Fired Indian tech workers turn to chatbots for counselling

Many are embracing the convenience, anonymity and affordability of online counselling startups, like Wysa (left) and YourDOST, most of which use human therapists. PHOTOS: FACEBOOK/WYSA, FACEBOOK/YOURDOST

BENGALURU (BLOOMBERG) - 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, prompting his bosses to fire dozens of colleagues.

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.

"My head was full of 'yaar, kya honewalla hai?,'" says Joshi, using a Hindi expression that means "what's going to happen?"

Joshi did not want to burden his wife or friends 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," the 41-year-old father of two school-age children says, adding that his conversations with the bot flowed naturally. "I felt heard and understood."

Joshi moved to a large rival outsourcer two months ago.

The upheaval in India's US$154 billion (S$208 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 is why many are embracing the convenience, anonymity and affordability of online counselling startups, most of which use human therapists.

"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 startup called YourDOST. "Any new service needs early adopters and who better than young, tech-savvy IT professionals?"

YourDOST's founders suffered their own career-related stress on their way up. Despite attending a top engineering college and acing his computer science courses, Puneet Manuja could not 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 could not share the agony with his parents or friends.

Meanwhile, Richa Singh, who later became his wife and partner, was struggling with the suicide of a friend afraid she would not 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 400 rupees (S$8.40) and video chats 600 rupees. Help is available 24/7, and the startup currently offers over 2,000 counselling sessions daily.

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 do not find out. A male engineer dismissed weeks before his wedding could not bear to tell his future father-in-law.

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.

"The chatbot provides an empathic ear, listens without judgment and guides them to the positive," Aggarwal says. "The conversations feel natural and real."

All counseling sessions are anonymous and free; the company makes money by licensing its AI technology to enterprise customers, global insurers and healthcare 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 had spent more than three years remotely managing client systems at a small IT services company when he was dismissed this summer. The client's projects had been automated and his 300-strong team was whittled down to 70. The 38-year-old was aghast and worried for his wife and six-year-old daughter. His parents who live with him constantly doled out advice. When a relative suggested he seek help through an online counselling service called the Juno Clinic, he demurred.

But after several months fruitlessly looking 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 startup began offering online counselling sessions to users last year. Its online chats are free while users are charged for audio and video chats.

Juno, which is based in Mumbai, created special packages for fired employees. Its 28 therapists are trained in handling such callers.

"Intervention is very important, or work-related anxiety and depression could quickly spiral into something worse," says co-founder Davesh Manocha.

Kumaramangalam was angry when he started counselling.

"I worked really hard," he says. "I should've been one of the 70 who got to stay."

Talking to the counsellor helped him get over his frustration and frame better responses at job interviews. After seven 800-rupee-an-hour counselling sessions via phone calls and and Skype video, the engineer finally landed a job six weeks ago. "It is a smaller IT services company, almost a startup, and I had to take a salary cut." Hey, it's a job.

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