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Fired Indian IT workers turn to chatbots for counselling

Source | : By Saritha Rai

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, 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 didn’t 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,” says the 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 to a large rival outsourcer two months ago.

The upheaval in India’s $154 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 stigmatized. That’s why many are embracing the convenience, anonymity and affordability of online counselling start-ups, most of which use human therapists. “Online mental health platforms are powerful, and real-time counseling 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 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, Richa 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.

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