“Finally, we managed to get a bed in Ludhiana and the employee was shifted immediately. The whole night, I was up calling people and coordinating. And there was just a growing feeling of helplessness. It was an intense time,” said Kapoor.
Not just Kapoor, but CEOs across sectors went through an emotional rollercoaster from April 20 to May 5 when the aggressive Covid-19 second wave was ravaging India. Some are still dealing with guilt over employee deaths.
Company heads say it was the most frustrating and emotional period of their careers: On the one hand, they had to deal with personal issues as the pandemic struck family, friends and extended family and at the same time more employees were falling sick each passing day. Then the fatalities started mounting.
As the health infrastructure crumbled and the Covid-19 wave turned into a tsunami, there was little they could do but watch helplessly as the crisis unfolded. Even money, connections and influence couldn’t get hospital beds, medicines or oxygen.
“I was shocked and disappointed to see how many cracks we had in our health system and how easily we all got into this comfort zone,” said Ajay Bijli, chairman and MD,
. “It was shocking to see your family, friends, mother or friend’s brother or somebody passing away. I had a very nice teacher who taught my kids. He was only 42 years old with four kids — he passed away, so everybody had a story.”
“I didn’t have the luxury to be demotivated. What kept me going was helping partners and employees”
As cases exploded, many CEOs found it difficult to deal with the deluge of constant news of employees being hospitalised, in dire need of help or dying.
“I dreaded calls from my HR,” said the CEO of a top services company. “As essential services, many of our employees had to work daily and eight succumbed in last two months. I personally called each and every one of their families. The wife of a deceased employee asked me, ‘You said he will be fine. Now he is no more. You could have done more. You are the CEO.’ What do I tell her? I am going to start therapy next week.”
Watching the government and private health systems collapse, companies quickly had to take matters in their own hands and activate volunteer groups across locations.
“I was shocked and disappointed to see how many cracks we had in our health system and how easily we all got into this comfort zone”
“We believe that at least 8-10% of our workforce was impacted in some way,” said Sanjeev Krishan, chairman, PwC in India. “It was an immensely challenging period emotionally as we were navigating uncertainty on a daily basis. And seeing our colleagues without timely access to consultation or resources was adding to the anxiety. At that time, what made a real difference were our on-ground volunteer groups that worked around the clock to help people.”
As the number of cases surged unrelentingly, it was call-anyone-and-everyone-who-can-help time.
CEOs were dialing chief ministers, other CEOs, even local customer support, asking for favours.
“As we have a large network of sales and service people across the country, we used them to help in case any employee needed any help in any city as they have better connections,” said Harit Nagpal, MD and CEO, Tata Sky. “Every call/ meeting was opening up with taking stock of the situation. Our dashboard made constant information available on how many of our employees were sick or had recovered.”
In the two weeks when cases spiked to record numbers, companies realised that elevated rates of stress and anxiety were affecting the mental wellbeing of employees, including the top rung.
“We quickly organised mental wellbeing and mindfulness sessions with experts for employees and their dependents,” said K Madhavan, president, Walt Disney Co. India and Star India. “We also intensified all mental, physical and financial well-being efforts for our employees.”
While most CEOs of large companies were working from home, bosses of smaller companies had to be on site or at factories even as the death count was rising by the day.
“It was a trial by fire. Working from home wasn’t an option for us, we needed to be on ground to keep supply chains fluid and functional,” said Divij Anil Taneja, MD, Empezar, a Gujarat-based logistics provider.
While CEOs had the experience of dealing with business disruption due to last year’s lockdown, it was the employee deaths that they were emotionally unprepared for.
A cement company CEO said that one of his employees had four deaths in his immediate family, one after the other. “He lost his parents, brother and grandfather — all in four days and himself battling Covid-19. I had no words to offer.”
Another CEO recalled the death of his 28-year-old secretary after being hospitalised for two weeks.
“Everyday, his sister used to call me and I used to tell her that her brother will be fine and we will ensure he gets married soon. He couldn’t be saved,” he said. “I feel like a criminal for giving false hope to his sister.”
Some CEOs of businesses that were hit the hardest comforted their staff by declaring that the company would stand by them no matter what the cost.
“We know that we have many battles to fight and there is no cost as big as the cost of a human. So very consciously, we have moved ahead without a set budget… it is, whatever it takes,” said Gautam Dutta, group CEO, PVR.
Some CEOs cut through the internal bureaucracy to listen to employee concerns directly. “I had weekly AMA (ask me anything) sessions where I responded directly to anonymous employee concerns,” said Harsh Jain, CEO and cofounder, Dream Sports.
As India became the epicentre of the pandemic, some local CEOs of multinationals also had to deal with the flood of queries from headquarters about ‘what’s happening in India’ and ‘you are in our prayers’ emails.
What carried them through the dark period, many CEOs said, was the urgent need to give help to people who needed it badly.
“I didn’t have the luxury to be demotivated. What kept me going was helping partners and employees,” said Oyo’s Kapoor, who had at one time 250-plus volunteers from the company helping out affected employees and their next of kin.