Stressed IT workers get chatbot counselling

More and more IT professionals in India are seeking chatbot therapy to help with their job concerns and redundancies

Bengaluru: For months, Lovkesh Joshi was quietly terrified of losing his job as a manager at a top Indian tech services company. Clients were cutting their budgets. His manager told him not to worry, but it was hard not to when experts were predicting that millions of the country’s IT workers would be eliminated in the coming years.


Joshi didn’t want to burden his wife or friends with his problems so he turned to a chatbot therapist called Wysa. Powered by artificial intelligence, the app promises to be “loyal, supportive and very private,” and encourages users to divulge their feelings about a recent major event or big change in their lives. “I could open up and talk,” says Joshi, a 41-year-old father of two school-age children, who says his conversations with the bot flowed naturally. “I felt heard and understood.”

Joshi moved on to a job with a large rival outsourcer two months ago.

The upheaval in India’s $154 billion (Dh565 billion) tech outsourcing industry has prompted thousands of Indians to seek solace in online therapy services. People accustomed to holding down prestigious jobs and pulling in handsome salaries are losing out to automation, a shift away from long-term legacy contracts and curbs on US work visas. McKinsey & Co says almost half of the four million people working in India’s IT services industry will become “irrelevant” in the next three to four years.

Indians, like people the world over, tend to hide their mental anguish for fear of being stigmatised. That’s why many are embracing the convenience, anonymity and affordability of online counselling start-ups, most of which use human therapists.

YourDOST

“Online mental health platforms are powerful, and real-time counselling can segue into a solution,” says Mridul Arora, a managing director at SAIF Partners, a venture capital firm that backed a start-up called YourDOST. “Any new service needs early adopters and who better than young, tech-savvy IT professionals?”

The founders of YourDOST, Puneet Manuja and Richa Singh, suffered their own career-related stress on their way up. Despite attending a top engineering college and acing his computer science courses, Manuja couldn’t find a job right away and was rejected by half-a-dozen companies including Yahoo! and Adobe during campus placements.

Manuja’s classmates poked fun at him and he couldn’t share the agony with his parents or friends. Meanwhile, Singh, who later became his wife and partner, was struggling with the suicide of a friend afraid she wouldn’t be hired during campus placement.

When the pair met years later at a global technology firm, they shared their experiences and talked about doing something to help those with depression and stress. YourDOST (dost means friend in Hindi) began as a blog, but the pair decided they needed to do something for people afraid to seek face-to-face counselling.

The duo quit their jobs and set up a digital platform that offers counselling from a network of psychologists and psychiatrists. Where face-to-face therapy can cost thousands of rupees, YourDOST audio chats cost Rs400 ($6.20) and video chats Rs600. Help is available 24/7, and the start-up currently offers over 2,000 counselling sessions daily.

Toll-free helpline

This summer, at the height of the outsourcing job losses, YourDOST also set up a toll-free helpline to comfort and advise anonymous callers.

Senior psychologist Sushma Hebbar says job loss in the male-dominated industry “is not just an economic defeat but a status loss too.”

Men break down during the counselling, and weepy students berate themselves for choosing engineering as a career path. They incessantly ask: how can I pull myself together and save my job? One young woman who lost her job now fakes her office routine so her parents don’t find out.

A male engineer dismissed weeks before his wedding couldn’t bear to tell his future father-in-law.

YourDOST career coach Aditya Sisodia helps fired workers reinvent themselves. “The IT industry slowdown is stressing everyone between 15 and 55 years,” he says. Employees saddled with mortgages, car loans and kids’ student loans struggle to reconcile to the “new normal.”

Another husband-and-wife team, Ramakant Vempati and Jo Aggarwal, unveiled Wysa this January. The chatbot uses natural language processing to understand and classify conversations, then responds with compassionate solutions framed by therapists. The founders consciously stayed away from replicating quick-fix solutions offered in self-help books or the therapist’s couch approach.

Empathic ear

“The chatbot provides an empathetic ear, listens without judgement and guides them to the positive,” Aggarwal says. “The conversations feel natural and real.”

All counselling sessions are anonymous and free; the company makes money by licensing its AI technology to enterprise customers, global insurers and health care providers.

Last month, Wysa’s founders conducted a quarterly review of chatbot content and discovered that chats related to job losses and work had become the second most popular topic.

Dinesh Kumaramangalam was another victim of the IT industry downsizing. The 38-year-old was aghast and worried for his wife and six-year-old daughter. When a relative suggested he seek help through an online counselling service called the Juno Clinic, he demurred.

But after several months fruitlessly looking for work, Kumaramangalam decided he had nothing to lose by reaching out to Juno Clinic. Set up by three entrepreneurs who had all spent a major portion of their careers in the outsourcing industry, the start-up began offering online counselling sessions to users last year. Its online chats are free while users are charged for audio and video chats.

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