Maintaining positivity in Covid times (Column: Spy’s Eye)

A lot is being written about the destabilising impact of the Corona pandemic and the restrictions mandated by it, on the society and in particular on the working people who were required to operate from home in an environment of uncertainty of employment. The ‘fear of the unknown’ created by this health crisis is the overriding emotion that had the potential of damaging everybody’s sense of rationality and the compulsion of shifting the workplace away from colleagues and friends to a lone corner of one’s residence, added to the stress and anxieties of the concerned individual. Presuming that the employer had not taken to an exploitative approach by reducing the perks and extending the ‘work hours’, the employee still carried the burden of having to take care of the family and children against the new vulnerabilities amidst curbs on normal movements.

The impact is seen across the spectrum of work — from those in ‘decision-making’ roles to others focused on ‘compliance’. In normal times, the option of occasionally working from home would be fun but doing it in an environ of confinement where no physical meetings were allowed for comparing notes with others, could easily become disheartening and even self-diminishing. And yet ways and means have to be found to retain a psyche of hope and success in braving through the uncertain spell. One has to convince oneself that ‘this too will pass’ and that the shutdown of many activities of the past called for a rehash of the day’s routine to keep up one’s sense of purpose and maintain productivity through innovative course corrections.

Even in this difficult situation it is possible to open up many routes of positive thinking. First of all, the ‘fear of the unknown’ that is taking a heavy toll of self-confidence among the people can be mitigated by grasping the essence of what is ‘known’ about the risk from this virus. People can show herd mentality and take comfort in numbers — not realising that being away from a crowd is part of the solution. For lack of scientific temper even the educated lot would be seen carrying a quality mask but going out without covering their nose with it — missing the point that the mask was a protection against the floating virus aerosols that could enter the body through the mouth or nose. That washing hands on entering the house was meant to safeguard against possible contact with a contaminated surface outside, is also not fully understood. As a noted philosopher once said, ‘understanding is the end of the problem’. Right messaging about the pandemic was therefore vital and in the face of multiplicity of views and findings aired everyday by the experts, it would be of great help if the Centre issued a daily national bulletin — from the office of the Union Home Secretary who was in charge of disaster management — giving an update on the pandemic and repeating the precautionary measures that citizens were required to follow on a running basis.

There is no reason why working from home should be allowed to generate a totally negative thinking. The arrangement eliminates the daily hassle of having to dress up, move out with a bagful of stuff and negotiate a journey full of traffic jams. Compared to a noisy business headquarter, a quiet place at home with flexible hours of work provides a peaceful environ that allows for greater concentration and hence enhances productivity — defined as the output per unit of time. An awareness that everybody else was sailing in the same boat gives a new kind of camaraderie that could be further reinforced by an occasional call to a friend to chat about something outside of the area of work.

Work from home being mostly online, instant connectivity with one’s supervisor and teammates was available all the time and the arrangement made way for an easy interaction, swift and upfront, that was not always the case in normal corporate working. These are the times when seniors had to show a better personal understanding of those working with them and realise that the responses of an employee were often conditioned by the person’s emotional state — a successful ‘boss’ would be able to get better results by just putting ’emotional intelligence’ to work after ascertaining how the employee was doing on the family front. ‘Paternal and nurtural’ approach in management always worked well in India.

A finer point about working from home is that it should be made a means of self-appraisal and evaluating one’s own performance. In the rushed job at the business headquarter this judgement is left entirely on the authority one was reporting to and there was little time for a pause to make a determination on one’s value to the organisation. One outcome of this state of affairs is the tendency one develops of somehow pleasing the ‘boss’ — beyond the turf of assigned duties. A healthy boss-subordinate relationship has some defined paradigms that would be in place all the time but working from home does additionally provide an opportunity of an objective self-assessment in terms of the value one created for the organisation and the contribution one could make on providing inputs for improving the way of doing business. It is like what Toyota did in the early years to rapidly enlarge its business on the basis of the feedback it consciously garnered from the workers on the assembly lines. The new workplace can become a personality enhancer if it is turned into a source of positivity.

The concept of home becoming the place of work is likely to graduate into an accepted business practice in varying degrees in future because of some benefits that it brings to the employers like cost effectiveness, ease of logging the work output and the facility of mopping up human resource spread across remote locations. A sense of positivity will have to be created around the new practice of working from home by projecting it as an ‘evolution’ of management. The person at work will have to redesign the pattern of engagement considering it as a privileged position and build into it methods of creating diversions, health protocols and a convenient outreach to colleagues and like-minded friends to redress the psyche of aloofness that the new practice might create.

Experts on mental health talk of ‘break state’ in between spells of work — which is not just a ‘break’ but a short interregnum in which the individual would engage in some personal activity of choice as a meaningful diversion. Of great importance is the conscious adoption of an exercise like deep breathing or special intake of food supplements meant to enhance one’s immunity. That immunity helps to prevent virus infection is a part of the understanding of the ‘problem’ that was mentioned earlier. This is another way of keeping up positive thoughts during this crisis.

The long and devastating second Covid wave is producing a collective memory of personal tragedy and the fear of new kinds of infection such as ‘black fungus’ is likely to spread a sense of pessimism about the crisis management in the country. The Centre needs to make some mega announcements in regard to vaccination, enlargement of oxygen-equipped hospital capacity and multiplication of testing facilities. All these points of ‘delivery’ should be taken right to the affected districts of India through the execution machinery working under the Cabinet Secretary. Instant connectivity, the ‘hot line’ of the past, must exist between the Centre on the one hand and the DMs as also the state control rooms, on the other. This will provide the feedback for the Daily Bulletin of the Home Secretary’s office referred to earlier. The political executive headed by the Prime Minister can from time to time reiterate the policy of handling the pandemic — an assuring message of constant engagement of the administrative machinery of the government in executing the task has to provide the substratum for those pronouncements.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)