After two Vipassana courses last year, Aneesh Reddy, Co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based software-as-a-service (Saas) customer engagement firm Capillary Technologies, realised meditation's powerful impact on him. The practice de-cluttered his mind and improved his ability to focus on the present and think clearly. "I am probably at my best in terms of inner peace and mental health," says Reddy.
With stress and loneliness becoming an integral part of the Covid-19 world, Reddy wanted to promote the meditation technique within the organisation. As an experiment, in December 2020, Capillary announced an 11-day Vipassana leave. Anyone who intends to participate in a Vipassana course can avail an 11-day leave - over and above the mandated annual leave. "Annual leave get over during the yearly vacation. Anyone hardly takes off for themselves," says Reddy.
The pandemic ushered in the realisation that being healthy was beyond being physically fit - it is a state of complete physical, mental, social and financial well-being. This led companies to look at health holistically and expand their offerings. Earlier, employees' health benefits included offerings related to physical health, but now emotional and social health have become integral as well. Companies such as Kellogg India, Dalmia, Mondelez, Cisco and Infosys introduced new social and emotional health offerings in their portfolio and extended the existing ones significantly. Plain vanilla insurance plans, annual health check-ups are passe, benefits such as meditation leave, bereavement leave, mandatory day offs, me time and digital detox time have become the new normal.
"There is cognizance that stress today is a greater killer than diabetes and is the underlying cause for many physical ailments as well. Firms, too, are realising how intertwined social and emotional health is with the physical self, and that investing on physical health is a curative process whereas focusing on emotional wellbeing can be preventive," says Premkumar Seshadri, Chief Mentor, wellness services firm 1to1help, and former MD of HCL Infosystems.
As work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere takes centrestage, the concept of office has gone beyond physical premises. Health benefits have to cater to this new reality. Hence, they have to be broad, flexible and personalised, catering to the requirements of a wide variety of people. "Companies would look at employee satisfaction and employee engagement at work. Today, we have to go beyond the confines of the office space and have to be conscious of experiences outside work because employees are bringing work into their personal lives," says Seshadri.
Infosys launched more than 150 plus interventions related to employee stress, health, and overall wellness through workshops, emails, health checks, online chats, fun quizzes and focused communication campaigns. "We had a lot of activities from the engagement side that are built on the framework of the 5Cs -- Connect, Collaborate, Celebrate, Culture and Care. This is something we have always focused on because at the end of the day we are people's business, so we need to make sure we engage our people," says Richard Lobo, Executive Vice president, Head HR, Infosys.
As the lockdown began, the first thing companies did was convert their health benefits into virtual offerings. They tied up with online partners such as Stepathlon, Cure.Fit and HealthifyMe to enable fitness classes for gym or yoga since office premises were closed. They also introduced telemedicine consultations.
Health benefits were also extended beyond employees, to families and partners. Kellogg India gave insurance and medical benefits cover to not just employees and their families, but to distributors, vendors and sales people. The company also included 24x7 emergency response services through a dial-in number. "It is much clearer today that the pandemic is going to be a long haul. It is not something which is going to go away, so it is important that everyone is safe," says Nimisha Das, Director HR, Kellogg South Asia.
Also, plain vanilla insurance plans are passe and flexi-healthcare plans will gain popularity, says Dalmias Menon. For instance, earlier most insurance plans were slab-based, now employees have the option to choose according to their family size and age bracket.
Health check-ups have also entered offices like never before. They are no longer optional for employees. Dalmia Bharat, like many other companies, had the policy of conducting a mandatory health check-up at the time of joining. Now, it has a differentiated health check-up plan for employees, the health card being a part of their key result area (KRA). People under 40 get access to the company supported regular check-up plan, while those above 58 can avail an advanced executive health check-up. "Health cards had to be included alongside KRAs because we were finding that people still wouldn't get annual check-ups done," says Dalmias Menon. It helps the company determine the job role to be assigned to a person that doesn't impact or aggravate his/her condition. For instance, a person with asthma could be moved from the packaging department to perhaps the corporate office.
Mondelez India uses its annual health check-up data to curate a segmented wellness calendar for the workforce. The results of the annual health checkup are analyzed using various cuts like level, function, location etc (while keeping person-wise data confidential) - and that feeds into a segmented wellness calendar. "Just like there's a product launch calendar, we create a wellness calendar for the year," says Mahalakshmi R., Director, Human Resources, Mondelez India. For instance, at one of their sites, health check-up of employees revealed that many people had cardiac issues with high cholesterol level, obesity problems, etc. Another sales branch had people who felt they wanted emotional support. "Some calendar events are common and some differ according to the location. They vary as per locations to meet the requirements of that population or cohort," adds Mahalakshmi R.
