Indian Startups Prioritise Employee Mental Health As Second Covid Wave Takes Its Toll

Indian Startups Prioritise Employee Mental Health As Second Covid Wave Takes Its Toll


The second wave is creating more panic and distress than ever, prompting startups to take employee mental wellness seriously

Companies are taking measures to support physical and mental wellbeing with initiatives like counselling sessions, group chats and flexible work hours

Mental wellbeing is increasingly seen as an essential to the overall wellbeing and productivity of the workforce

With the rising uncertainty due to the Covid-19 second wave negatively impacting employee wellbeing, many startups are taking steps to help their workforce cope with the situation. The second wave has created a sense of panic and disorientation for the population that is very different from what was experienced in 2020 due to the severe crippling of medical infrastructure.

On May 4, India recorded over 3.57 lakh new Covid-19 cases, taking the total infections past the 2 Cr mark. With 3,449 new reported deaths, the toll is now over 2.22 lakh. In this grim situation, employees are plagued with multiple concerns ranging from health and safety to job security. Startup founders are creating funds, processes and more to handhold their workforce through these tough times while also keeping them motivated.

Counselling For Employees 

Cloud data protection unicorn Druva has taken initiatives to provide holistic mental wellness support for all India employees and their dependents through designated, professional counsellors. It has also encouraged employees to prioritise physical fitness to cope with emotional stress. This includes reimbursement for expenses related to a variety of wellness activities including subscriptions for online fitness classes, fitness trackers, sports equipment and exercise videos and games.

“We also have counselling support for expecting and new mothers, helping them deal with stress and anxiety that can happen during this phase of their life which is further amplified with them managing work, home and all the other changes in lifestyle due to pandemic,” said Ratnadeep Ray, senior director, human resources, Druva India.

Similarly, healthtech unicorn Innovaccer which has a bulk of its employee base in India had brought in experts in 2020, and initiated an Employee Assistance Program. The round-the-clock helpline connects employees to a certified therapist and helps them schedule personal sessions, all while maintaining anonymity.

Similarly, edtech soonicorn Vedantu noted that the learnings over the past year have helped enhance employee engagement and productivity metrics. This has helped the workforce change its perspective of remote working. Some specific initiatives were also taken to address the challenges around the second wave. 

“We ran a few meditation sessions across the organisation to boost positivity about work and the environment. We have an internal in-house counseling team and a wellbeing flagship program Aarohan where we conduct mediation, yoga, mental wellbeing, health wellbeing sessions for all the employees. Employees can reach out to the internal counseling team one on one for counseling,” said Babu Vittal, HR head, Vedantu.

Employee Engagement

A recurring concern for people working from home during the pandemic, is the fact they miss meeting people outside family on a regular basis for general discussions. For example, Innovaccer has an internal committee that organises fun activities and events to keep everyone connected and ensure virtual gatherings to strengthen camaraderie.

Logistics SaaS startup LogiNext noted that mindfulness sessions and virtual gatherings have been helpful in keeping employees motivated. “Virtual gatherings to talk about issues not related to work has helped inculcate a feeling of togetherness for the employees,” said a company spokesperson.

Late-stage startups and unicorns already have established HR policies and initiatives, but even early stage startups today recognise the need for strong employee wellness initiatives. The second wave has alerted companies to renew focus on these engagement initiatives as an exercise to foster employee loyalty as well. 

Inhouse Covid Helpline 

Dozens of startups have built in-house Covid assistance teams to manage the employee needs arising due to covid such as trying to arrange medicines, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds or doctor counselling for employees and their families in need. 

For instance, Payment gateway solutions provider PayU has launched an employee assistance program managed by ComPsych, a leading global provider of employee assistance services. The services that they provide include legal guidance, confidential calls with experts to deal with anxiety depression and financial resource assistant . These services are available locally and across languages. 

Moving on the similar lines, Paytm has set up a 150-member emergency response team to help Covid-affected team members and their families. The company has helped 35 people working with them (along with their families) to provide them access to oxygen concentrators and oxygen plants.

Flexible Work Timings

Early stage wealth management platform Tarrakki noted that giving flexible work timings have been useful in helping employees spend more time engaging with their families. This is particularly important when constant pressure to perform starts blurring the line between personal time and work for many employees. 

For instance, PayU has revised existing quarantine leave policy to ensure employees can unplug from work and take care of family in case of need. Any employee detected positive for Covid-19 or an employee who is a primary caregiver for an immediate family member who is affected, can utilise up to 14 days of quarantine leave. Druva also offers wellness holidays to its employee base. 

“We encourage employees to take mental health breaks whenever they feel low or down so that they can address the ongoing issues.  We also encourage our employees to step away from work for a few hours as we truly believe that it is a part of self-care in these tough times,” said Tarrakki cofounder Shaily Shah.

Online food delivery platform Swiggy has also announced similar measures to give timeouts to stressed employees like a four-day work week, which gained prominence last year. “As a mark of respect for the efforts and the month that May can be with the Covid cases escalating, we want to offer a four day work week to all of you,” Girish Menon, head of HR at Swiggy, wrote in an email to employees, according to an ET report. Employees can choose which four days of the week they would like to work. 

Taking a different approach, BYJU’S has introduced privilege leaves where it’s allowing employees to take paid leaves in case they are not able to work due to Covid-19 complications in the family.

“At BYJU’S, we understand that taking care of a sick family member can be very emotionally taxing and hence, we have announced a new paid leave policy effective April 2021 until further notice. We are providing additional COVID privilege leaves (paid leaves) for employees who are unable to perform their work due to COVID-19 complications/situations. Employees can avail these privilege leaves in case they or their immediate family are impacted,” said the company. 

Funds For Employee To Manage Cash Flow Burden 

Besides launching internal Covid helplines and assistance programs for current employees, startups are also amping up efforts to provide financial assistance to the team members in need via funds as well as advance salaries and more. 

Edtech major BYJU’S, announced an INR 20 Cr fund that has been established for Covid related expenses of employees. Restaurant aggregator Zomato announced that it would provide 100% of the deceased employee’s income for two years to the family, in addition to its non-profit initiative Feeding India. A Paytm spokesperson told Inc42 that it will continue to pay salaries to the families of deceased employees throughout the current financial year. “We will also make arrangements to offer employment opportunities to the family members of these employees,” said the Paytm spokesperson.

After an employee succumbed to Covid 19, home and utility services startups Urban Company has set up a Covid-19 Relief Fund in partnership with the charitable trust Srinidhi Foundation. The fund, named after the late employee Mohit Agrawal will provide medical assistance and bereavement support to the company’s service partners and their families amid these times.

As the population collectively experiences the trauma inflicted by the pandemic, institutional and non-institutional channels alike have taken it upon themselves to help counter the emotional impact of this struggle.

A study by published in February 2021, found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being due to the ongoing pandemic, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%).

As the pandemic wears out individuals, public health measures are exposing people to poor mental health with outcomes such as isolation and job loss. With many employers offering to reduce and share this burden, one can only hope that these initiatives can prevent negative mental health outcomes for the masses.

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