Sairee Chahal

Yes, I can – Flexing Muscle

It was after becoming a mother that Sairee Chahal realised the gaping need for flexible work options in corporate India. She could have been one of those numerous women who, after having children, opt out of lucrative, fulfilling careers because of rigid work formats of organisations. But she had different plans. “I often think I could have been a statistic had I not pushed back,” she says.

Chahal co-founded Fleximoms, a New Delhi-based company that helps women find flexible work options. “You don’t realise the need until it hits you in the face,” she says. Fleximoms, whose other founder is Anita Vasudeva, helps find flexible work options for women who have fallen off the career ladder and also provides them training to bridge any skill gaps.

Fleximoms rolled out as an independent company only last year. Chahal incubated it for nearly two years under Saita Consulting, a consulting firm that she and Vasudeva founded in 2006 to advise on small and medium businesses.

Fleximoms works with 300 companies. “There are a lot of companies that want to connect with this demographic,” says Chahal.

This Business Today piece appeared as part of a larger series of profiles with five unusual women entrepreneurs. 

Fleximoms is the largest aggregation of flexible jobs for women in the country

Fleximoms is the largest aggregation of flexible jobs for women in the country

Sairee Chahal seamlessly weaves her world between her business, her four-year old child, a household and varied other interests. As the co-founder of Fleximoms, Chahal, 36, is a pro when it comes to juggling work and personal life.

Chahal comes across as a person who is in control of things, a quality she has acquired in a career graph that is as varied as it is interesting.

Right after her Masters in the Russian language from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Chahal worked for Central Asian countries that were opening their embassies in the capital. She then joined a magazine.

After a while, Chahal decided to venture out on her own as she was not happy being an employee any longer. In 1999, she set up NewsLink Services along with a couple of friends.

This was the country’s first magazine for mariners and had operations in India, Philippines and Cyprus. Chahal was in charge for three years and during that period, the workforce was expanded to 130 members.

Chahal then moved out to set up Russian outposts for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the executive search firm, Heidrick & Struggles.

Homeward bound
It was in 2006 that Chahal teamed up with Anita Vasudeva, Co-Founder, Fleximoms to set up SAITA Consulting Pvt. Ltd., a firm which deals with small and medium businesses. SAITA is a Japanese word for excellence, explains Chahal. It is also a combination of the first names of Chahal and Vasudeva. SAITA began operations by helping in the internal matters of organizations so that the management was free to deal with customers and clients.

“When we were running the consulting business, we ended up hiring a lot of women. It was not intentional. However, the number of women who wanted to join us far exceeded the numbers we could employ. This got us thinking,” says Chahal.

At SAITA, every client that Chahal worked with had a people issue—there was a lot of pain around hiring and retention. “We soon realized that there was a gap between what women want and what mainstream industries seek when it comes to work,” says Chahal.

By 2009, she started toying around with the idea that fleshed into Fleximoms. Between 2009-2011, the concept was part of SAITA Consulting, after which it was hived off into a different unit.

Fleximoms today is an independent entity offering a flexible employment model for mothers and placing them in organizations which understand the value of an experienced and qualified workforce. In fact, it is considered the largest aggregator for genuine flexible jobs in the country.

Step forward
Fleximoms has now expanded its scope to find jobs for women who have taken a break from work. The back-to-work programme, Second Chance, offers an opportunity for women who have been away for a significant time from the work force.

“We have also launched various programs like career guidance, interview preparation, resumé guidance, workplace coaching among others. These programmes are based on the aspirations and the present position of a candidate,” says Chahal.

The founder understood that work-life choices for women are heterogeneous and hence, it was important for Fleximoms to be the top resource for women while seeking employment.

Chahal also worked intensively with corporate entities. “We wanted them to hire women because it made business sense. A lot of work that we do with companies is to get them to accept flexible working hours as a business case and use it as part of their workday and not because it is something
good to do.”

Fleximoms currently reaches out to about 30 cities in India, and allows its customers to access the entire ecosystem for finding the right job— a prospective candidate can find a suitable job in a city other than the one she is living in.

