The paper, published in the journal Environment International, showed that as per the first global study on loss of life resultant from longer working hours, 7.45 lakh people died due to stroke and heart disease in 2016, a trend that could worsen, in the aftermath of COVID-19. The pandemic had led to a surge in Work-From-Home, and debilitating slowdowns across economies, developed and otherwise.
This particular study encompassed 194 nations and emphasised that people living in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific Region (including China, Japan, and Australia) were most vulnerable. The clincher was the statistic that said working over 55 hours a week, was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of death from ischemic heart disease, as compared to a normal 35-40 hour working week. The problem is so prevalent that the Japanese even have a term for being overworked to death – karoshi.
The implications of this study are not lost on India, which has often been showcased as a poster child for corporatisation gone wrong. With a dismal track record of employee benefits and a non-existent social security net, office-goers are often compelled to overwork themselves, well into their retirement years, to avoid falling into a debt trap. Examples of official apathy and disregard for human lives pop up via news reports frequently. Last week, a shocking report surfaced about a COVID-afflicted bank employee in Bokaro, Jharkhand. The staffer of a reputed public sector bank who was recovering from coronavirus and was on oxygen support had been denied leave and forced by officials to attend office. When the employee submitted his resignation that was also rejected, and he was in turn threatened with a salary cut. The hapless staffer, eventually ended up at his office, with his oxygen support device in tow. It was only after his family members raised a hue and cry at the bank, that he was finally granted leave.
Instances of ostracising employees for something as ordinary as rightfully earned leaves are dime a dozen. Millions of workers have been compelled to pitch in with extra hours during the pandemic, a phenomenon that many employers have worked to their own advantages, by using the argument that the extra time spent on back and forth commute to the workplace is now being translated into productive hours. The lack of recognition of remote working is also reflected in measures such as reducing the leave balance of employees, on the pretext that working from home more or less amounts to leave. One might argue that employees can always jump ship if the work routine is too taxing. However, in a scenario where salary cuts, retrenchments, and benching are the order of the day, most staffers consider themselves lucky, if they have a job in hand, and do not mind punching in extra hours.
So what is being done to put workers at ease and reduce stress levels? A few major corporates in India have embarked upon a four-day workweek to help staffers de-stress. Many firms offer their workers rest days so that they can avoid burnout in the aftermath of COVID. An interesting option that a few firms have come up with is that of a shared holiday pool, where workers can pitch in and create a leave bank, that can be used by any employee in case of an emergency, or to take time off to care for a parent, spouse, or dependant. Post the COVID crisis, it is essential that companies factor in contingencies such as health emergencies, mental healthcare, and dependent care, when drafting HR policies, and create spaces for redundancies, in the event of such health emergencies. Such initiatives could go a long way in restoring employee morale and retaining them in the long run.