How India Inc. is helping a burnt-out workforce amid pandemic

India Inc. is going all out to help a stressed and burnt-out workforce tide over the health crisis

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

I strongly believe that real assets of Borosil are not reflected on our balance sheet at all. We need to protect these assets in whatever way we can." Borosil Ltd Managing Director Shreevar Kheruka wrote this on his LinkedIn page on April 30. Mourning the death of four employees due to Covid-19, he announced payment of two years salary to families of employees who lose their life to the deadly disease. The company will also fund their childrens education till graduation.

Last month, Britannia Industries' MD Varun Berry made it clear after the declaration of the companys annual financial results that lives of employees are more important than bottom line. Berry said the company is asking sales staff to avoid stepping out even if distribution is affected in the short term.

Borosil and Britannia are not alone in focusing on employee well-being during the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. A very large chunk of India Inc. has rushed to support its employees as the disease affects more younger people compared to the first wave last year when senior citizens with co-morbidities were the hardest hit. The virus has claimed 2.79 lakh lives in India so far.

If mental health became the focus of worklife in the first wave of the pandemic, this time, the severity of the spread of the virus has forced companies to come up with multi-pronged approaches to help employees - from financial assistance to extra leaves to organising hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and plasma donors, apart from vaccination drives.

Solatium For Kin

In addition to dealing with the grief of losing a loved one, families suffer loss of income if their earning member dies. Several companies are promising to pay salary to deceased employees' families for a fixed period of time.

"We are giving one year's salary to the bereaved family and sponsoring education of their children for five years," says V.V. Apparao, CHRO, HCL Technologies.

Multinational IT major Capgemini, which has set up a Rs 200 crore Benevolent Fund for medical emergencies of employees, has also announced an ex-gratia fund in addition to group term life insurance benefits.

Food delivery startup Zomato, which is heading for an IPO on the back of increased online ordering fuelled by the pandemic, says it will pay families of deceased employees 100 per cent income for two years. The app's delivery personnel have been recognised as essential service providers.

More Money In Employee Hands

The fortunate others who recover after the infection still have to pay for a lot of expenses such as doctor consultations, tests, medicines and hospital bills.

Cosmetics maker L'Oreal India says it has offered a one-time Covid insurance for those who test positive to cover medication, home care and other costs. It has also enhanced the group mediclaim policy cover. "Employees can also avail an interest-free medical loan for self and family. For our field force, we have field safety allowance and travel safety allowance. We have also extended Covid insurance to our extended field ecosystem of distributor sales reps," says Roshni Wadhwa, Director (Human Resources), L' Oreal India.

"Employees can avail salary advance for Covid-19 treatment for themselves, spouse, children and dependant siblings, parents or parents-in-laws," says Venkat Neelakantan, Vice President, Capgemini.

HCL says it is extending its earlier policy of hiring the spouse of the deceased, if he or she has the requisite skills, in Covid-related deaths too. "Or, in instances where the spouse is interested, we train them for two-three months and then onboard them," says Apparao.

Hospital Tie-Ups

Apart from giving employees extra cash, organisations are also tying up with hospitals and hotels (for quarantine facilities).

"We have collaborated with Fortis Healthcare to convert our Noida Special Economic Zone facility into a Covid care centre and are extending this initiative at other locations to provide medical help to employees, their families and society at large," says Harshvendra Soin, Global Chief People Officer, Tech Mahindra.

Apparao says HCL is investing an undisclosed sum in a few hospitals in Delhi-NCR, Chennai and Bengaluru to increase critical care bed capacity, oxygen plants and ventilator-fitted ambulances. "Finding hospital beds for employees who reached out to us was difficult. Our success rate used to be 30-40 per cent. But with our recent partnerships, we are able to find beds in NCR and a couple of other locations. The hospitals we invested in have increased their capacities and are able to accommodate our people."

L'Oreal has also tied up with hospitals to offer home-care services and access to Covid care centres in mild cases.

Neelakantan says Capgemini has been able to provide oxygen cylinders to all eligible employees and their dependent family members in Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and NCR. "We are extending this support in other cities as well. Additionally, our employees residing as paying guests requiring emergency accommodation can use our guesthouse facility in Mumbai and Pune."

Extra Time Off

A large part of the workforce has been working from home (WFH) for nearly 14 months now. With complaints that WFH is blurring the lines between work and leisure time, and the added stress of dealing with Covid care-related tasks, organisations are offering employees extra time off.

Food delivery startup Swiggy announced a four-day work week in May for its entire core staff. "Please utilise the extra day to take rest, take care of yourself, take care of your family and friends," HR head Girish Menon wrote to employees.

Tata Motors and Tech Mahindra are among the several companies which have announced a special Covid leave policy for those testing positive, with the Tata Group firm spokesperson saying they are offering a special quarantine leave for 14 days. HCL has asked leaders to reassess the workload of employees. "In some cases, we encouraged people to tell clients not to expect the same level of service as not everyone is keeping well."

With the virus throwing every aspect of life out of gear, even something as simple as providing employees healthy meals can free up their time and reduce stress. A number of companies have tied up with food providers for complementary and subscription-based meal services. For instance, Neelakantan says Capgemini employees and their families affected by Covid-19 can get three full meals for a week under their Project GoodFood.

Meanwhile, with the government opening up vaccination for those in the 18-45 age bracket, which includes a large chunk of the workforce, several companies have announced drives to inoculate employees. But the initiative has not really taken off due to shortage of vaccines, say companies.

Mental Health Focus Continues

Companies have also been organising tele-consultations with doctors, thermometers, oximeters and providing contacts for RT-PCR testing. A category manager in a fashion retail firm who prefers to remain anonymous says almost her entire family fell sick due to Covid and the free tele-consultations offered by her employer were a great help. She says she didn't require hospitalisation, but when she reached out to her employer, they said they would try to organise a hospital bed it if they could.

Several companies are also providing mental health resources announced last year. "Facebook LIVE sessions are being led by plant management teams and union leaders for all blue-collar and white-collar workers. During these sessions, experts like psychologists, counsellors, dieticians and nutritionists are invited to interact with employees and their families," says a Tata Motors spokesperson.

To be sure, a few employees say they are not covered by such policies because they have been hired on contract. Several others say they prefer to rely on their own resources instead of turning to their employer. Still others say the firms, especially in badly hit sectors, reimbursed a few medical bills, but there are not many stand-out policies for them given that the company is not doing too well financially because of the pandemic.

Brand Image On Mind

The companies are also expecting some gains for their brand image. Business and brand strategy specialist Harish Bijoor says this is likely to play a role in retention of talent once the situation improves. "The pandemic is going to push back businesses one step. The hope is that the way corporate enterprises have managed their employees during the pandemic will make these businesses walk two steps forward after being pushed a step backward. To an extent, these measures are an investment."

There is also a thin line between chest thumping over every simple measure and announcing initiatives with genuine care for employees. "The moment a company says I'm doing this, the sanctity and purity of the gesture comes into question to an extent. Not overtly but subliminally. It is important not to overdo that. Fundamentally, we are in a human-to-human business. My advice to brands is think human, be human, project human," says Bijoor.