Fleximoms also conducts online teaching, coaching and classroom training for long-term interventions in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune. “A lot of women are also starting up and we have tied up with a number of incubators and accelerators to provide support,” says Chahal.

Robin Hood and the moms
Fleximoms is bootstrapped with an initial investment of about `2 crore. “We had the consulting business, so we call it the ‘Robin Hood approach’ of moving money from one to the other,” says Chahal.

The response to Fleximoms has been phenomenal—what started out as a small project has become highly successful, informs Chahal.

“We knew [from our experience] getting a job was a problem for women, but never imagined it was a problem of such magnitude. It has grown through word-of-mouth and we feel we are only scratching the surface. Clients, who have worked with Fleximoms, refer us to others and this has helped a lot in our growth.”

Chahal says that in April 2011, the first month of operations, Fleximoms had 16,000 members. Today, the company has local chapters and the community is 2 lakh strong. “We have consistently grown month-on-month and we have reached this number in practically a year and half.”

When a company, which is their client, wants to access Fleximoms’ database, it has the option of taking a subscription. These subscriptions form the primary source of revenue for Fleximoms.

“We also do a lot of custom work for companies with specific needs,” says Chahal. However, information and membership is free for women. Fees are only charged if they join a coaching intervention.

Chahal reveals that the firm’s current revenues are a little less than `1 crore and by the end of 2013, they are expected to grow three times over.

Fleximoms has now evolved into a site where any woman can search for a job opportunity—the website is not merely limited to a mother. “The ‘Mom’ aspect is symbolic for a care-giving economy. About 75-80 percent of women who take a break from work do it because they have to take care of their children. This is not restricted to India and is a global phenomenon,” says Chahal.

More to follow
With changing times and needs, Chahal feels that a number of firms now realize the value of what Fleximoms offers. “A lot of companies realize that this demographic can be a game changer for them,” says Chahal.

During the first month of its operation, Fleximoms had about 22 companies on its rolls, a number that has since grown to 400. Chahal says in the same month the firm found placements for 12 women. Since then, it has found jobs for over 5,000 women across the country.

Archit Gupta, Co-Founder and Director at ClearTax, a tax filing provider, says that he heard about Fleximoms through a friend. “We were looking to hire people remotely, so that we do not have to expand our office. We wanted self-motivated people. Three months ago, I sought Fleximoms’ services to hire for two positions: a support role and for content writing .”

Though Gupta was able to fill the positions he was looking for, he feels a lot more could be done with regard to filtering resumés. “Most of the leads [given by Fleximoms] were good but there were some which were outside our mentioned criteria. This is one area where Fleximoms can improve upon—[put in place] a better filtering system,” says Gupta.

Chahal points to another challenge—to keep adding value to the needs and aspirations of women. “That is a tricky place to be,” she says. To do this, Fleximoms will be looking at Series A funding in the next six months to add scale, she adds.

This interview by Pranbihanga Borpuzari appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine in March 2013

Thank you! Marissa Mayer

Thank you! Marissa Mayer

Yahoo jolted everyone this week by banning remote work for its employees. The story has not stopped making headlines since then. The great thing that emerged was that the seemingly global majority undecided on workflex turned out to be its supporters. We have to thank Marissa Mayer for spotlighting the issue.

Traditionally, it is not new for businesses to deem workflex as ‘not for us’. For years, businesses have left un-extracted value on the table. For the fence-sitters and cynics, it might be interesting to go over key work-life trends in this context.

TRUST IS THE NEW BUSINESS CURRENCY
In case you haven’t noticed, businesses need to acquire, retain and grow trust from all their stakeholders, more than ever before. The open information network, the rise of global citizenship, the younger workforce have all meant that trust is the core around which businesses need to maneuver themselves. The trust economy lends itself to what is termed as the rise of creative collaboration – multitude of skills, backgrounds and energies combining to solve common problems.

