San Francisco-based Vinay Raghavan flew to Bengaluru in early July, but three weeks on, his body clock is still stuck halfway between North America and India. Working in the hardware department of a multinational technology company, he is required to stick to the Pacific Time Zone – which means consistently working the night shift.
“I’ve been surviving on Red Bull every evening,” the 29-year-old said holding up a can. “I’m averaging about four to five hours of sleep at best, spread over different parts of the day. I’m already experiencing constant headaches. My sleep cycle is completely messed up.”
Raghavan, an H-1B visa holder, while unaffected by the recent visa ban issued by the United States government, chose to return to India so he could be with his wife. Her interview for an H-4 visa was scheduled for late March, but then the consulates shut down due to the spread of Covid-19.
Now with the visa ban in place at least till the end of the year, Raghavan is unclear when his wife will be able to fly back with him to the United States. “She has no path back in the country,” he said. “She’s not even being able to get a visitor visa.”
The Trump administration’s order has separated countless India-American families and left many others to grapple with an uncertain future, but those who have been fortunate enough to still have their jobs and be with their families in India don’t have it any better.
Working from a time zone completely opposite to that of their employers, unable to spend adequate quality time with their families and the constant fear of losing their jobs if they slip up has started to take its toll on many.
“I’m struggling to fall and then stay asleep. I also don’t have the luxury of sleeping through the day because I have to help my parents around the house. Then in the evening, I pick up whatever’s been pending at work,” Raghavan said. “I’ve been juggling both these things, and I can already sense its impact on my health.”
Raghavan revealed he has been consulting a doctor to see if he can take sleep medication. “At least till I get some sort of normalcy back in my life,” he said.
According to Tony Cunningham, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, staying up later or getting up earlier than usual can impact your circadian rhythm, and doing it by a large enough margin is going to essentially have the same effects as jet lag.
“So you will experience increased fatigue, difficulties concentrating and poor attention,” he said. “Also, maintaining a normal sleep schedule is critical for immune system function, so disrupted sleep not only increases the likelihood of getting an infection, but your immune system may have a harder time fighting back if you do.”
The physical and mental impacts of an irregular sleep cycle are something Los Angeles-based Vinuth Guru is all too familiar with. The 35-year-old has been working the night shift since March, when he flew to India.
“I’ve developed an eating disorder,” he said. “The routine outside my room is all Indian Standard Time. My parents are up early in the morning and they go through their routine,” he said. For him and his wife, it’s all backwards.
“I try to stay awake till noon so I can spend some time with my parents, but it’s tough,” he said. “But I don’t know if it is quality time because I’m fearful of not being able to return to where I had established myself.”
‘It feels like I’ve been kicked out’
When Guru, who works with an online mortgage services company, flew to Bengaluru along with his wife to renew his H-1B visa and visit his parents after a gap of five years, he hadn’t planned on extensively working the night shift.
While his wife was able to get her H-1B visa stamped, Guru’s passport is still at the Chennai consulate – which closed on March 16 and his case has been on hold since.
Back in California, the couple has a house they have been paying mortgage on along with their car and all other belongings. “There are also a lot of documents. How am I going to get all of that back?” Guru, who first moved to the United States for his masters in 2007, wondered out loud.
He has spent over a decade in the United States, and said that most of his major learnings – how to survive, how to stay alone, how to get a job and establish a family – have happened in that country.
“It feels like I’ve been kicked out for no apparent reason,” Guru said. “Sometimes I fear that I might not be able to get a proper closure for all my existence there.”
Sleeping an average of four hours during the day and working through the night also means Guru has not been able to do much physical activity for the last few months and has to wait for the weekend to get adequate rest.
“We’re managing with whatever we can, but my productivity is not at the same level that it’s supposed to be,” he said.
No resolution in sight
His organisation has been accommodating of his situation so far. However, since he is the only one of his 150-employee company who is working from outside the United States, Guru is unsure how long his employers will allow him to work remotely.
“Eventually, they have to respect the taxation laws of the US and India,” he said. “I don’t know how long they will continue to bend over backwards to accommodate just one person.”
Raghavan’s employer has also been supportive of his work arrangement, which he said is what’s holding him back from revealing the extent of his difficulties to them. “It was a pretty tricky situation for me to get this work authorisation,” he said. “In order to maintain business continuity,
I made a commitment to my manager that I’m going to be available at least 80% of Mountain View hours.”
Since he is the team lead, Raghavan said his co-workers do not hesitate to reach out to him irrespective of what hour of the day it is for him. “If it’s urgent, they just ask me to get on a call. That’s been happening about three out of five workdays every week,” he said.
After his wife lost her job a few months ago due to a delay in the processing of her H-1B visa, Raghavan said the entire financial burden fell on him. “It subconsciously makes me put in all the effort I can into my job to ensure I’m not in a position that something similar happens to me,” he said. “Our entire livelihood is at stake.”
While he said he is willing to go to whatever lengths to ensure that his job is safe, doing so has also been “mentally exhausting”.
“Even if I was to surface my concerns to my employer, there’s still no clear resolution in sight,” he said. “There’s no fine balance to be struck between business continuity and my health.