Around 500 employees working in the Information Technology and Information Technology-enabled Services (IT and ITeS) sectors in Bengaluru have been laid off following the nation lockdown, according to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. In the wake of several businesses losing their clients and the companies not driving adequate revenue, employees in the private sector are now under immense pressure as they fear losing their jobs or getting a massive pay cut. From having to accomplish difficult targets, to voluntarily overworking themselves due to desperation, employees in the corporate world are under immense stress to maintain their financial stability in order to get through the lockdown period.
TNM spoke to employees in the IT and advertising industries, who shared harrowing tales of immense stress due to the fear of pay cuts or being laid off. Overworked and with the constant threat of their jobs on the line, the lockdown has had a huge impact on the mental health of the workforce.
Layoffs have begun
Aditya*, a 37-year-old Bengaluru resident, who works as a network engineer with a US-based company, was fired from his job without any notice on Tuesday afternoon. â€śThe HR department told us that we have a global meeting on Tuesday. But it was odd that they were calling us individually. When I got on to the call, the company heads told me that their revenue had dropped drastically and they couldnâ€™t retain us. We were told that April 6 would be our last working day. They are giving us two months severance pay,â€ť Aditya said.
However, some companies have not given their employees a severance pay either. Tasneem*, who works as an account manager with an advertising company in Bengaluruâ€™s Central Business District, says that her employers had on March 31, spoken to their employees about a 35% pay cut. However, on April 5, she was asked to stop working as she was being laid off.
â€śThe clients, whose projects I was handling, had decided to pull out. Due to this, they said I could not continue working for them. Without giving any notice, they just asked me to stop working. I have a 4-year-old son. My husband works in Kolkata and I have to take care of him by myself here. How am I going to pay EMI for our house and bills for the next month without pay?â€ť Tasneem questioned.
Pay cuts and difficult targets
Akhila, a 27-year-old who works in the business development department of an IT company in Bengaluru, says that she has been given a target of bringing in two new clients every month, failing which she would be forced to resign. In addition, Akhila said employees like her, who are at junior-level and depend on their monthly salaries, have been notified of a 40% pay cut starting May 1. Akhila said the pay cut will make it hard for them to cope during the lockdown.
â€śWhen we meet our targets, our performance sheets keep getting updated. When we fail to do so, then it becomes a negative point for us. We are then considered as liabilities and my company generally tells people that if they resign, they will get a severance package. If we donâ€™t resign then weâ€™d be fired with only one monthâ€™s pay. People are being forced to resign now. With the pay cut, I am not going to be able to afford the rent for the house I live in. I have literally two weeks to find a new place. The land owner cannot be persuaded to decrease the rent either. I am planning on moving to a PG but no one is allowing people to move in now,â€ť she said.
Another employee with an advertising agency, Rubina* said that she has suffered a 35% pay cut and has been tasked with retaining existing clients and also bringing in new clients. â€śI have no idea how I am going to accomplish this. Just thinking about work every day is stressing me out,â€ť she added.
Under immense stress
Akhila said that several of her colleagues, including her, have started working on weekends and are also putting in 15 hours of work daily, hoping that their employer will not fire them. Tasneem also said that she has been working on Saturdays and Sundays in order to ensure that her clients do not pull out.
â€śI have been working non-stop. My routine everyday is just work. Because we are working from home, it means we are available to work at all times. Generally, the work hours in ad agencies is terrible. Working from home means more work,â€ť Rubina said.
She said that she has been undergoing therapy for the last one year and that she broke down a couple of days ago due to the pressure from work.
â€śGenerally in such a situation, I would have been able to ask for time off so I could cope with the attack. Now Iâ€™m scared of being labelled a slacker. I was scared to tell my teammates that I am having a breakdown. I had to work despite going through so much stress. Besides, getting medicines for anxiety is also difficult as I have to preorder it at pharmacies,â€ť she noted.
Aditya said that he has not been able to sleep since the day he was terminated from employment. Aditya has to take care of his elderly parents, who currently live in Allahabad. â€śI used to send them money every month. I used to earn more than my wife. Her salary alone will not be able to ensure that we can survive. I have not been able to do anything but think about what I would do if I have to give up my apartment. Where do we live?â€ť he questioned.
Pregnant women at the risk of losing their jobs?
Lila is a 32-year-old woman, who works as a software engineer in an IT company in Bengaluru. She has been on maternity leave and the leave period, she says, ends on May 17. She, however, is extremely worried that she may lose her job.
â€śItâ€™s the people who currently have lesser projects to handle or no active projects, who will be laid off first. My friends and relatives have all suffered pay cuts. Two of my friends have been informed that layoffs are very likely going to happen in their companies too. Iâ€™m constantly worried about how to manage. We decided to have a baby after I got a promotion last year. Now I donâ€™t know how weâ€™ll manage,â€ť she confided.
Several IT employees that TNM spoke to said that the employees with no active projects and those who are on maternity leave would be the first to get fired if there are mass layoffs. â€śThere are a lot of extra hands in big IT companies and these junior employees keep getting assigned different tasks based on the requirement. If an employee does not have a project for more than two weeks to work on, that person becomes eligible for termination. With women on maternity leave too, this happens. The company views them as a liability because they are on paid leave. Hence, they will be asked to stop coming to work altogether,â€ť an employee with an IT giant in Bengaluru said.
Mental health condition deteriorating, say experts
Speaking to TNM, Paras, a mental health counsellor with Alternative Story, said that he has been noticing an increasing trend in the number of people who are facing issues related to anxiety and depression.
â€śMore than anything, desperation is making people work more. For persons, who already suffer from mental health issues, the lockdown is probably the worst thing that happened to them. All their fears and anxieties are coming true now. Generally, for people, work is a space where they get financial security. The fear of getting fired is resulting in feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Employees are now voluntarily overworking themselves to stay on the job,â€ť Paras said.
As a counsellor, he pointed out that it is becoming extremely difficult to tell people to take time off work and prioritise their mental health. He said that there are several companies that are motivating their employees and reassuring them that there would be no pay cuts or lay offs and on the other hand, there are companies which are resorting to these measures to stay afloat.
â€śThere is a constant reminder among employees that you have to keep performing. Itâ€™s the opposite of everything for mental health. Engaging in outdoor activities is something we, as counsellors, suggest. Now, they canâ€™t do that. All their irrational fears about being good at what they do to whether they would be able to pay rent, get groceries, or being able to pay for medical bills if they fall sick, are all coming true now,â€ť he added.
He says that for those with pre-existing conditions of depression and anxiety, it has become difficult to pay for therapy due to the pay cuts and that many of the people he counsels are currently having frequent panic attacks due to feelings of financial instability.
â€śIn addition, the availability of psychiatric medicines is also a big problem. Generally these medicines are not available everywhere. During lockdown, it's doubly hard to get them. With pay cuts, it's impossible to afford them,â€ť he added.
Paras says that people who are stressed, must constantly interact with their friends and family and try talking about things that are not related to COVID-19 or work. â€śI advise people to do mundane things like play games and watch movies that are not related to epidemics. We need more helplines for mental health at government level to deal with this issue. People can also attend group therapy sessions via webinar. Interacting with others is one way to cope,â€ť he said.
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