need for safeguarding their employees’ mental health needs, driving a change will be possible only with the support and participation of top management.
At an organisational level, firms should adopt a company-wide mental health strategy to raise awareness and work towards reducing stigma surrounding mental health discussions. Employers must assist their employees both in the short term (such as return to work) and in long-term situations. HR teams and function heads should encourage free communication, allow longer breaks and come up with creative ways to hold engaging meetings and events. The efficient use of technology can also help understand employee health better. For instance, using mind-mapping tools to assist their employees manage tasks and communicate more effectively.
A good example can be seen by GitLab – a firm based out of San Francisco that encourages their remote-only employees to take ‘virtual coffee breaks’ during work hours to stimulate collaboration and create a more comfortable work atmosphere. Similarly VFS Global, the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide, organised Wellness Wednesdays for its workforce in Europe, an initiative wherein employees between the month of March to June received fortnightly newsletters with information and emphasis on stress management, hydration, sleep, mindfulness, self-care, walking, health & safety, and mental health. This was supported with an activity called Walky Talky, where employees went on a 15-minute walk with a colleague or friend to check on each other.
In a nutshell…
The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways impacted mental health but it also gives organizations the opportunity to redefine success of their human capital intiatives, and along with it, the way employees work and live. Employees are no longer associating long work hours with success and it’s important that organizations acknowledge the situation at hand and work towards making an industry-wide shift that places employees and their wellbeing at the center of it.