ABSOLUTISM NO MORE
There is no absolutism in business anymore. Blended business models, complex eco-systems, shorter business life cycles – have reduced the island approach in business. Never say never was never truer. Collaboration, blended models, constant reevaluation, fast change, constant communication – are some trends businesses have to live with now.

AGE OF CHOICE
Isn’t 21st century an age of choice? The choice to be able to marry who you want, live where you want, learn what you want, have the world’s information at your disposal? And that applies to corporations too. Variety and variation in everything – from products we buy, to services we choose, to lives we lead. Workplaces need to acknowledge that needs and aspirations vary from individual to individual, from geography to geography and that workforce is not a lump of homogenous large group with no individuality. It includes everyone – global migrants, the natives, the digital citizens, the DINK couples, the single moms, gay families, elderly, veterans, the Gen X, Y and more.

FORMATS AND FITS
Remote work, telecommuting, work from home is just one page out of the workflex formats. There are over a dozen other formats that fit various business and strategic needs. These include flex work day, flex work week, job share, part time, core team flex roles etc. Carving out flex formats to suit an organisation’s growing needs is a function of business needs and needs to be thought through as part of the core planning process. However, many business teams find them at a loss when it comes to curating these engagements. Workflex formats are not one size fit all but. Workflex formats are not one size fit all but when applied in business contexts, will be key to business results. Businesses, which commit time and resources to plan these as part of their core, yield better long-term gains – of productivity, cost saving and engagement.

VIRTUAL MEETS REAL
Virtualisation of work and life is a real thing. For every 100 texts, IMs, Skype calls, there are perhaps five meetings. It is only going to grow, as we raise of children with smartphones in their hands from day one. They know no other reality and it simplifies things to enhance adaptability for us, who came in with a different version of work-life fit. Work will never be fully virtual or fully cubicle. Both will stay but the trend is weighing towards higher virtualisation.

DON’T FORGET SBMs
The uncertainty surrounding global economic conditions, the fall of the big global corporation, the result of the industrial age environment fatalism have shifted the pointer towards Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). Anyone who follows the changing workplace trends will be able to tell you that SMBs are the big adopters and drivers of workflex. They are agile, adoptive, extract business value and are ready to make that investment. They are the ones who employ a large percentage of the workflex employees and build flexibility as a core business value. Home based work is only going to grow as technology gets better, work more knowledge driven and work-life choices more diverse. In fact, teleworkers is the fastest growing category of workers globally.

HAPPINESS, AN ADVANTAGE
The central resource in a knowledge led organization is the disposition and discretion of the worker. A CEO’s task before the balance sheet is to tilt the mindset of the knowledge worker in favor of the organisation and its mission. Leadership today is less about whom you lead and more about who wants to be lead by you. Physical, mental, cognitive well-being is the most valuable unwritten column in the P&L statement of a company and its impact is only set to grow.

REDUCED SILOS, MORE SHARING
No organisation of today is built on industrial age principal of silos. Flow, fluidity, constant change leading to increased sharing is the form of new age business. One thing leads to another, the world is a networked place, we want to share more, participate in the open sharing economy, learn through open streams of shared knowledge and align ourselves with communities that catch our interest, irrespective of their global locations. Businesses need to be cognizant of this fact and respond to the fact. The future is now.

The original article was featured as a opinion piece in The Times of India, Crest Edition

Can India Grow Without Its Women?

Can India Grow Without Its Women?

India: If you grew up in urban India in last three decades or so, chances are that the top achieving students in your class were women. Some of the men might have even passed because the women made all the notes and helped classmates. Most of these women would then go on to some great career opportunities or find interesting things to do. Revisit the same at a reunion few years hence and chances are the men are still managing to run up the ladder, while a significant number of women would have off-ramped.

Universality of marriages, child care, elderly care, spousal duties for traveling spouses, army wives, large traditional families, lesser access, fewer women friendly opportunities, a gender stereotypical society, falling confidence, lack of re-skilling opportunities, changing job market — the list of factors leading to the phenomenon is long.

