In our work towards improving worker wellbeing, we explore the role of mental health in sustaining it. Here, we highlight the importance of having a buddy at work.
Migration has been vital to economic growth among many. For those who migrate, the process is often a doorway to higher wages, new skills, knowledge, and experience. It also improves the lives of and opens up previously unexplored avenues for the families they leave behind, primarily through remittances. With this in mind, we’re looking at how the lives of young women change dramatically when they first move to a new city and start working in factories.
So, who is migrating in India?
In 2014, about two out of ten Indians were internal migrants. Internal migrants are those who move across district or state lines, in short, within the national border. This number has seen a steady rise — from being just 16 million in 2004 to 60 million in 2012.
This migrant labor gets dominantly and promptly absorbed in low-technology manufacturing industries, like garment, construction, etc., mostly located in urban areas.
These are the same industries that face high rates of labor turnover.
At our partner firm, Shahi Exports, almost 50% of the migrant workers constantly drops out of the workforce within the first 6 months after joining, and the average tenure for a worker is not more than a year. There are many researchers and practitioners around the world trying to find various set of solutions, which could make workers stay.
Why are workers shying away from taking up or sticking to these jobs? There is, in most likelihood, no one factor which could put this puzzle together.
This puzzle, however, is costing everyone. Such a high rate of turnover negatively impacts the workers who leave the firm by impeding their socioeconomic development as most move back to the source where they face limited economic opportunities. It also strains the employers’ resources, which will be used to train and hire new (replacement) workers, instead of being utilized for the wellbeing of the retained workforce.
Clearly, there are economic gains to be realized from migration on both ends. But what is holding these back? We look into an inconspicuous factor, which prevents sustained migration stays.
Majority of these workers belong to a similar socioeconomic strata but confront the opportunity to alleviate poverty quite differently. Factoring only the economic costs in this decision making fails to give a complete picture.
What about social costs such as loneliness and social isolation?
Picture this: most manufacturing hubs in India are located in urban areas, while a typical migrant worker often comes from a rural district in or outside of their residing state. The socio-economic context they operate in is often rife with restricting views on women’s speech, movement, and decision making. Migrating to seize a new economic opportunity introduces them to many other new things — language, culture, food, co-workers, and flatmates — while removing them from their family and social network back home. Sometimes the sheer contrast of where they come from and where they end up, impedes them from mingling with their new environment.
For example, oftentimes new workers fail to make any meaningful connections with co-workers on the same production line where they spend most of their time. This absence of a meaningful social network further induces loneliness and isolation that perpetuates discouragement to do well in life or work. Additionally, the high pressured mechanical work environment — commonplace at manufacturing units — leaves the migrant worker further overwhelmed and helpless.
Migrating for work is not unique to this population, most of us have migrated for work, study, and everything in between. Do you recall something that may have made this change less hard for you?
What about having a ‘buddy’ to guide you through the process?
If loneliness is one of the reasons for migrants to drop out of the workforce soon after joining, we look at if and how pairing them with a buddy in those crucial months might sway their decision.
Buddy system, wherein an existing employee helps a new hire assimilate to the new workplace, has been practiced in corporate settings for long. Such onboarding and knowledge sharing is not limited to technical aspects of the job, but also social ones. However, its application in a manufacturing setting has not been tried. It is not surprising to note that even for an employer, in a high pressured industry, who is committed to several worker well-being programs, tackling mental distress among workers doesn’t necessarily spring to mind, let alone its positive effects on work productivity and retention.
We have designed a buddy system program for one such employer, Shahi Exports, in Bangalore, Karnataka. We pair migrant worker with a (senior) buddy or mentor who belongs to a similar social strata, speaks the same language, and has migrated from the same source at least 8 months prior. The mentor provides not only social support to the migrant by assisting them navigate workplace and neighborhood, but also discusses topics intended to create a closer bond, for example hobbies and interests. A selected group of senior buddies are also trained to give cognitive behavioral therapy, which works by tackling negative thoughts, which reinforce loneliness, thus trapping individuals in a vicious cycle. For example, a lonely worker could perceive criticism of their work by the supervisor as dislike from their supervisor and co-workers. Persistence of such thoughts overtime takes its toll on the mental health of the worker.
We test and tell: is it sustainable?
At GBL, we are now gearing up to pilot and test the buddy system among 800 young female migrants in a live manufacturing setting. We will assess mental health and economic well-being of these workers and the resultant business returns to the firm.
We are constantly asking ourselves if the wheels of this innovative tailor-made program will keep rolling once the experiment is over? Will it prove to be scalable? Will it be economically feasible for a low margin employers to recognize the importance of such a program enough to implement it at scale?
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