With many changes taking place in banks, officials face increased work pressure that has apparently led to stress and depression.

A bank official in a blue shirt sits inside his office and in the distance you can find other employees at their desks Image for representation
news Banking Sunday, April 25, 2021 - 19:42

On April 22, a woman official of the Bank of Baroda in Ernakulam went home after closing down the branch by 3.30 in the afternoon. Two days earlier, banks in the state had taken a call to reduce work hours and changed bank timings to 10 am - 2 pm, considering the scary surge in COVID-19 cases. Indian Banks’ Association sent instructions to all branches to do this and the woman at the Bank of Baroda followed them as well. She kept the bank open till 2 pm that Thursday, stayed on till half past three and went home. But she allegedly got a call from her Human Resources Manager, who questioned her decision to close, threatened her and asked her to go back to work. It was not the unions that paid her but the bank, she was reportedly told.

The incident expectedly snowballed into a row, coming soon after the death by suicide of another woman bank official. Two weeks earlier, Swapna had taken her life inside the Thokkilangadi branch of the Canara Bank in Kannur, where she had been working since September last year. A diary note later recovered by the police reportedly said that she was stressed by work pressure. The Kerala Women's Commission has registered a case against the officials who harassed the woman official at the Bank of Baroda. They said in a release that they will also be looking at other issues of women's harassment at banks in the next six months.

Read: Bank manager found dead inside office in Kerala's Kannur

Suicides of bank employees is not a new story, say officials and union activists. But Swapna’s story got a lot of media attention, and at least started a discussion on the work pressures faced by bank employees, they say.

'Not a comfortable job'

“From the outside it looks like a comfortable job – good pay, fixed work time. But people don’t know what goes on inside. The problems began in the last two decades when the whole banking system changed. Before that, banking work was all about collecting deposits and giving loans. Gradually, more and more duties got added, different businesses were incorporated and government policies were also channelled through banks. There are officers and clerical cadres in banks. While the clerks could still leave office at 5 pm, officials were suddenly needed to stay back late and come any time they were called in,” says Aneesh Kumar, president of Federal Bank Officers’ Association (FBOA) and Executive Member of All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC).

The different businesses he talks about dealt with third party products like mutual funds and insurances. Targets grew from the modest one or two goals to 30 and 35 in varied parameters. “Unrealistic targets, unregulated work hours and periodic reviews became a constant source of stress for the employees. Imagine getting a call at 10 in the morning about your target and then another at 12 pm to check where you reached. An official ends up doing numerous tasks at once – dealing with customers, meeting the targets, taking care of these other businesses and answering the managers. It could all become too much for one,” Aneesh says.

Swapna and the kids / Image courtesy - Ajith K Nanoo

Swapna’s story became all the more poignant when people saw pictures of the two little children she left behind. Her husband had already passed away after a cardiac arrest and Swapna was singlehandedly running the family. A bank employee, Ajith K Nanoo, wrote on Facebook, how Swapna, who graduated from a prestigious engineering college, could have found another job but chose banking. He says that it is the public sector banking that took her life.

Ajith, who has worked in banking for 10 years, talks about the changes in the system that drives employees into a ‘perpetual depression’.

"Without considering whether there are enough employees to do a certain work or any concern for the output, they prepare target allocations. There will be executives without any knowledge or sincerity but who only think of promotions. And there is policy-making that can either make the bank better or destroy it. Beyond all this, the real reason for this state of affairs is that the employer, that is, the (national) government, does not want us,” he writes, referring to the Union government’s alleged intention in privatising the public sector banks.

Where it all began

If you need to put a year to the beginning of these changes, it would be 2001, a year when several banks imposed mass voluntary retirement schemes. “For all these retirements, there was no fresh recruitment for the next 10 years. The new bunch of people were hired only in 2010. This caused a big gap. A whole generation got missed out and there was extreme staff shortage in this period,” says CD Josson, state secretary of All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA).

When hiring began in 2010, they took young people, and direct officers. Earlier, there were few direct officers and more clerical staff, who had to then go through years of experience before getting promoted as officers. “Now, while the new recruits brought their youthfulness into banking, they lacked the experience or exposure that clerical staff had,” Josson adds.

With the number of officials increasing – and they got quicker promotions – the work pressure also piled on. Work-life balance began to get affected. “While the unions could not put an end to the unregulated working hours yet, after a lot of fighting, they allowed second and fourth Saturdays off,” Josson says.

Yet another cause that led to the increased workload in recent years is the mergers of banks, according to CJ Nandakumar, national president of the Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI). “From 2017 onward, different banks began to merge, beginning with the State Bank of India (SBI) and its associate banks. In 2019, the experiment continued without taking into confidence the workforce in the banks. Three other banks were integrated. Two years have passed and the integration is not over yet,” he says.

When these mergers happen, banks following different software platforms are brought together. “You find software hanging, customers getting agitated, and accounts lost. Still, in 2020, 10 more banks merged into four. It is not just the platforms that mix, but different work forces and different service conditions. These separate banks would have had different work policies on promotions or transfers. In April 2020, when the lockdown happened, we had pleaded with the government to postpone the mergers until the pandemic was over. And bank officials, unfortunately, are not considered among frontline workers. So those under 45 years have not been eligible for vaccination either (despite working through all lockdowns),” Nandakumar says.

Added to all this is the issue of Non Performing Assets (NPAs) – bank loans to big parties, which are unlikely to be paid back, therefore creating huge losses for the banks.

Harassment of women employees

In a Facebook post, Muralee Thummarakudy, a disaster reduction expert, wrote about his experience with a young woman bank employee, who, after making his acquaintance, had made several insistent calls asking him to take an account with them. Finally it emerged that she would lose her job if she could not get his account – or another person’s. They had targets to meet and if they failed, they’d be harassed or lose their job.

Image for representation

Several studies, including one by Doctors Muraleedharan KC, Karunakara Moorthi and Radhika P, and others by Professor M Robinson, RM Alagu Krithika and Umesh U,  on work pressure in banks have revealed a high degree of stress among its employees. This holds especially true for women employees. "There is the whole dominance issue when women employees are blamed more than their male counterparts. There is also the culturally sanctioned notion that the woman will endure this suffering. This leads to depression. And if there is family stress added to it, the woman – like most working women – will end up playing a double role, balancing all of it together,” says psychiatrist CJ John.

He further says that while there is stress in most modern day jobs, the stress among banking officials is unreasonable and caused by socio-economic determinants. He adds, “In March-April, this will be at its peak, because it is both the end of a financial year, which means more work at the bank, as well as exams time for those with children.”

Aneesh, the FBOA president, says while solutions such as fixed working hours, policy changes and larger workforce could be brought in, it is also vital that managers show human consideration for their employees; something that will require no policy change and will not be a time-consuming processing, but only the simple act of being human.

Also read: Banking services affected as employees on 2-day strike: Five things to know
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