As India continues to battle a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections, some organizations are seeking ways to provide emotional support to their employees. Many are enlisting employee assistance programs (EAPs) for the first time, while other companies that already offer such programs are encouraging employees to give them a try.
“We’re getting more demand than we can serve,” said Meeta Gangrade, chief operating and digital officer of 1to1help.net, a Bengaluru-based EAP provider. Gangrade said that companies are realizing that “people can’t function if they’re not emotionally secure, and we need to do something about it.”
COVID-19 infections in India rose dramatically in the spring of 2021, crossing more than 350,000 daily cases in late April and May. The sharp rise overwhelmed the health care system even in such large cities as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, leaving many patients struggling to find beds, medical oxygen and life-saving medicines. Many thousands of people died.
Although the number of daily infections has eased to around 100,000 a day, the emotional toll of prolonged illness and the death of loved ones lingers across the country.
“This time the predominant emotions are those of grief, loss, panic, uncertainty and fear, … all of which can lead to long-term trauma,” said Amber Alam, director of EAP & Wellness Services for Asia Pacific at Optum, a care services provider in the Bengaluru metropolitan area.
Getting Inventive to Meet Demand
EAP programs are designed to help employees resolve personal or work-based problems that may affect their performance, and these programs have existed in India for at least a decade. However, not many companies have offered EAPs in the past, citing cost as their main concern.
“The first wave of COVID changed that,” said Sushil Eapen, CEO and co-founder of EAP firm Silver Oak Health in Bengaluru. Eapen said that many HR executives and leaders realized that mental health isn’t something they can address on their own, so they’ve turned to professionals.
“Suddenly, with the latest wave of COVID cases, even small companies—with less than 100 employees—started calling,” Eapen said.
To meet the greater demand for their services, many EAPs have beefed up their network of psychologists, counselors and trainers. “We’ve onboarded 20 to 25 clients in the last two months,” Alam explained, and all of them are large Indian multinational companies with at least 5,000 employees each. That said, smaller companies are seeking help as well.
“We also have added an additional 20 percent manpower in the last 45 days,” Alam said. His firm plans to further increase its team strength by 50 percent in the coming weeks.
In addition to providing one-on-one counseling to employees, EAP providers are offering webinars for employees on topics including dealing with grief and loss, self-care, working from home, parenting, and sleep assistance. “Sometimes we get 3,000 to 4,000 people participating in a single webinar,” Eapen said.
To reach a larger number of employees quickly, some EAPs have organized group grief therapy and listening sessions, especially for employees who have lost a colleague or family member. “Some of them are not truly counseling sessions, but [the employees] just need coping techniques to deal with what’s happening,” Gangrade said.
To support blue-collar and factory workers, companies such as YourDOST, an emotional wellness platform, are offering counseling and helplines in regional Indian languages.
“The kind of webinars we do for them are very different from what we’d do for white-collar workers,” said Richa Singh, co-founder of YourDOST in Bengaluru.
In some cases, EAP counselors have proactively called employees who were infected with COVID-19 to ask how they’re doing. Typically, counselors don’t call employees to check on their mental health, as it could be seen as an intrusion.
“For COVID, it’s a different thing because it’s seen as a check-in call,” Eapen said. Such calls go a long way toward building goodwill for HR. “It gives a signal to employees that someone cares,” he said. In some of these calls, employees reveal underlying anxieties, like the stress of high health care costs and whether it might lead to bankruptcy, Eapen said.
Counseling the Caregivers
Some companies have also sought to provide emotional guidance to managers and HR officials, especially where they are the first point of contact with employees seeking medical or emotional help.
YourDOST has organized sessions for these first responders and trained them on how to support team members who are dealing with a health problem at home, Singh said. In cases where there is an adverse outcome, such as an employee losing a family member, some first-responders end up taking it personally.
“There’s a lot of guilt, and some people say, ‘Oh, probably I should have made more calls; maybe I didn’t do enough,’ ” Singh said. Even counselors need to be taken care of, as they too often have dealt with COVID-19-related issues.
Due to COVID-19, 40 percent of the counseling staff at 1to1help.net was not working in April and May, Gangrade said. The company added more than 40 counselors in May to bridge the gap. At the same time, Gangrade said they’ve been conscious of not overloading their therapists with too many grief sessions, as those can be draining.
“There is a caregiving fatigue that is settling in,” she said. To manage this, they’ve been providing their counselors with a half day off between sessions. “We’re giving them very specialized therapy around caregiver fatigue,” Gangrade added.
It remains to be seen if the recent demand for EAP services in India augurs for a fundamental shift in the way companies view EAPs. Some wellness providers think so.
Singh said that companies and HR are realizing that in order to be empathetic organizations and professionals, they must support employees’ emotional wellness, and that support must come from senior leadership.
“In the last year, I’ve seen that shift where HR has really pushed [top management] to say it cannot be just my agenda, it needs to be your agenda as well,” Singh said.
Companies also need to recognize that the benefits of these services come over the long haul. “EAPs are not a magic wand that you put in today and in one month’s time you see a return on investment,” Alam said. “It entails a shift in terms of your culture.”
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.