When you do a little math, given that India produces the largest number of graduates in the world, is home to over a billion people, has a plethora of educational institutions and growing corporate classes and not to mention the over-arching environment that is not particularly great for women — it is easy to guess that something is majorly amiss. Work-life choices for women are rather heterogeneous and somewhere the homogeneity of career ladder and the weight of stereotypes make things tough. Almost 50 percent graduating class and less than 5 percent women CXOs, less than 15 percent women managers tell the tale.

Consider These Facts

113: India’s ranking on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (out of 135 countries), measuring economic, health care, education and political issues.

24 percent: The percentage of women in India’s workforce –117 million out of 478 million people.

5 percent: The percentage of senior level female employees in India. The global average is about 20 percent.

48 percent: The percentage of women who drop out of the workforce before they reach the middle of their careers. The Asia regional average is 29 percent.

62 percent: The percentage of a male counterpart’s salary that a woman earns in India. In the United States, it’s about 80 percent.

Source – CSIS

How can an aspiring economy be built by letting talent lie latent? Would you run a factory by leaving out your finest hands on deck out?

Women: Women globally shoulder the care-giving economy but in India the weight is doubled — gender stereotypes and patriarchal super-structures make the situation even more complex. There is an inherent distance between women and the world of work — especially, one with a fiduciary nature. In India, there are almost 300 million women who are working moms, housewife moms, housewives and working wives. About 100 million live in urban India. Growth in education, media influence and consumer focus has created an opportunity for women to pursue their ambitions and make active choices.

Organizing Work: The way work is organized for contemporary societies is a reflection of post industrial age but for centuries prior work was either an individual pursuit or organized in guilds. Modularity and integration are two significant aspects of worked, which got overlooked in the industrial age expansion. The industrial age also passed on the means of production and access to financial resources in hands of men worldwide.

One can look at this phenomenon through various lenses — a feminist’s perspective, a job seekers dilemma, a corporate productivity and talent management issue – the fact remains there is a challenge and an equal opportunity to serve the women workforce in urban India. The case for women at work has been illustrated before. What is required is to address the how to and curate the customer experience? That is exactly what Fleximoms set out to do when it rolled out commercial services in 2011. These included coaching services, corporate services for Workflex and a community to connect women making work-life choices.

Fleximoms is a Workflex readiness specialist – which in simple words means being able to use alternate formats to stay connected to work and workforce – for women professionals and corporates. Fleximoms works with women and businesses and helps them connect to opportunities, community, information, network and coaching.

As a team we stand by the credo: “Who we are and what choices we make is going to decide the life we have.” And we want that to be a conscious choice, and one each one of us is ready for. Fleximoms hopes to be that partner when one is making those choices.

The original article was featured as a blog/opinion piece in Huffington Post

Work and the Joy of Creation

Work and the Joy of Creation

“It’s all about the work you are willing to do,” said poet and award-winning Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander, at President Obama’s swearing in ceremony in 2009, reading from her poem ‘The Praise Song for the Day’ which highlights the virtue of work. In the context of women and work, nothing could be truer. By definition, work is not only “anything, which is produced as the result of labor” but among other things is as much an “act, deed, service, effect, result, achievement and feat.” There are clearly, two aspects to this definition: work as productivity and work as defining an individual or being an achievement.

Work as productivity

Productivity is linked to remuneration. Overall, there is enough research to prove that work-for pay has been a male domain. Thus it is clear that whether by design or by default traditionally women have been distanced from the ‘world of work’, especially of a remunerative nature.

Yet, it is said a woman’s work is never done. But is it ever valued? Why has the unpaid work done by women at home come to be undermined / ignored? The answer goes back to the advent of modern day commerce which moved the means of production into hands of men. This was a major factor in alienating women from the workforce. Did you know that women form 2/3 of the world’s workforce but occupy only 1 per cent of the assets? In this process, women have become the temp staff (workers with little stake, ownership or rewards) in the global economic engine!

