How stress is killing India

November 16, 2018

Stress is one of the biggest problems in our workplaces. It is time to fight our stress-triggers, find the root of our problems and maintain a state of work-life balance

A few months ago, 41-year-old Anant Bajaj, the managing director of Bajaj Electricals, died of a cardiac arrest. While his unfortunate death sheds light on the relationship between cardiac problems and sudden death in the middle-aged, many are lamenting the lack of symptoms in such cases. A major cause, however, is not entirely unknown.

Similarly, last year, Vineet Whig, the chief operations officer of Encyclopedia Britannica in India committed suicide. A suicide note found in his pocket said that he was under a lot of stress and was “fed up” with his life.

Stress is an acute problem at Indian workplaces which affects both top bosses and the bottom rung. A recent survey conducted by Cigna TTK Health Insurance found that about 89% of the people surveyed say they are suffering from stress compared to the global average of 86%. The figure is astoundingly high among millennials: 95%.

Don't let stress destroy your happiness

The root of the problem

Work and finances are the key reasons people attribute their stress to. But workplaces, you may argue, have always been stressful. Today, however, the problem of stress has been accentuated by the ubiquity of social media and electronic communication. Workplaces increasingly expect employees to be constantly connected. Social media is no better as it creates unattainable aspirations while bombarding us with bad news.

We are constantly using our cell phones, drowning under notifications, replying to emails and finding no time to take a break, unplug or recharge. What’s worrisome is that the same survey notes how one out of eight Indians have serious trouble in dealing with stress and nearly 75 percent of the respondents said they don't feel comfortable talking to a medical professional about their stress. Stress cannot be ignored or seen in isolation, as chronic stress, according to studies, ravages the immune system and increases the risks of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

The question to ask is, what does that do to our productivity and ability to live and work well?

Un-blinding the workplaces

We need to begin by pulling the wool off employers’ eyes. More than health insurance and policies which are directed at symptoms, workplaces need to focus on well-being as investment in human capital impacts everyone from the management to the bottom line.

Businesses can no more see well-being as fluffy or superfluous and focus only on healthcare plans which deal with symptoms of diseases like hypertension or diabetes.

They must focus on the root cause, especially when stress and burnout are proving to have a high impact on healthcare costs, on productivity, performance, and of course, attrition. Attrition is a big cost for all companies and little further evidence is needed when the same survey proves that most respondents (a high of 87%) said that workplace wellness programmes are important for them and help them choose between two potential employers.

Therefore, if companies start investing in wellness, they will not only prevent a lot of symptoms that decrease employee productivity but will also improve overall performance. Eventually, it will be cheaper and much more effective for the companies’ growth, and will not, unlike what’s popularly believed, eat into their profits.

In his popular book, “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—And What We Can Do About It”, Jeffrey Pfeffer calculated that work-related stress caused as many as 120,000 American deaths a year.

A clear figure might not exist for India but the current mental health issues among millennials in the country paint a grim, dismal picture. Pfeffer also explains how firms such as Aetna, an insurance group, and Barry Wehmiller, a manufacturer, introduced wellness programmes for higher employee satisfaction and better performance. That model, then, was imitated by businesses such as Cadbury.

Thrive Global’s wellness programmes are making the same argument. Our blended experiential workshop curriculum at Accenture, for example, addressed the root causes of stress and burnout to improve recruitment and increase employee satisfaction. After its implementation we saw an 18% increase in employee satisfaction and 5% increase in millennial retention.

Work life harmony

Workplaces in India must follow similarly. Recently, Amazon India set a precedent where its country head Amit Agarwal wrote to Amazon’s employees encouraging them to spend time at home and maintain a healthy “work-life harmony”. He asked them to stop taking calls and emails after hours, and specifically that, “No business decision should be made between 6 pm and 8 am.”

Creating a healthier work environment, busting stress, equipping employees with the tools needed to alleviate stress, engaging them at the workplace and improving work-life harmony has long-term benefits. Its final affirmation comes from a study by Gallup which says that improving employee engagement will make businesses perform better, which, in turn, would help India maintain its economic upswing in the global market.

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