While offerings on physical health have been extended, a significant focus is now on emotional health unlike earlier. Firms are offering systemic ways to enable employees to be in charge of their feelings and thoughts to understand how they relate to self and enable them to manage challenges better. "Earlier, Dalmia's employee wellbeing programme focused 100 per cent on physical health, perhaps just 1-2 per cent on other wellbeing programmes. Now, over 30 per cent cater to emotional health," says Ajit Menon, Group HR head at Dalmia Bharat Group.
Managing WFH, self-care, meditation, workplace ergonomics, ways to manage stress and anxiety, integrating work and life are pertinent issues that are affecting many. Companies are providing online content on these topics. Many have tied up with experts to conduct webinars on resilience and work-life integration. Kellogg India has a monthly webinar with Mindful Leadership Expert Pandit Dasa on stress management. Infosys has expert talks by professional counselors, external speakers on topics ranging from mental health at workplace to depression to managing work-life balance. "Segmentation approach is followed where our objective is to have focused sessions for the target population, ours being millennials, family members, women etc," says Infosys' Lobo. Dalmia Bharat, on the other hand, organises online Gita sessions. "These webinars help people understand that they are not alone, and the issues they are facing are not unique to them in any way and hence they shouldn't feel bogged down," says Dalmia's Menon.
Seshadri of 1to1help says it is important in today's times to get emotional health-risk assessments done along with physical ones. "If there are any issues such as sleeplessness or anxiety or those related to self-esteem, they can be addressed early on."
No wonder then that companies are rolling out programmes for mental well-being of employees, including roping in mental health service providers such as 1to1help, YourDost, mPower for delivering self-help workshops (online and offline), knowledge-sharing sessions and online counselling and therapy.
"Due to the pandemic, the discussion on mental health has come to the fore. Stress, burnout was all there even earlier, but after the pandemic there is a lot more openness around it, which is a step in the right direction," says Anupam Trehan, Director, People & Communities, India and SAARC, Cisco. The company's wellbeing strategy is focused on four pillars: physical, emotional, social and financial. "If we want our employees to be at their best each day, then they have to be at their best across all four parameters," she adds.
Hence, companies are reworking strategies to ensure they are family friendly as well.
Cisco has employee resource groups to address new realities. There's an employee network called the 'Special Children's Group' to provide support to parents with children who have special needs. Infosys has a Family Matters forum that touches aspects of parenting, relationship, emotional and psychological wellbeing of parents and children. It spans a wide range of topics from spreading awareness on autism to understanding learning style and multiple intelligences of children, food habits, stress management and Vipassana meditation.
As workplace got extended to home and beyond, FMCG major HUL introduced a policy to protect and provide relief to employees who have faced acts of physical/emotional abuse beyond the workplace, i.e. in their personal (home) or other public spaces, including the online medium. "In case, an employee foresees a threat to their physical/emotional safety or identifies as a survivor of abuse beyond the workplace, the employee can reach out to the line manager, HR business partner or functional head for support," said the company's spokesperson. Measures such as special paid leave for relevant appointments with support agencies and solicitors, access to counselling/support services, access to courses to support survivors of domestic abuse, flexible working amongst others are being provided.
Employee assistance programmes are revolving around health more than ever, but they will fall flat if employees continue to work under pressure day after day. Companies, therefore, are changing the tone. "Getting the right work-life balance appears to be an effective way to provide a lot of elements of wellbeing for the individual in order to have a good social wellbeing as well," says Krishna Raghavan, Chief People Officer, Flipkart.
Nitika Lal, Senior Manager, Central Merchandising, Flipkart, shares how her manager asked her to take a couple of days off after their annual event Big Billion Day was over. "Not only had my manager, but the vice president of my organisation also called me several times during the lockdown to ensure I was doing fine. If seniors reach out without any work agenda, as an employee it makes you feel valued," adds Lal. She adds that the employee-friendly culture is one of the reasons why she came back for her second stint at Flipkart.
Companies are also introducing leave options to help employees take time off. Flipkart recently extended its leave policy under 'COVID Care Leaves'. Employees can take up to 28 calendar days of paid leave for self care or take care of their loved ones if they are sick. Also, bereavement leave has been introduced for employees to overcome their grief in case they have lost someone close to them. "Since everyone has their own individual way of dealing with the loss of someone, there is no cap on such leave," says Flipkart's Raghavan.
Mondelez has a set of guidelines called 'remote work commitments', which guides work norms in the new remote-work normal. "While remote-work commitments were not curated under the wellness programme 'LIVE WELL', in our pulse surveys several employees shared how those guidelines of taking a break, digital detox, and drawing a 'line of control' to close the work day, have helped them in their work-life integration," says Mahalakshmi R.
Kellogg India has a 'no meeting day' on the second Thursday of every month. Also, there are no meetings after 4 pm on Fridays. "The calendars get automatically blocked so everyone observes these codes in principle," says Das.
Dalmia has started this policy of not giving leave encashment so employees avail their annual leave.
Companies have been quick to adapt to the challenging times. What remains to be seen is if these best practices percolate down the hierarchy and become a new normal for India Inc.