How can this change? Women need to build and display greater ownership of the world of work and perhaps rediscover that work is more than just a means of earning an income. The ownership of the world of work will come through owning accountability, responsibility, as well as the risks and rewards that come with it. I know quite a few mothers who only want to ‘marry daughters up’. It is almost like having very little faith in the ability and ambition of our daughters to think for themselves, to dream and achieve big. Why won’t we tell our children and especially our daughters that they can wish for anything they want, a large wedding, a business, a Tiffany’s stone as long as they work towards those goals? Recent research by Dr Catherine Hakim has thrown up uncomfortable questions about the choices and preferences women make: she says there is proof that women choose to undervalue themselves despite equal opportunities…

Work as a yardstick of self-worth

Which brings us to the second critical aspect of work: as a means of defining self-worth. “Work is an expression of who you are. So who you are is what needs to be worked out,” says spiritual mentor Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev. Work can therefore imply or be:

A sense of purpose: Work has the ability to put purpose into our lives. Thus, for instance, empty-nester moms can find a new raison d’être in work, and housewives can find fulfillment in using and honing their inherent skills.

Ideation: The human brain has the potential to create, envision, and share. Ideation is the biggest joy of work.

Contribution: Work makes us contribute to a larger whole and brings in parts of millions of contributions to us. Not being part of this circle of creation is a sore loss.

Circle of Support: Work creates a circle of support, a network of peers, a range of experts to learn from and an eco-system of interdependence – one that is hugely social in nature and essential to individual development.

Wealth Creation: Work provides that essential access to a system of wealth creation. Wealth is also the single largest factor in determining the access to resources and level of development.

A Change Agent: Work allows each one of us to be our own change agent – to change what we don’t like, build on what we do etc in a continued effort to better the best in us.

A Tool for Sustainability: Global economic development needs women to display greater participation in global socio-economic affairs. One of the objectives of the global sustainability movement is equitable distribution of access and resources and bringing more women into leadership positions across the spectrum.

Enterprise: Entrepreneurship is empowering. Being able to choose a dream, create it, mould it, execute it, risk it is the ultimate path to embracing fearlessness. Not having enough women making this choice not only leaves us as a poorer society in terms of output but also leaves women poorer for not having experienced one of the most significant life changers – the joy of enterprise.

Let us give ourselves the power to create, lead, make, sculpt, change, build, acquire, dispose, envision and grow. There are seeds to be sown, ideas to be propagated, rewards to be harvested and future generations to mentor. Let us get to work!

The original article was featured as an Opinion piece on Accenture’s website here

Woman’s Initiative Awards

Woman’s Initiative Awards

India’s GDP may have slowed in 2012, but the country is still growing: its middle classes, labour needs and higher education levels are on the rise, with women students now outnumbering men on certain courses. Yet a mere 22% of all female graduates go on to enter the workforce. ‘Women in India experience a lot of social pressure,’ says Sairee Chahal, 36, an entrepreneur who wants to help change these figures. ‘They are expected to look after all domestic matters, from the extended family to the home and the pets, and frequently end up blunting their ambition.’

Yet educated and qualified women could fill India’s burgeoning need for professional and managerial staff – a shortage of which is restricting the country’s growth, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently declared. Overall, women make up just a quarter to a third of the nation’s workforce, and nearly half have dropped out of work by mid-career. Take Sairee’s own experience, when she recently attended her high school reunion: ‘we were a class of 60 with 35 girls, only five of whom are working today. And nobody found that odd!’

Back to work
For Sairee, the key ticket is flexibility. ‘I want to help relieve the burden many women feel returning to work would involve – be it through the stress of social responsibilities or their reticence about going back to work after starting a family.’ Her company, Fleximoms, a workflex website for women and mothers, is ample testament that women are eager to join the fray: ‘technology has brought about a revolution in the way we work that fits perfectly with flexible solutions for work-life balance. Just because society wants them to stay at home doesn’t mean women don’t feel left out of intellectual pursuits – just like anywhere else in the world!’

