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Workplace harassment can kill

A string of recent suicides is attributed to overt and covert harassment at office. What are employers doing to protect their staff from emotional distress?
Last Updated : 05 June 2019, 12:20 IST
Last Updated : 05 June 2019, 12:20 IST
Last Updated : 05 June 2019, 12:20 IST
Last Updated : 05 June 2019, 12:20 IST

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Many in India, particularly Bengaluru, are killing themselves, unable to cope with workplace harassment.

While workplace sexual harassment has for long been recognised as a problem, not much is said about the verbal and mental harassment that pushes employees to distress.

A 2016 study of over 6,000 employees across India found that one in two Indian employees suffers from anxiety and depression. The number of cases in Bengaluru was so high the city was even called India’s suicide capital.

Metrolife asked around and many people narrated their workplace stories. (Names are withheld on request)

Body shaming is harassment

“I have heard many negative and mean remarks about my somewhat plump figure. Sometimes people also accused me of getting favours because of my good looks. All of this caused distress but it wasn’t considered harassment because it didn’t fall in that category under company policies. I have never complained to HR because I thought they wouldn’t be of help. They might change your team but that won’t stop people from persecuting you. And all of this was in a million-dollar startup.”

My manager was a pervert

“I had to hide behind the shelves or wear a dupatta to meetings because my manager could not hold a conversation by just looking at my face; his eyes would roam all over me. I didn’t complain to HR as it was my first job and, frankly, I didn’t know this was harassment.”

Office politics lead to harassment

“I saw and experienced many forms of harassment in my previous company, one of the largest e-commerce players in India. If you stand up against the management or point out some flaws in the functioning of senior managers, they target you personally, even if you are right. They change performance metrics, teams or departments at will and block promotions. Team leads yell at you in front of the entire office if you fail to meet targets. I am not saying feedback should not be given but to humiliate an employee like that is not done.

I complained to HR multiple times but to no avail. I finally resigned and moved to another company. But I hear nothing has changed. A friend is facing all these problems now. He dared to say something about the in which superiors treat their subordinates. He asked for a personal meeting with the HR head but she never responded.”

Made to work even if unwell

“Many managers don’t approve sick leave, even if you are really unwell. They ask you to come in for some time, saying ‘we will figure something out’. Other leaves can be encashed but not sick leave, so it doesn’t help us in any way.

However, not everyone is treated the same way. If you are on good terms with the management, everything is smooth.

It is not enough if you follow rules and regulations; it is more about your equation with your senior managers and how well you play your cards.

The BPO industry is exempted from the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act which makes it easy to hire and fire. Most people keep silent because of this fear. There are supposed to be monitoring committees in office but I have never heard of one in mine.”

The problem dogs many sectors. Pushed to the edge, three professionals recently ended their lives

Most notable among the recent examples would be that of 26-year-old doctor Payal Tadvi, who committed suicide in her Mumbai hostel room as she was reportedly unable to bear the casteist slurs and persecution from her seniors.

The accused doctors, Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehre and Ankita Khandelwal, would constantly abuse Payal and even throw files at her —all in front of patients. All three have been arrested by the Mumbai police.

The case has caught the attention of the country and turned the spotlight on ‘institutionalised harassment’.

In another incident, a 19-year-old employee of private carrier GoAir allegedly committed suicide, citing work stress. Manthan Chavan was part of the airline’s ground staff at the Nagpur airport. His family says he was being harassed by his seniors and forced to report to work even in poor health.

The seniors reportedly did not pay heed to his request for time to attend to his ailing health and threatened to sack him.

Recently, a 34-year-old Bengalurean was found dead in his smoke-filled car in Sathanur.

Kaushik Shetty worked as a financial planner with an American firm in Manyata Tech Park.

His friends told the police that he was facing harassment at work.

In a fast-paced world, multiple factors cause work-related stress

In today’s fast-paced competitive work environment, harassment has become more common than we realise. These situations are commonly faced by men and women who have a passive and compliant personality. An individual gets harassed when the victim is seen as being weak or without the courage to step up.

Workplace harassment includes verbal, physical, emotional and environmental factors that may ruin one’s health – physically and mentally. Annually, we see around 100–250 patients with stress caused by appraisals, pink slips, unrealistic targets, long commuting and working hours, sexual harassment and abusive bosses. Some patients suffer from emotional trauma when they can’t spend time with their families and their spouses get into extra-marital affairs.

- Dr Sugami Ramesh, Apollo Hospitals, Bannerghatta Road and part-time counsellor at IIM-B

How to deal with workplace harassment

- Complain and record the evidence in writing.

- Companies should organise life skills workshops.

- Cognitive behavioural therapy reduces anxiety and grief.

How some organisations respond

Workplace harassment covers a wide range of behaviour ranging from subtle intimidation to aggressive speech. Harassment often leaves the victim uncomfortable and confused.

Cynthia Gokhale, associate director, marketing, ManpowerGroup India, has dealt with complaints about bullying by supervisors or peers.

Harassment can include two extremes—stripping an employee of responsibilities, or assigning loads of work, she says.

Work problems affecting sleep

Generally, people come with me with problems of stress, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and so on. When you start digging deeper, the most common answers are in the realm of work, family or finance.

Every person has five types of health---physical, mental, economic, social and spiritual. The problem with work-related stress is that it affects a person’s economic health which immediately affects the two below it (physical and mental). In some cases, it also affects a person’s social well-being.

However, it is important to remember that not every problem at the workplace can be perceived as harassment. It can be seen from two sides: one, a person having normal health has unreasonable demands being placed on him, and a person already having mental illness, for whom even the normal pressures of work look like harassment.

From my experience, I have seen that work-related problems are very common triggers for anxiety or depression in Bengaluru.

- Dr Raghu Krishnamurthy, Consultant psychiatrist, BGS Gleneagles Global Hospital

Be mindful

There is a thin line between what some people find funny and offensive. So whenever we are given a complaint, we try to get into the crux of the matter. Bigger companies have strong policies to tackle the problem. Even if the harassers are not fired, they are given strict warnings.

- Barnali Roy Chowdury, VP-HR, Instamojo

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Published 05 June 2019, 12:12 IST

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