An Amazon India vaccination camp for its employees in Bengaluru, June 5
Spring was in the air but she could barely smell the flowers. However hard she tried, Gehna Sawhney, senior manager, marketing and communications, Pitney Bowes, a global technology company that powers transactions, realised that she had lost the sense of smell in April this year. Like spring, the air was thick with Covid-19, and Sawhney knew instinctively what had hit her. On a hunch, she looked for an oximeter and found none in Delhi’s tony Defence Colony, where she lives with her husband and toddler. That’s when Sawhney reached out to the risk manager at Pitney Bowes’ Noida office, and within 30 minutes a kit arrived with masks, face shields, sanitisers, oximeters, and what have you. Her plummeting oxygen levels prompted her to get a check-up, and soon the couple tested positive for Covid. While they quarantined in a room for a fortnight, their two-year-old had the rest of the house under the care of a nanny. “I’ve used several yoga and meditation sessions offered by Pitney Bowes to destress, and recently, the company called a nutritionist with whom I shared my blood test. I learnt that I have high cholesterol as an after-effect of Covid. I’ll get around it,” says Sawhney, almost beaming over a video call.
Last year, Pitney Bowes launched over 50 initiatives to support its employees’ physical and mental wellbeing as the virus compelled them to work remotely. Those initiatives, such as access to global telehealth services, a non-emergency medical advice health platform for anytime, anywhere support, counselling sessions, etcetera, continue to reassure its workers that health is key to productivity. “At the height of the pandemic, Pitney Bowes mobilised resources and set up a Covid Task Force, hotline and dedicated mailbox for Covid support queriesfor all our employees and their family members,” says Ruchi Bhalla, India head (delivery centres) and vice president, human resources (Asia Pacific) at Pitney Bowes.
Sawhney’s experience is one instance of how workforce wellbeing has become a business priority after Covid, with increasing awareness of its links to performance and sustainability. Today, organisations worldwide are appointing medical executives in leadership roles to focus on employee wellbeing, as the World Economic Forum set up a cross-industry community of chief health/medical officers.
With the pandemic disrupting work-life balance and employees struggling with anxiety and physical duress, burnout is a natural outcome leading to mass resignations. The US saw as many as 11.5 million workers quitting their jobs between April and June. This is where the chief health officer (CHO) takes over the boardrooms. Veteran doctors or certified wellness professionals make the grade to build a healthy culture in the workplace—advising corporate leadership on employee wellness and relaying the latest government health protocols. It’s a far cry from yesteryears when employers limited their roles to accident coverage for workplace injuries, parental leave policy and the occasional flu vaccination. The change is now visible—from employee and workplace safety to holistic wellbeing and productivity.
Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714), an Italian physician, was the first to write about occupational diseases and their prevention though half-a-century later, the Industrial Revolution went on to covet cheap labour over all other factors of production to keep the mills of Manchester and the looms of Liverpool shipshape. That’s when Robert Marcus Owen proposed a 10-hour workday in 1810, which he repurposed to an 8-hour workday seven years later by coining the phrase “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”.
In many ways, Owen was a pioneer in workplace wellness and his idea was set in motion in 1914 by the Ford Motor Company. But employee wellness remained an afterthought until the 1950s when Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) made their presence felt in the US as companies started intervening to take stock of alcoholism and mental health issues. Today, health and wellness are priorities across India Inc.
So, when Aptachaitanya Dodlanki, learning experience designer at Amazon India, found himself challenged as his wife tested positive for Covid this year, he left it all to his company. “From availing the Covid Caretaker Leave to taking care of my wife to claiming insurance for medical expenses, it meant a lot of support for me. Over the course of the lockdown and the new work-from-home setup, many other wellness initiatives at Amazon enabled [access to] useful information and resources that helped with our individual health priorities,” says Dodlanki.
Long before the pandemic struck, Amazon had Svasthya, a dedicated wellness initiative focusing on both mental and physical wellbeing. It has evolved over the years and offers annual health check-ups, EAPs, online wellness webinars, and diet and nutrition counselling. In terms of EAP, the needle has moved from the 1950s to “managing stress, which an employee or their immediate dependents might be facing”, says an Amazon India spokesperson.
With the onset of the pandemic, the retailer ensured its employees access to remote medical assistance as well as regular online webinars on critical themes like long-term cardiovascular impact of Covid, role of nutrition in recovery and cardio exercises to build healthier lungs. It also launched Listening Circles, “a way to encourage employees to come forward and share with their peers what they were going through.” The company found that wellness sessions addressing Covid-specific challenges had a rating of over 90 per cent in terms of session satisfaction and also logged a 30 per cent increase in participation over regular sessions. Amazon India bolstered its wellness platform by bringing in financial wellness to the fold and called it Samridhi, enabling access to financial resources for employees through webinars and other online resources.
Amazon India’s approach is in line with an Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) study in 2018 on corporate wellness programmes, which argued that if implemented well, India Inc could save $20 billion by the end of 2018 by bringing down absenteeism to just 1 per cent. The paper titled “Corporate Wellness Programme: Benefits to Organisation and Economy” covered a swathe of sectors, including engineering, consumer goods, real estate, knowledge process outsourcing and media. For every rupee spent on employee wellness, employers could make a saving of `132.33 on absenteeism costs and save ` 6.62 on healthcare. It added that such programmes would also help in managing chronic and lifestyle diseases of corporate employees.
