Month: June 2014

Warning Signs For Corporate India

Do all disasters provide early warning signs?  Well this seems to be one and hopefully, you will take note and do something about this before it is too late – for yourself and your organization.

When I look around to those working in the corporate world in India, the level of ‘busyness’ and stress seem very visible.  I see people working very long hours, through lots of pressure which seeps into personal lives, stretching themselves with very little exercise time, quality reflection time with themselves or their family or friends.  You might say this is a sign of a developing economy, ambition and need for growth.

Are we in the east following the west, in a crazy pursuit of development, sacrificing core personal value systems and  basic health along the way? Has employee wellbeing taken a back seat? Ironically, the western world considers the topic important nowadays.

This post might hold a biased perspective towards the IT or ITES sectors (Information Technology/Information Technology Enabled Service) as the majority of my first level connections in India work there.  A 2012 article in the New India Express highlighted some disturbing health trends and activities in India Inc.  Another article suggested that 30 to 40% of corporate India suffer from stress related disorders.  Multiple studies, including this one relates to health issues and concerns in call centers.  According to a 2014 article, the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM) latest study on “Multitasking Seriously Affecting corporate Women’s Health”, reveals that 78% of working women surveyed in the age bracket of 32-58 years were found to be afflicted with lifestyle, chronic and acute ailments such as obesity, depression, chronic backache, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart, kidney disease etc.  I found an interesting blog post with statistics and trends discussing increasing divorce rates in the IT industry.

The warning signs are appearing in front of us as well in various forms.  It’s shocking to hear about early heart attacks, major health issues and even death of twenty/thirty year old young professionals.   These were unheard of, especially among our first level network and extremely rare in the past.  The rise of sedentary lifestyle, stress, extreme working hours, increased commuting time, hyper connectivity through smart devices and food habits seem to play key roles.  Many parents feel that they are not able to find quality time with their kids and also with their partners, especially when both work.

It would be worthwhile for organizations to take valuable initiative to support their employees’ wellbeing.

In financial terms, many companies in the western world discovered this over time – rising healthcare costs start taking a heavy toll once a critical mass is reached with mounting health issues (even if you don’t consider the hidden costs like lost productivity, focus etc.).  As the healthcare and insurance costs increase, it will require a heavy investment on prevention initiatives.  Does anyone foresee healthcare costs in India going down in the near future?

If human capital falls among your top three organizational assets, then how important would the health of your major asset be for your success?

An ex-colleague/occupational health expert in Nokia used to tell me that the key factor to note about employee wellbeing area is that it goes beyond occupational health services, health centers, exercising, physical/mental activities and food habits.  It is very important to look at the total picture that includes and prioritizes healthy work practices, leadership/management/team practices and day to day work environment.

There are also local environmental and cultural factors to recognize, while introducing organizational initiatives.  I heard recently from a friend in a respected organization that introduced therapy support services for its employee population, recognizing support in a high stress environment.  Most people stayed away from the service due to the social stigma attached to the word, ‘therapy’.

International experts have noted that there is an urgent need in India to introduce a comprehensive Occupational Health and Safety Act in line with many industrialized countries.  The laws are  only an important starting point.  These efforts have to extend beyond the blue collar world, covering the entire workforce and could also be spearheaded by leading industry organizations like Nasscom.  

For a leader, an organization or you as an individual, it is worthwhile to put health and wellbeing on your agenda for various reasons.  As we all know, the better we feel physically and emotionally, the higher the probability of impactful output in terms of energy, idea and results.

What are few basic things that organizations and leaders could do?