To help them get back in the saddle, Fleximoms has created a thriving community sharing advice and information. ‘Joining Fleximoms opens up a whole support network,’ Sairee explains. First there’s the job board, which posts opportunities from SMEs and corporations, 80% of which have flexible hours or conditions. ‘We screen jobs to make sure they’re not “reverse flexibility” i.e., full of unfeasible conditions! They have to offer a basic salary and decent working hours.’

Services catering to women
Fleximoms markets a series of coaching services, from basic CV-writing to full-blown seminars. ‘The very first service we launched was our Second Chance Back to Work programme, for women who have been out of the job market for a long time and are looking for a life change. It covers current work trends and draws up a personal roadmap to establish what steps need taking.’ Career advice sessions target those who have been out of the market for lesser periods; women in work looking for new options are also catered for, with an in-depth skills review.

Revenue comes from subscription to the coaching services and a commission on each job offer, plus a finder’s fees to headhunt the right applicant on request. Further streams range from specialist consultancy to programmes on gender policy that aim to help women feel more confident about tackling sectors dominated by men. Fleximoms itself employs 12 people – seven full time and five on a flexible basis – to manage the 250 companies who now use the job board and the 2,000+ job connections that have been made since its launch in 2011.

Boost the economy and morale
You could say that Sairee is a bit of a trailblazer: ‘I’m the only woman in my family who has ever worked! ’ When she became a mother six years ago, she was in the midst of setting up a consultancy venture: ‘I realised how lucky I was to have a network of people to help on all fronts. It inspired me to seek ways to help other women break through and avoid being denied opportunities and choices.’

With an estimated 30 million women between the ages of 30 and 55 in India, Sairee intends to get her message across to as many as possible and can serve as a vibrant role model. In many aspects, Indian society is still driven by tradition for women: the divorce rate is among the world’s lowest, single mothers are rare and women have not generally been seen as an economic power. ‘Women have only recently won the right to an equal share of assets if divorce does occur,’ notes Sairee, ‘we weren’t seen as needing access to economic resources! Yet more women in work would boost the economy, income and consumption.’ Not to mention morale and personal fulfillment.

Sairee is a 2012 Cartier Woman’s Achievement Awards finalist. Her profile appeared on the Awards website.

Baby blues

On September 30, a week after an all-hands meeting with Yahoo’s 14,000 employees to describe her vision for the company’s future, a heavily-pregnant Marissa Mayer checked into the private room of a hospital and delivered a baby boy, her first child with Internet investor husband Zachary Bogue. But the new CEO of Yahoo Inc couldn’t keep her thoughts away from office for long. Soon after, she set off a global storm by announcing her intention to return to work as soon as possible, “perhaps in a week or two”.

Worried mothers from across the world lambasted her decision. They said she was being crazy in putting the demands of her career before her child. They said her priorities were all wonky. “She’s not had a foot surgery, she’s birthed a tiny human being. A baby who needs stuff,” said one, adding that “there is a baby involved”. “You are not just a CEO anymore,” said an article by Allison Benedikt in online magazine Slate.

To be sure Mayer was being no trailblazer in cutting short her maternity leave. Many women have done that before, unleashing the very same sentiments of outrage. Not long ago, France’s former justice minister Rachida Dati had sparked a similar debate when she returned to frontline politics just five days after giving birth to a baby girl through Caesarean section in 2009. In 1990, Benazir Bhutto, certain that her opponents would use the interim period of her maternity leave to oust her from power, was back in office the very next day after giving birth to her second child. Bhutto later wrote about her decision with pride in her memoir, Daughter of Destiny: “It was a defining moment, especially for young women, proving that a woman could work and have a baby in the highest and most challenging leadership positions.”

* * * * *

And working women cannot agree more. “The whole focus on the duration of leave is wrong; it is an individual and personal choice and not about how fast you can get back to work,” says HSBC Country Head Naina Lal Kidwai.

For Kidwai, maternity leave lasted all of six weeks, but she says the length of the leave is not as important as ensuring that the health of both mother and baby is not compromised, and this is hugely dependent on family support. She says she was lucky to have a supportive family but it is important for women not to lose sight of what they want or to give up their place at the high table just because they know that with a baby they have a life transition situation. “Your work life is not a seasonal thing. It is a long-term story,” she says.

