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Has work become our ‘safety bubble’?

Professionals across the country say they are finding refuge in work to counter the downsides of the pandemic

People are escaping from a larger misery and finding comfort in a ‘smaller misery’—overworking, say experts
People are escaping from a larger misery and finding comfort in a ‘smaller misery’—overworking, say experts (Unsplash)

Anubha Majithia is a woman armed with lists. Every week she creates a “master list” that has all the big chores lined up, from work appointments to ordering groceries and paying utility bills. Every morning, she creates another list, which chalks down each chore for the day right up to earmarking an hour for mindless shows on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hotstar.

“The only way to remain sane for me during this pandemic is to have a sense of control. At the moment, my work offers me that control. And the lists allow me to bring a structure to my day,” says the 36-year-old clinical psychologist from Delhi. She stays away from social media apps, has muted WhatsApp groups and rarely watches news. “I want to keep my mind off negative news. So I have started taking on more online consultations. It’s better to help people in distress than doomscroll.”

Even as India fights another destructive wave of covid-19 while the government expands the vaccine cover to all, there is little that people want to look outside of their remote workplaces. For a lot of people the real “drug” that’s keeping them safe indoors seems to be their office work.

Take Akansha Rana, for instance. She’s a 22-year-old communications professional with a hospitality firm in Gurugram. The only break she takes from her daily work-from-home grind is when she logs off from work late in the night. “I like being engrossed in work so I can forget what’s happening outside my workstation. You can call it escapism,” says Rana, who has been working from home for over a year. A friend visited her just few days before the government announced a city-wide lockdown. A day later she had no recollection of what they spoke about. “I was checking my work mails even as I was chatting with her,” recalls Rana.

Overworking is not new. Covid-19 has made it more common.

“Work allows people to be in a bubble. To escape from the larger misery, they are finding comfort in a smaller misery—overworking. Sometimes it can be productive, but often it is counter-productive on the mental health of a person,” says Seema Hingorrany, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in Mumbai. Last week, she had to counsel a client, a Mumbai-based senior executive working with a multinational bank, to stop working. “A week into being diagnosed with covid-19, his wife messaged me, seeking intervention. He didn’t want to read or watch television, so logged on to work. He doesn’t realise that subconsciously he was taking on stress and not the other way round,” Hingorrany explains.

Workaholism during crisis

While there isn’t much research on the link between overworking and grief, a 2014 study by Melissa Clark, a psychologist from the University of Georgia, notes that workaholism is related to feeling of guilt, anxiety, anger and disappointment both at work and home. Her study was published in the Journal Of Management.

Hingorrany agrees. She says while work “may seem joyless it can offer comfort. In the past two months, she has seen a 60% increase in the number of patients complaining about workaholism. Of a daily figure of 10 clients, five complain about lack of interest in life beyond work. “It’s mostly women. They talk about numbness, a void, which only work seems to fulfill,” Hingorrany says. Most of her clients, in the age group of 24-55, are from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Work from home made its widespread entry in 2020 and started off as a joyful option that eliminated long commutes. Soon, Zoom fatigue became a new ordeal and remote working lost its charm completely. In 2021, however, most people are finding work as a sanctuary to turn to. The work-life boundaries that have blurred offer a refuge that no amount of banana breads or Dalgona coffees seem to offer. “Last year many people complained to me about webinars and never-ending Zoom calls. Now no one is talking about it. Rather they are happy it exists,” says Hingorrany.

Pankaj Khera is a case in point. The software engineer working in a multinational firm in Gurguram can’t stop checking his work mails even while on leave after testing positive for covid-19.

“I log in to check on my team and attend work calls. Perhaps it’s my insecurity due to the ongoing retrenchment across industries. At least I have a job when everything else is falling apart,” he says. The 43-year-old hasn’t availed a single leave since March 2020 and clocks close to 15 hours a day. He believes work also allows him to be a “recluse”. “I can stay away from arguments with my wife and children. I enjoy the solitude that my work offers,” Khera says.

In her research over the years, American social researcher Brene Brown has argued that when people struggle with anxiety and disconnection, they often choose working long hours, food, alcohol or other addictions (what Brown terms as “shadow comforts”) and these behaviours are essentially about seeking comfort.

Staying busy with work has become an addiction, confesses Vikram Ahuja, chairperson, Euro International School, Jodhpur. When not working, the 53-year-old entrepreneur, volunteers for covid-19 relief work.

“This is the longest vacation I have ever taken since March 2020. Only that this time around, the vacation has been around business and volunteering,” he says.

Changing work goals

The reasons for overworking may vary, but what it underlines is the changing employee behaviour in future workplaces.

“When faced with stress, we go into either the flight or the fight mode. People either want to achieve positive outcomes or avoid negative ones. Our choices can be internally driven, externally driven or a combination of both,” explains Amit K. Nandkeolyar, associate professor, organizational behaviour, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. In the flight mode, people see losses as challenges and routine tasks at workplaces “offer a helpful coping mechanism”. “When they want to fly away from the situation they detach from work,” he adds.

Blurred work-home boundaries are going to have a detrimental effect on workplaces, warn experts. “My clients are used to us being at their beck and call long after work hours are over. It will take some time to change their and our mindsets,” admits Khera.

The workplace context can shape behaviours, including workaholism, says Prof. Nandkeolyar. He puts the onus on senior executives to encourage employees to take time off from work and enforce vacation. “In a study in Wuhan, China, on employees who were returning to work after a long hiatus, study authors found that steps have to be taken to regain focus at work. If we do not take corrective actions, we might lose employees to negative aspects of workaholism,” he warns.

Majithia, as a psychologist, understands the perils of overworking. But for now, her master list has a new client whose anxieties needs to be resolved. Her own can wait for the moment.

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