How peer support during the pandemic redefined kindness and empathy at work


In order: a call log of unregistered numbers, a bedside table full of drugs, a house in chaos, a maddening heat weighing on mind and body. Shruti remembers these disjointed but vivid instances of the second wave of Covid19. Her mother had had a fever for seven days, but the scarcity of nationwide RT-PCR testing was preventing Shruti from finding answers.

“This particular time has been exhilarating and exhausting… I remember getting stressed and fuming so much in front of my peers in the workplace,” said the 24-year-old. In real time, these “work friends” embraced his anxiety and stress; they helped find tests, doctors, resources, and offered emotional support.

It was the first ray of kindness that Shruti saw through the crisis – one that has become a “crime against humanity”.

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Stories like Shruti’s sprouted organically all over the place during the pandemic. As “work from house “turned into” house at work ”, colleagues and peer networks have become sources of emotional support. Compare that to a time before Covid19, when workplace friendships were only stereotyped in association with coffee / tobacco breaks, conversations over the water cooler, old ventilation, socializing after work.

These connections have evolved over the past two years, nestled between the demands of the modern workplace. “The link was not limited to work and / or work related. It became more personal and acted as an emotional support in isolation, ”notes Shruti. In the most direct sense, they have helped overcome the burden of the pandemic.

All the anecdotes of office groups dubbed Covid resource platforms suggest one idea: the staff had turned professional. For 23-year-old Ria Chopra, it’s also the one thing that has completely changed the dynamics of the workplace. “… My colleagues came together during wave two, helping each other search for medicine, hospital beds, oxygen, showing admirable empathy and caring,” she says.

This support would come in the form of an SMS from colleagues; a simple “I’ll cover for you”; “No calls on Fridays”; and its many mutations.

Zeb Hasan, 25, sets aside an hour each evening to talk about work and life with a colleague. “It happened as a result of working from home,” he says, referring to the regularly scheduled “delirium sessions”. “I decided to contact someone and it definitely helped me,” he says. “Because I felt heard. Research shows that versions of these “rants” help label feelings, reducing the activation of our brain’s alarm system, which makes the individual more attentive.


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These unofficial communication channels out work also gives way to housing in work place. Zeb remembers picking up someone when he needed to take off or someone else picking up Zeb when he needed to attend a wedding. Even Ria notes that it has become common practice to avoid unnecessary meetings, excuse late responses, coordinate time off, or take / skip work depending on their bandwidth in sync. “We just understood each other’s needs,” she says. Flexibility, a legitimate demand during the pandemic, helps to cope with the greatest mental health burden during the pandemic.

Peer support systems help create a safe space where people can share their experiences in a way that makes them feel heard and their experience recognized, ”says Samriti Midha, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. This “validation”, as Midha calls it, is multidimensional; it can boost people’s self-esteem, create a sense of togetherness and “therefore empower them to move forward”. All the more so during a pandemic where chronic isolation and stress threaten all of this. Tara *, 26, for example, found the strength to leave a toxic workplace once she connected with her peers while working from home.

For 23-year-old Ria Chopra, this peer support was more like a friendship with an older mentor. Having a friend, or “working wife,” as Ria calls her, who basically crosses the same the stress and the work experience you release. People can “rant, chat, just talk, without having to give layers of explanation,” says Ria. In addition, it makes the workplace more welcoming, even in an abstract way.

“In the workplace, really knowing that you have someone in your corner during a time of high stress can relieve pressure and tension and also encourage collaboration,” says Israa Nair, a counseling psychologist specializing in well-being. be at work.

Rants and other unofficial channels of communication help build a sense of community – which the individual is not alone in struggling with. “Or that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with me that I cannot handle it, but other people are also having a hard time dealing with it,” Israa notes.

While these emotional support systems have always been there in one way or another, during the pandemic, “the equations widened because peers in the workplace inevitably became part of our physical space and emotional, ”notes Shruti. It may have helped bring people closer to each other, especially as the grief and trauma unfolded as a common thread.

In addition, when work entered the home, it bore witness to an otherwise hidden part of our personal life. It was impossible not to see the children running, partners cooking, the clicking of utensils, the dog demanding immediate attention – these threads of life work to “humanize people,” Israa emphasizes.

In video calls, people would see that others have “more obligations you never thought of before – [things] it can prevent them from doing the job… It creates more context as to why people are the way they are.

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Just as Hindi cinema believes that “ladka ladki dost nahi ho sakte(“Men and women cannot be friends”), Shruti firmly believed that a friendship in the workplace was never a substantial friendship. “It is rare because of the integrated notions that we cannot have friends at their workplace.

Shruti argues that this misconception is a capitalist by-product – where one constantly looks at one’s peers in the workplace through the prism of competition rather than support. She is not wrong; competition is a big red seal attached to the capitalist economy. Competitors are expected to produce “great work” at low cost, ruling out any possibility of friendship. Over the years, this has translated into a culture of withdrawal. Research shows that many professionals, especially men (only straight men were interviewed in this case), do not disclose their personal commitments to their colleagues for fear of being seen as less competent. Ultimately, while having a busy, rather than quiet, lifestyle is an “ambitious status symbol,” bonding with peers seems counterintuitive.


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But at the same time, a growing corporate culture is rushing to label the workplace as “family”.

“Whenever this term is abused, it is often used to mask the absence of limits. You know, if your boss feels like he can call you at 10pm and then say, oh, yeah, it’s because we’re like family, ”Israa notes. “The concept of proximity and the type of family support offered are transformed into a weapon for the benefit of the workplace. A disturbing number of studies show how the emphasis on ‘work is family’ leads to the exploitation of workers; spending unreasonable hours at work, working in the best interests of the company. In The character of a company, the authors note that “family culture” prompts employees to “help before you ask” in the most altruistic way. This exaggerated dedication can be quite toxic.

The peer networks that arose during the pandemic can turn this culture around. Your coworkers may still be a part of your life beyond the office, but not as we originally imagined. These channels mean that your work, coworkers and mentors can be relied on for emotional support without really blurring the lines between personal and professional life. Most importantly, “you can access emotional support in the workplace in the right way,” Israa adds. The workplace can always be something you leave and go back to for the rest of your life.

Ria believes the context of the pandemic, when framed in the language of a toxic work culture, has recalibrated the dynamics. “There is an understanding that we are a team, and doing these things for others creates an environment where we are shown the same compassion.”

Instead of calling them family, calling work friends your “tribe” can be productive, says Kuntal Vora, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. “In a tribe, the roles and expectations of each are defined through mutual understanding, so that overstepping of boundaries can be avoided. “

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These are not tectonic changes in the workplace, but slow movements characterized by consideration and care. It is important to follow this pattern while people are working – in the office or at home – while anticipating a third wave. In addition, the “big resignation” speech brought to life increased burnout, mental health issues and lack of accommodations in the workplace.

Vora notes that for many workers “the greatest need is to be treated like humans – rather than machines or someone who is only there to achieve goals.”

Modern work culture, marked by the pandemic, is thus at an important crossroads. These peer support systems don’t have to be a temporary visa in the world of accommodation and respect at work. They can be a permanent fixture. For Ria, a “lovable” workplace would be seen for what it is: “a part of people’s lives, a source of income and an outlet for productivity; not something that should become an employee’s lifetime.

Shasta Nelson, author of The affair of friendship, a book on building friendships at work, carries hope as we move forward: “We’ve seen vulnerability increase, and I hope that will continue even when we’re back in the office. “

Maybe we can all manage with a little help and kindness from our friends.