Workplace wellness was first put into practice in 1914 by the Ford Motor Company. But it remained an afterthought until the 1950s when US companies started intervening to take stock of alcoholism and mental health issues
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Companies are increasingly also focusing on the third pillar of wellness after physical and mental wellbeing: financial wellbeing. Corporate Wellness GALF (Get A Life), a wellness aggregator, for instance, has conceptualised several initiatives to make work from home less hectic. “We design an ecosystem for corporates that includes various modules for different categories of employees catering to their specific needs and requirements. This approach is holistic and does not only look at physical fitness but covers all aspects of wellbeing at large,” Amit Vasistha, founder and CEO of GALF, told online news distributor NewVoir. Financial wellness is pegged firmly along with the other pillars of wellness at GALF today. “The economic fallout of the ongoing pandemic has made it clear that employees must have at least one year of expenses as an emergency fund to handle prevalent uncertainties. Financially stable employees are much more engaged than those in precarious financial positions. The organisations that invest in employee financial wellness are more appealing places to work,” adds Amit Grover, India head (finance shared services), Avaya.
Increasingly, financial wellness is being woven into the very fabric of organisational wellbeing. Take the case of cosmetics major L’Oréal India with 1,600 employees on its rolls across 90-odd locations in India. The company takes financial wellness, one of the main pillars of its homegrown, pre-pandemic Wheel of Wellness programme, seriously. “Each of us is bound by the limited resources we have and therefore how we plan our money becomes important,” says Roshni Wadhwa, director (human resources), L’Oréal India. Formerly in the retail industry during the post-Lehman Brothers bloodbath, Wadhwa saw from close quarters how highly correlated vanishing frontline (staff at the store front) and bottomline are. “There were learnings from [retail] on how you build a workforce in terms of reskilling and other parameters so that they remain employable,” she says.
Typically, companies hire money managers, financial planners or even set up chatbots for employees to destress by freely discussing money matters—seen as an extension, in many cases, to mental wellbeing. Wadhwa would know a thing or two about mental wellbeing having dealt with a bunch of anxious management trainees who were stuck in Mumbai, the company’s headquarters, when the first lockdown was declared in 2020. One of them, in particular, was at his wit’s end. “He was from another city and was away from his family for the first time. He had a nervous breakdown after the lockdown was announced and no amount of counselling worked,” says Wadhwa. This was when the L’Oréal administration got into the act and, with special permission from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, ferried him to his home city by road along with a doctor.
Wellness is such a big pie in the company today that it is making it a part of its performance management system (PMS). The old style of looking at performance through business objectives, career development, etcetera has changed. The frequency of the PMS discussions has increased, which has resulted in a lot more two-way feedback, from the employer and the employee. “We’ve incorporated an element called “wellbeing conversations” in our PMS. That is because the organisation believes that a healthy worker brings better deliverables. So, PMS is no longer an annual affair, it is ongoing and you can have it four to six times a year. This allows a frequent touchpoint to be created between a manager and an employee. There are dedicated areas in our PMS that talk about health, work-life balance, family etcetera, which as a conversation must happen between an employee and a manager.”
Global software giant Microsoft, too, is taking the mental health of its employees seriously. “We found that more than double the number of people availed the Microsoft-enabled MS Cares counselling services during the pandemic than they did before, and there was a 70 per cent increase in downloads of self-help mental wellness resources from our internal portal,” says Ira Gupta, head of human resources at Microsoft India. The software major recently partnered with Happify to provide employees access to fun, individualised and science-based activities and games to reduce stress, deal with anxiety and improve resilience.
Again, at the height of the pandemic, edtech major BYJU’s launched the BYJU’s Let’s Talk app on World Mental Health Day (October 10th) in 2020 “through which [their] employees were able to access one-on-one online counselling from experts, 24/7, in real time”, says Pravin Prakash, chief people officer.
Additionally, employees could access counselling services in more than 20 languages, stress assessment tests and online webinars. This, coupled with the BYJU’s CEO Fund that enabled employees to cover Covid-related medical expenses for their families and themselves, ensured low stress levels for the workforce. Through the CEO Fund, each employee can apply for reimbursement of up to ` 5 lakh to cover hospitalisation costs for themselves and their families. Shabin Iqbal, business development associate at BYJU’s, is a case in point. Within five days of submitting his Covid documents, he received the entire amount.
At GSK Consumer Healthcare, one of the world’s largest consumer healthcare companies, employee wellbeing has always been core to performance, much before the pandemic came knocking. The Partner for Prevention initiatives of the company have been carefully chosen to avoid illness or detect it at an early treatable stage. “Our employees can avail vaccination/immunisation, doctor consultation, health packages, screening and smoking cessation etcetera through the Partner for Prevention programmes,” says Priyank Parakh, human resources director.
Hospitality startup OYO seems to have taken its wellness coverage beyond its own workforce. In 2020, over 200 employees came together and formed the Covid War Room across 50-plus cities to extend help and support to the OYO workforce as well as customers, patrons and even former employees. “At OYO, we strongly believe in ‘Once an OYOpreneur, always an OYOpreneur’, and so it was only natural for us to extend healthcare resources to our extended family,” explains Dinesh Ramamurthi, chief human resources officer. From procuring oxygen concentrators and cylinders to free vaccination for all stakeholders, OYO’s holistic health coverage sets the template for India Inc that creates a wider, unselfish base.