Working from home is indeed stressful and organisations all over the world are finally acknowledging it. Earlier this year, Citibank had declared that it would not conduct video meetings on Fridays and encouraged its employees to take time off from work to recuperate from WFH-related stress. The dating app, Bumble, also gave its employees a week-long paid leave to destress. More recently, sportswear brand, Nike, has announced a week-long mental health break for its employees and the advice clearly is to de-stress and recuperate.
Back in India also, chatter around mental health breaks is beginning to gather steam. E-commerce start-up, Meesho, has recently announced a ‘reset and recharge’ policy, as part of which all its employees would plug-off from work for 10 days, between November 4 and November 14. The Jaipur-headquartered tech startup, Verve Logic, recently offered an extended weekend to its employees to binge-watch the finale series of the popular Netflix show, Money Heist. Human Resources practitioners and psychologists firmly believe that these ‘reset and recharge’ breaks are indeed the need of the hour.
Nazneen Chunawala, psychologist and lead, Outreach & Content, MPower Outreach, says that she gets scores of complaints every day from people working in the corporate sector about their inability to switch off from work, which is leading to a feeling of ‘burn-out’. “People are complaining that they are unable to work with focus. They are complaining about poor decision-making, feeling of isolation, as they are unable to make time to bond with their family as well as with their colleagues at work. There is virtual and mental fatigue, disturbed sleep and burnout.” This, she says, has also resulted in increased cases of panic attacks, depression and substance use.
When the country first went into lockdown in March last year, a lot of companies reported about their employee contribution and commitment increasing substantially. But as months passed by, fatigue set in, and WFH for many of them proved to be counter-productive. Rajneesh Singh, Managing Partner, SimplyHR, says that leaves due to mental health issues are on rise. “Absenteeism is increasing. At a deeper level, it is leading to attrition where employees are unable to cope and are just wanting to take a break. All these are unplanned activities which are impacting business performance. Finding proper replacements is a challenge as there is a dearth of good talent. Open positions remain unfilled for a long duration which means the existing team has to stretch out. This has led to a fall in productivity.”
In fact, Ashish Kumar Singh, CHRO, Meesho, says that despite doing frequent counselling sessions with their employees on how to balance their work and personal life, the stress levels were extremely high. “We made it a rule to stop using WhatsApp, as that had turned out to be the most intrusive. It has enabled us to invade each other’s life at any hour of the day.”
Prolonged work hours are also a major contributor to high levels of attrition. Singh says that the biggest challenge for most tech companies today is to attract the right kind of talent. “Attrition rates are 2.5 times higher than what it was in the pre-pandemic era. When it comes to hiring also, if 100 people are offered jobs, 30% are declining the offer as they are not sure if they will be able to handle the WFH pressures. The decline ratio in the tech industry has gone up dramatically.”
Though the attrition rate at Meesho, claims Singh, is under control, given the current situation the company had to come up with policies such as ‘reset and recharge’ in order to woo its existing employees as well as incoming talent. “Ours is a talent-driven market. Whoever wins the talent war, wins the innovation and business war.”
Aditya Mishra, CEO, CIEL HR, agrees that companies have to offer frequent time-offs to their employees as a retention tool. “Companies have seen positive results in terms of financial performance but people's performance has taken a beating. Inducting the new joiners has been a challenge. Social capital has been slowly eroding and the glue that binds people together is getting weaker; attrition is picking up. This is a challenge for the company’s long-term performance. Unless we fix this, companies will see challenges in expanding their business and maintaining customer satisfaction.”
Will a four-day week be the ideal solution for reducing stress levels and being able to attract good quality talent? Not really. A large part of India Inc. is still used to working six days a week and suddenly moving to a four-day week sounds unrealistic. “We hear about such practices in developed countries, especially the Scandinavian countries. A business can afford a four-day working only if it has proper staffing and is on a high trajectory of growth where it can afford to give longer weekly breaks. On another note, a longer weekly break might also impact productivity since it will take some time for an employee to restart work after a break of three days,” explains Singh of SimplyHR.
The need of the hour says Mishra of CIEL is not so much a four-day working week, but a sustained employee well-being policy. “In my view, even announcing a week-long off from work is a temporary measure which will only create short-term euphoria. Leaders need to build strong fundamentals in their organisations.”