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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Why covid-19 lockdown turned some bosses into bullies

In India, companies haven’t really understood the concept of work from home. Bosses are calling or texting people at 9pm, and expecting an immediate response. This bully behaviour will serve a purpose only in the short term. You need to respect boundaries to build a happy workplace

Sakshi Gupta was planning to ask her manager at a multinational company if she could take a few days off last Thursday because she’d worked without a break since the end of March. Just when she’d gathered enough courage to ask for leave, her boss sent an email asking for more presentations and paperwork for three clients.

“I broke down looking at it. My company laid off some of my teammates at the beginning of the lockdown, so I’ve been working seven days a week since. There’s so much pressure to perform, and the fear of losing my job. And then there’s my boss who is always telling me to do more. I’m exhausted," says Gupta, 26, who lives alone in Delhi.

Many of those who work from home have been complaining about stress and long hours. They want to get off the hamster wheel but can’t because the economy is in a bad shape, they fear a pink slip, and their bosses or managers refuse to respect work-life boundaries.

In India, companies haven’t really understood the concept of work from home, says Amit K. Nandkeolyar, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. “Bosses are calling or texting people at 9pm, and expecting an immediate response. This bully behaviour will serve a purpose only in the short term. You need to respect boundaries to build a happy workplace," he suggests. “Indians are among the most hardworking people, and in this economy they won’t refuse work but that doesn’t mean you exploit them and hamper their mental health. It is unethical."

Nandkeolyar point outs how the age-old pressure tactic of “do it right or you lose" is being used extensively at present to get more out of people. “Employees are understandably vulnerable right now. They are ready to work efficiently 24x7 because they are scared. They have to pay EMIs, school fees, rent. Organizations should have come up with creative solutions to deal with the present crisis rather than downsizing and putting all the pressure on the existing workers."

One reason bosses are being such bullies is because they are themselves stressed. “This current experience is something no one has ever witnessed. Businesses, especially the brick-and-mortar ones, are shocked," explains Shalini Lal, co-founder of Unqbe, a think tank and advisory firm focused on the future of work. “They need a creative response to sail through this but since they are so stressed, they are falling back on time-tested patterns, like pushing people to work extra, which isn’t exactly effective," she adds.

Nikhil Shahane, chief operating officer of 21n78e Creative Labs, says he himself works non-stop from home and answers client calls at odd hours because he doesn’t want to cost the company a project. He also says he’s taken the responsibility to personally monitor all the work that was earlier looked after by other teams.

“Along with my own work, I now also make sure that deadlines are being met by everyone, making sure that the machinery is working. While we have invested in proprietary internal workflow tools to manage work, there’s still the uncertainty of the times that we have to deal with," says Shahane.

This desire for control in a time of uncertainty is leading both bosses and their teams to try and overreach. That’s why Mumbai-based Tarini G. works on weekends too. Even if she finishes what’s on her desk, she starts on new projects to stay a few steps ahead. “I feel I can’t ask for a day off. In project-based jobs, the contract ends if the project is not renewed. We keep working because we don’t know if the funding organization will continue with us because money is so short everywhere," says Tarini, 32, who works with a non-profit organization.

The fear of losing a contract or a job is a big cause of the growing mental distress, says Nandkeolyar.

“There’s just so much unpredictability that people believe if they don’t have a job in hand they might not get one for a long time. This cycle of working too much, overcompensating plus wondering if you will have a job the next morning is affecting people. What’s worrying is that people are silently going through this because they need job security," he adds.

Praful Nangia, managing partner at Talent North, a talent solutions provider, offers another explanation for people overworking: some people simply like to stay busy. “Some like their calendars to be filled. They are working more than normal to show themselves that they were productive through the lockdown. Of course, some organizations also want a lot of control," says Nangia.

This control by companies of how we spend our days might translate into more productivity but it’s coming at the cost of employee health, says Nandkeolyar. “There will come a day when the employee will realize that it’s just not worth it, and quit. Let’s not forget that solid companies are built with innovation and compassion, not with bullying."

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