  1. Encourage health related activities periodically through the year, including health checkups, options to followup with healthcare experts, physical activities, hobby clubs, free or subsidized fitness classes at the workplace, also reducing the extra effort for employees and probably their families.  Using external experts would be the recommended option for reasons of absolute privacy for employees.  Confidentiality on health and personal issues should be non negotiable, with higher levels for HR professionals who are privy to such information (overheard couple of comments regarding not trusting HR with personal information).
  2. Look for ways in which the physical infrastructure can support employee wellbeing.  Incorporate workplace practices that support related behaviors.  e.g. ergonomic chairs, mouses, keyboards, screens, tables, quiet/thinking rooms, standing or moving at least couple of hours each day etc.  A simple example for a cost-benefit case would be to calculate the increasing number of sick leaves due to back pain nowadays.
  3. Build awareness on health topics and healthy practices through various channels and forms of media.  Invite experts to educate and open that information to even employee families.
  4. Review company leadership and management practices.  Look for unsustainable management practices that lead to high stress and low productivity.  Ask employees through anonymous surveys.  Conduct followup workshops or group discussions with teams and groups of employees that lead to relevant changes or even provide an avenue to bring out hidden stress and concerns.  Build a respectful, collaborative work environment.  These may also address fundamental work and management factors.
  5. Address social, cultural aspects.  Focus on the impact and output of work, not the time spent in the office.  Introduce flexible working hours if the team collaboration environment allows for that and the option to work a day or two from home, provided the right infrastructure is available.
  6. Provide and promote more healthy food and drink options in the company cafeterias.
  7. Tie up with services providers to provide discount coupons to employees on focused learning, fitness and fun activities that may meet the needs of wide spectrum of employees and could extend outside the workspace.

Generally, initiatives in this space seem to need a lot more support and sponsorship as the effectiveness is questioned by many non believers.  In reality, many individuals feel that employees are treated as commodities or quickly replaceable objects (reflection of bad leadership & management).  When the healthcare numbers start hitting a critical mass, companies will be forced to act for purely financial reasons.  There are great opportunities for organizations and leaders who want to stand out from the rest of the crowd, proactively work on this topic and show that they truly care about their major asset, in a sustainable manner.

At a personal level for yourself and your family, I pray that you will not wait for your company to take initiative or introduce necessary changes in your lives that are in your control.  You would know them in your mind but may not have acted due to being busy or for other reasons.  If not, please find time with a credible connection to reflect and clarify your priorities.  Do influence your employer and relevant groups wherever possible, to help build a supportive environment.  We cannot ignore that fact that most of our time awake will be at work and even small changes there could have a big impact on life.

More research and focused actions are needed on this topic in India.  Let us please lose sight of this important topic.  Would you agree?

Additional Reading:* An article related to the U.S. environment that appeared later in ‘Talent Management’ (posted July 9, 2014). “Report by human resources research and consulting firm Towers Watson – more than two-thirds of the nearly 200 U.S. employers it surveyed said they plan to increase their support of health and wellness programs during the next two years, while an additional 17 percent plan to significantly increase support…According to the report’s analysis of “high-effectiveness” organizations, there is a strong link between highly effective health and productivity strategies and strong human capital and financial results.”





Improving Employability – Suggestions for Administrators, Educators and Students of Professional Colleges

One of the common discussions I’ve run into with friends and ex-colleagues in India, especially in Kerala is regarding ’employability’.  A useful definition on wikipedia refers to ’employability’ as a person’s capability for gaining and maintaining employment (Hillage and Pollard, 1998).

Multiple contacts of mine on the corporate side from small and large companies confirm that they’re finding it more and more difficult to find and hire quality candidates among fresh graduates.  On the other hand, the number of professional colleges and students passing out have gone up by a big margin in recent years.  The gap seems to be widening in a different direction.

Having been involved in multiple related discussions and activities like university hiring in small and large organizations and with the development of a global graduate program for a multinational organization, there is little doubt that there needs to be an active dialogue on this among educators and addressed early in the educational system.

How could we look at improving employability?

In simple terms, organizations generally tend to look for three fundamental categories, especially among fresh professional graduates.

  1. Technical or Hard Skills (Competent knowledge on a specific engineering, software programming area, related thinking approach to solutions, financial skills etc.)
  2. Soft Skills (Visible and measurable aspects like communication, interpersonal skills, learning agility etc.)
  3. Attitude (Approach to tasks, mindset, ability to take responsibility and accountability, resilience in difficult situations etc.).  There may be some overlap with the second category or be combined with the second.

Skilled recruiters and hiring managers try to combine all the available data points like grades, responses to questions in interviews, visible behaviors, resume, group discussions, extra curricular activities, psychometric test responses if & where relevant, while finalizing a hire.  Students with high degree of self awareness and emotional intelligence generally seem to stand out from the crowd.

Most of my corporate connections seem to agree that the second and third categories are equally  important, compared to the first category of technical skills or knowledge.  Many jobs/roles that hire professional students today may not relate to their primary area of study but look for the ability to adapt their learning process and approach to other areas.

