When India first began recording an alarming rise in its coronavirus cases this year, my first thought wasn’t that I needed to stock up on groceries or go get vaxxed. It was that I needed to show up at work despite everything.As the pandemic pulverises any hope or optimism we had for our future, we’re all dealing with the collective trauma that comes with a constant news cycle of death and despair. Most of us in India have either lost someone we cared about, had to scramble to find resources to help a loved one fighting for their life, or been traumatised by apocalyptic scenes from hospitals and crematoriums.
But even as we deal with a daunting death toll, the average Indian white-collar worker is expected to meet their deadlines. Even as we’re flooded with reports of our crumbling healthcare system, we’re supposed to keep it together for client meetings. Even when all we want to do is switch our brains off, we’re heading towards mass burnouts and exhaustion. And India’s toxic hustle culture — where gruelling work hours and hard work are a norm — is to blame. Hustle culture is based on the belief that you can only succeed in life if you exert yourself to the point of sacrificing your sleep cycle and sanity. Often masked under the guise of cheugy quotes like “The grind never stops”, “I don’t make excuses”, or “Hustle so hard, your bank account looks like a phone number”, hustle culture is essentially a form of extreme workaholism. In a country like India, where we share opportunities and resources with 1.3 billion other people, the anxiety of being dispensable has converted the hustle culture to an especially toxic one.
“One of my clients, who works as a consultant for one of the Big Four accounting firms, has been working 18-hour days without any breaks, no degree of leeway and the pressure to meet deadline after deadline,” Devika Kapoor, a Mumbai-based counselling psychologist, tells VICE. “Even when he had family members with coronavirus, he was expected to work. Official emails said they could take leave, but in reality, there was no change in the expectation of the employee’s output or performance.” This, the psychologist points out, is largely due to an unforgiving society and a ruthless corporate culture that has traditionally rooted for working hard instead of working smart. “Countries like India, which are not as financially secure or resourceful as first world countries, tend to operate through a scarcity mindset,” says Kapoor. A scarcity mindset is the belief that there will never be enough — be it money, food, jobs, emotions, or anything else. Those with this mindset believe that life is like a pie, and there’s only so much to go around. So if I get a bigger share of the pie, I’m eating into yours. “This makes us constantly feel deprived or unsafe, and so we’re socialised to believe that work is [something to] worship.”The cultural idea that how many hours you put in is more valuable than how good you’re at your job is prevalent across Asia, leading many to believe that working incessantly is the key to finding any kind of fulfillment. No matter how drained or depleted it might leave them.
“A colleague got COVID and lost her voice, but still did a live presentation for her client to meet the deadline and please them,” Jaishree*, a 32-year-old lawyer based in Mumbai, tells VICE. The lawyer, who requested to stay anonymous because they fear losing their job, added, “So, she asked me to get on the call with her. She typed what to say on WhatsApp as I read it out over the call.” Jaishree points out that though their colleague was a senior manager and could’ve postponed the meeting, she decided to push through anyway. “This sets a benchmark for junior employees, who then also feel the pressure to work when they’re sick. And since most of us can’t afford to not have a job, we are at the mercy of our employers.”
It’s commonplace to hear stories of employees being yelled at, bullied, even having things flung at them, or called at random hours. That’s made even worse by the scarcity of laws or unions meant to safeguard worker interests and dignity. One reason why horrible bosses can run riot in India is the cultural expectation that we must respect our seniors, no matter how problematic they can be. The meek and docile mandate that is set on many employees in the Indian workforce then allows exploitative bosses to push people beyond their boundaries.
Apathetic corporate culture
In some cases, the present situation — instead of making us all more empathetic — has only made the situation worse.
Now, some insecure managers are introducing measures like tracking devices that calculate exactly how much time their employees spend working, or insist that employees leave their video cameras on throughout the day so that managers can keep a violating and voyeuristic eye over them. Then, there are offices enforcing physical attendance. A reputable advertising agency recently came under fire for forcing employees to come in despite their family members dying of COVID-19. They’ve denied the claim but other examples of monstrous offices demanding their people to come in, continue to crop up.
The result of this apathetic corporate culture is an extremely overwhelmed workforce. A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that long working hours and the pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines are leading to thousands of deaths around the world from strokes and heart disease. Meanwhile, results from the LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index that came out in October 2020 revealed that two out of five Indians were reporting increased levels of stress and anxiety by working their way through the pandemic.
In an environment of bad bosses and toxic offices, I’m one of the few people I know who’s had it easier. I’ve got a four day workweek through May, relative financial privilege that means losing my job won’t make my life an absolute hell, and relatively empathetic colleagues. And still, my own need to keep working is like a leaky faucet — constant, wasteful and frustrating. The anxiety that I grappled with even pre-pandemic is partly to blame for this. But, as psychologist Devika Kapoor points out, it is also a result of years of conditioning. The pressure we put on ourselves to succeed often starts with the pressure that schools and the society at large ascribe to education, even though good grades are often easily hacked by rote learning.
Social conditioning that starts young
“In the remote learning system, teachers assume that since we are home, we don’t have anything to do other than school work,” Aaliya, a 21-year-old media student from New Delhi, tells VICE. Aaliya only revealed her first name over fears of backlash from her university. “Attendance is mandatory, and even when my mother was sick and in the hospital, I was guilted into participating only because I had an internet connection.” Aaliya talks about how the constant pressure to score well or even just show up is affecting her. “I now work just to get it done rather than enjoy it or learn from it,” she says. “I just need to get through the day.”This, experts explain, is a sign of extreme burnout, wherein we get so used to the numbness that we don’t know how to navigate our way out of it. “Through this pandemic, we have gone through five phases,” Arushi Sethi, a mental health activist and co-founder of wellness organisation Trijog, explains to VICE. She says it all started with the honeymoon phase, where we explored ourselves creatively, baked breads and whipped Dalgona coffees. Then came the stress followed with chronic stress that caused a dip in our motivation and made it tougher to feel optimistic. Sethi explains that as we transition from the chronic stress phase to the burnout phase, we begin to doubt our return to normalcy and fail to take care of our personal needs. This then results in us feeling empty inside, and developing a pessimistic outlook towards work life. “We are now in the final stage of habitual burnout, where symptoms of frequent stress, anger, restlessness and pressure are so embedded in our lives that we fail to recognise our emotions and stop feeling the need to tackle them.”
Sethi adds that even as organisations are embracing mental health workshops and helplines, it may be too little, too late. “We’re told to be the best, not the best that we can be,” she says. “This projected pressure of our society affects our orientation of success.” In a scenario where burnouts are rampant, her solutions include switching off our phones, setting boundaries with our bosses, chalking out a daily schedule and inculcating a winding down ritual like listening to music. They are similar to those offered by Kapoor, who also recommends professional therapy and boundary setting role play exercises to help employees realise that more often than not, they feel blocked by an inefficient corporate culture instead of their own inabilities. To me, these answers feel far too simple and straightforward, almost idealistic, to unlearn years of social conditioning that have brought us to this point. But the bottom line is that whether you have an asshole boss or are simply being too hard on yourself, acknowledging your emotions is the first step in tackling them. This piece by VICE can also help you tackle occupational burnout step by step.“At a time like this, even our emotional immunity is as compromised [as our physical one],” says Sethi. “Self care, supporting and prioritising ourselves is the only way to recovery.”Follow Shamani on Instagram and Twitter.