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*The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.*
According to an article in People Matters, a pre-pandemic survey revealed that 70 percent of Indian workers said they were experiencing stress at least once during the working week on a regular basis. Levels of stress amongst the Indian workforce were found to be significantly higher than the Asia-Pacific average of 60 percent. Although Indian employees felt that their employers were providing mental health support, stress levels continue to be high. During the pandemic, it is reported that many employees took on additional responsibilities, and there has been a perception that employers kept close tabs on employee absence as well as time spent at work through the use of software to help managers monitor their employees.
Pre-Pandemic Working Conditions in India
Let’s take the case of Sahil Verma, who works for a multinational bank in Mumbai, India. When a national lockdown was declared in March 2020 due to Covid-19, his employer fast-tracked their move toward digitizing all processes—from employee communication to customer transactions. Ample tech support was made available to the employees. This made the transition to working from home easier. However, what Sahil and his colleagues did not take into account was the slowly growing expectation that they would be available at all hours of the day to answer emails and fix issues. Over the course of the pandemic, employers realized they could get more done from fewer employees thanks to less time spent on commuting and longer workdays. As the pandemic eased, employers made plans to lay off employees to cut their costs.
Ananya Kumar, an architect, was used to employers behaving in an exploitative manner. Pre-pandemic, it was not uncommon for managers to assign work close to the end of the business day, and expect it to be finished on the same day. They did this, knowing full well that employees would have to stay at work way past what would be considered a reasonable time to go home. When the pandemic hit and a lockdown was declared, there initially was a sense of confusion and panic. Some architecture firms even tried to flout rules and continue work as usual with no precautions in place since most of their work could not be done remotely on computers. Eventually, they were forced to shut down business as usual and do whatever work they could from home.
How the Pandemic Affects Households in India
Sahil lived in a three-generation household. The pandemic forced multi-generational Indian families to live and survive 24-7 in close proximity to one another in small flats. Children attended school online while their parents worked by their side. This was a huge factor contributing to the overall stress of the family. Sahil lives with his parents, his wife, and his two teenage children. Sahil also had to take care of a lot of household duties besides his official work duties. This is because he worked from home while his wife worked at a government pharmacy. Sahil did not even have a desk at home or even a space to call his own. He had to manage his phone calls around his childrens’ school lectures.
Indian men and women in the worforce faced some common challenges. Indian women found some welcome changes and some new challenges unique to their gender. A news article in CNN reported that in India, educated women in middle-to-senior positions saw more doors open to them during the pandemic. This is because “flexible” work arrangements that were sometimes considered to be anathema have now become normalized. On the other hand, women found the load of housework on them go up. India is a land of cheap labor. Most middle-class homes normally have maids to cook and clean. There is a great dependence on handymen for the smallest of issues since it is not expensive to employ them regularly. The pandemic cut off those resources that were easily available otherwise. The slack, many a time, had to be picked up by women. Also, Indian culture is highly patriarchal and, in many families, women had to work on convincing their in-laws to allow their sons to do more housework than what they would normally do.
New Opportunities for Women
On the whole, the pandemic changed the way many Indian white-collar workers did their work. Employers helped their employees connect to work from home by delivering laptops and helping install better internet connectivity in their employees’ homes. Space, though, is a rare commodity in Indian homes and not much could be done to solve that issue. While employers became more “flexible” as far as the location of employees, expectations of work output and the level of surveillance by managers also went up. Women, on the one hand, were able to access opportunities that would normally be denied to them because of their need for flexibility. On the other hand, their presence at home led to other family members expecting them to do the lion’s share of the housework. In some cases, family members picked up some of the slack but that was the exception rather than the norm.
It will be interesting to see which of these cultural changes will stick around. Will employees not be expected to be at work every day? Will women start playing a bigger role in the work sector? Will employees burn out faster because of increased productivity expectations from them? Will some version of the Great Resignation play out in India? Only time will tell.
How is the pandemic affecting workplace stress where you live? Let us know down in the comments.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.
Shailaja well written & articulated. With the 3rd wave and new variant making inroads seems that it no longer is an exception and is the new normal .
Thanks for your comment, Samir. This is becoming the new normal. Sigh. The silver lining is that those of us who are fortunate to work from home are better prepared this time.