Companies Step Up Support to Counter India’s Second COVID-19 Wave

By Shefali Anand May 19, 2021
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Microscopic image of the coronavirus

​As India grapples with a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections that has overwhelmed its health care system, many companies are supporting their employees with essentials ranging from oxygen cylinders to home-cooked food. 

"Things got much closer to home this time," said Sailesh Menezes, Bengaluru-based head of HR at the India unit of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), a technology products company. 

India has been reporting more than 300,000 new infections a day in recent weeks, the highest of any country in the world. Hospitals across the nation have been turning away patients due to a lack of beds, and there are shortages of medical oxygen and life-saving medicines. Unlike India's first wave, which peaked in mid-September with fewer infections, the current wave has seen many more young people, who make up a bulk of the workforce, getting infected and even being hospitalized.

Those infections have taken a toll on employees across industries, with many of them calling in sick either to recuperate, self-isolate or tend to family members. While some companies, such as HPE, have remained fully remote since 2020, others that had partly reopened their offices earlier this year have returned to remote work.

To support employees dealing with COVID-19 infections, employers are focusing their efforts on meeting those medical needs. Many large companies, including HPE, have signed agreements with third parties to provide a 24/7 helpline to aid staff members.

At smaller companies, in-house teams are fulfilling this task.

Clix Capital, an online lender headquartered in Gurgaon, drew on employees from HR and other functions to create a network of "flu managers," who serve as the first point of contact for employees needing COVID-19 assistance, said CHRO Aditya Kohli.

In recent days, the team has helped employees find hospital beds, ambulance services, blood plasma donors, oxygen concentrators and needed medicines.

Kohli said they got a call one recent evening from an employee who is working remotely from a small town in north India. The employee's father needed to be taken to a hospital emergency room, but none were available in town. The Clix team found a hospital in a nearby large city, organized an ambulance to collect the father and got him admitted by the next morning, Kohli said.

"It has been relentless over the last three weeks," he added. At one point in April, 12 percent of Clix's staff was unwell, including Kohli himself.

Similar stories have been playing out across employers of all sizes in India, with HR partners providing personalized support. "Many in the HR team have been getting calls 24/7," said Menezes, whose company employs 13,000 employees nationally and is investing in developing its own medical infrastructure. HPE is leasing facilities to make available 80 intensive-care-unit beds in the cities of Chennai and Bengaluru, complete with oxygen support, doctors and nursing support, Menezes said.

Other companies also have purchased oxygen concentrators or have aligned with medical firms that rent oxygen cylinders for use by employees and their dependents when needed.

Kissflow, a Chennai-based software company, recently held a call for all employees in order to introduce them to contacts at their insurance provider, which is maintaining a dedicated health care helpline. That call gave employees "the confidence that we have credible people dealing with this," said Abhishek Paul, head of HR at Kissflow.

Hospital Partnerships Emerge

In other initiatives, employers such as Capgemini, an IT services provider, and TATA AIA Life Insurance have aligned with hospitals and hotels to provide rooms where employees and dependents can self-isolate, since people living in small apartments may not have space to quarantine. And for those recovering at home, Capgemini is offering home-cooked meals for up to a week to infected employees and their families, according to a company statement.

In addition, some employers are taking steps to secure free vaccinations for their employees at a time when there is a vaccine shortage in the country. Capgemini said it is trying to enable on-premises vaccination services for all employees and their dependents in line with government guidelines.

Many employers also have increased employee medical insurance coverage and are offering programs to advance salaries with an extended payback time to help offset out-of-pocket expenses that employees may incur. HPE also is offering credit support for employees to pay bills at non-network hospitals to ease the financial burden, Menezes said. 

In the event an employee dies due to COVID-19, many companies say they'll pay a condolence benefit to surviving family members. At K Raheja Corp., a developer in Mumbai, the amount would equal two years of the employee's gross salary, according to a company statement.

Focus on Emotional Wellness

While COVID-19 infections will eventually subside, HR experts say the current spike in cases has led to increased anxiety and stress among employees.  

"The emotional trauma is what we have to plan for," Menezes said.

HPE offers an employee assistance program (EAP), and over the past year, they've stepped up communication with employees to encourage them to use its services. Clix Capital, which had let go of its EAP provider in December when infections were falling, restarted its services in April, Kohli said.

Kissflow recently invited a counselor to speak with employees on emotional distress and related issues, including "compassion fatigue" faced by people managers, Paul said. Managers frequently get calls from employees asking for help locating hospitals and oxygen cylinders, and if they don't get the help on time and the patient has an adverse effect, the managers don't always know how to process it. "They deal with a lot of guilt," Paul said.

To ease the mental burden for employees, most companies have relaxed their leave policies. Kissflow, for instance, is giving 10 days of paid leave over and above the annual quota of personal time off.

Managers also are being advised not to push for higher productivity at this time. "The No. 1 focus has been on the safety, security and health of our employees," Kohli said.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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