Many women are going all out to find that balance between career ambition and family goals even if that means taking their baby along with them to office. “I went to the hospital with my laptop and within weeks I was back in office,” says Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms.com, a connecting point for women professionals and corporations. But something must give and she says, “between the baby and her start-up, there was no time for anything else and it may be the same for Marissa”.

But while Mayer’s career may be an inspiration for women with or without the focus on her maternity, concerns about the baby’s health resulting from her lightening-fast return to work may be exaggerated. Babies have a limited requirement in the initial months — they need food, a constant caregiver, who could be the mother, the grandmother or a trained nanny, and they are set for their infant life, says Prabha Chandra, professor of psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore.

“In the CEO lady’s [Mayer] case, I don’t think the baby’s health will be affected in any way by her quick return to office. She will have all the means to get all the support she needs to ensure her child’s wellbeing,” she says.

The problems arise for women from lower-income groups, those who work in rich households and enable white collar moms to get right back into work. Children in such households are often tossed around a number of caregivers in the absence of the mother. But more may not be merrier in the case of infants. Vidya Gupta, senior consultant at Apollo Hospitals, says, “In an ideal situation babies should not have more than two to three people to look after them as chances of developing infections and catching cold and cough are much higher if there are too many caregivers.” This lack of a permanent fixture which babies can identify as the caregiver can also put them at risk of developing attachment disorders, Chandra adds.

Such babies withdraw into their own shell becoming less responsive to the environment. They often have difficulty sleeping or feeding. They also tend to become shy and cranky in the company of strangers, often have muted response to stimulation and may not break into a smile or giggle as those babies who are brought up by a secure caregiver.

Attachment disorders, however, need not always stem from the lack of a steady caregiver. Sometimes separation anxiety shows up in infants when the mother returns to work after a three-month maternity break. Chandra says it usually takes infants a week to 15 days to adapt to a new person around them; if the child continues to cry for weeks after the mother’s return to work then it is a sign of a problem. A mother can find out if her baby feels separation anxiety if he/she sleeps or cries too much or doesn’t adjust to a change in routine.

* * * * *

Chandra, who runs Perinatal Psychiatry Clinic, a mother-infant counselling centre at Nimhans (the only one in Asia), says awareness of mother-infant problems is still very low in the country, even though the number of young mothers coming to the centre with bonding issues is gradually growing.

Thankfully, attachment issues that arise during infancy are rarely lifelong. “Babies are, surprisingly, very resilient and as they grow older they overcome the initial glitches of life,” says Chandra.

However, she cautions, sometimes the disorder may carry on for life. Babies who have suffered maltreatment and abuse at the hands of their caregivers or had to deal with insecure childhood in the absence of the mother, may become easy prey to anxiety and depression later in life when faced with something even as common as bullying. But babies growing up with working mothers aren’t any less attached to the mother than the caregiver. As they grow up, they expand their circle and include the mother as well in their group, adds Chandra.

Another aspect of childhood that gets affected in the mother’s absence is breastfeeding. Research has proven that mother’s milk stands far above any top feed or outside milk in terms of nutritional value. Among other advantages, it adds to the child’s immunity, helps in better mother-child bonding and comforts the child by letting them tune in to the mother’s heartbeat, a sound they are accustomed to from the womb. What’s more, babies fed on mother’s milk have slim chance of becoming obese and they grow the best, says Gupta of Apollo.

For the mother on the other hand, life after an early return to work isn’t smooth either. “They have the highest chance of developing depression in the first one year of giving birth and it only gets compounded if an early return to work is combined with poor support from the spouse and tremendous work pressure,” says Chandra. Guilt of having left the baby at home and not being able to give enough time may also push mothers over the edge.

However, there has been no conclusive study to gauge the psychological, health or any other impact of mother-infant separation in early childhood, says Chandra.

The piece was published in Business Standard