Designers of professional educational programs may need to rethink their effort, energy and overall investment across these categories.  It would be useful for them to seek support from internal and external experts, including alumni, recruiting organizations to ensure impact for their students and programs.  When professional education programs are designed with the intent to develop well rounded personalities, they result in  higher probability of success in career and life, even in difficult environments.  Working with some of the behavioral skills could go a long way to helping students navigate through their career beyond the initial  years.

It would be worthwhile for individual students to ask themselves how much of their time and energy is invested on developing themselves beyond learning their normal curriculum in professional institutions.  Students can take responsibility for their own development, in a digitally connected world and instant availability to brilliant sources of knowledge and wisdom.

I close with the following humble suggestion for students – Your investment in your continuous personal development will always pay off in the long run.  Even for those who may not land your first campus job, please remember that your first job is only the start of a long working journey.  There is a long way to go and there will be lots of ups and downs.  As much as possible, select work that you will enjoy doing and seem to hold at least some opportunities – not what everyone around defines or tells you is good.  Be open to experimenting early in your career.  There will always be opportunities with patience, resilience through difficult times and hard work.  The earlier you can start, the better.  I also encourage you to seek and find mentors to help you on your journey that you should take responsibility for.

PS: Taking this opportunity to remember and thank one of our engineering professors, Dr. K. Usha who spent lots of extra personal time and effort to prepare her students on topics beyond engineering,  scheduling extra sessions during lunch breaks and available hours, on her own initiative.  We need more role models and educators who can think and act beyond ‘normal’.

Personal Resilience in Tough Times – Finding One’s Way Back

Dedicated to my mother, Aleyamma Eapen.
I started thinking about writing on this topic as my mother passed away last week.

According to ‘Merriam-Webster’, ‘resilience‘ can be defined as the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.

Everyone inevitably goes through difficult personal scenarios at some point in life. These may include passing away of or losing dear ones, losing  jobs or security, personal relationships, illness or disease and unforeseen disappointments. They may also  result in instances where one questions and tries to find the meaning of one’s existence and life.  A whole host of issues and challenges seem to emerge in these situations. Sometimes, people around can act in ways that could be surprising, confusing and disappointing. One may encounter loneliness, lack of social support and various other social and personal challenges.

How can we build personal resilience?

Most times, we go along happily with our lives until one of these scenarios hits us badly and takes us by surprise. Even though we may not be able to prevent some things from happening, it helps to be aware and also respectful of others going through similar stages in life. A bit of empathy and support can go a long way and also helps with the recovery process for the person involved.

Every individual has her or his own way of coping with challenges, pain and finding the way back. Solutions may be unique and relevant to one’s own preferences. That said, it does help to learn and understand tried and tested methods of finding a way back to normalcy.  In tough times, it is not easy to think with a clear head.

I wanted to share few actions that I found helpful. If you have experienced some of these, please do share for the benefit of others around. There may be more people around than you think, working through life challenges.

  1. When everything around seems to whirl out of control, it helps to find one’s space of calm and peaceful reflection through prayers, meditation, breathing exercises and focus on one’s core belief systems. Having a spiritual belief system helped me find meaning and peace in difficulty. It’s still important to acknowledge that there will be an up and down process.
  2. For those going through the loss of a dear one, allowing for grieving time and finding the path towards acceptance is an important process with varying timelines. Understanding the stages of loss and grief, and allowing oneself adequate time to progress through these stages is important. Being compassionate and forgiving to oneself during the recovery process is also valuable.
  3. Focusing on the positives helps shift the mind to a healthier direction. A lot of thoughts go through one’s head during difficult times and it is easy to get stuck in a negative pool. If one can be conscious of this and find few things to be grateful and thankful for (redefine the “bad” in terms of potential “goods”), in spite of the difficulties, they help make a difference. The mindset can be important. Research from Carol Dweck of Stanford emphasizes the importance of having a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset.
  4. Having a helpful social support group, in the form of close friends, relatives, colleagues, professionals or individuals with a high emotional and spiritual quotient can make a huge difference. It helps for the closest support group to be available and present, sometimes just to be present with a listening ear or a hug (even virtually).
  5. Getting some momentum towards core areas of interest and meaningful impact is helpful.  It helps to move forward with a purpose, even in baby steps, whatever engages one’s mind with positive action. For me currently, focusing on completing this blog post, working with a friend on transitioning to a new blog page, helped to take my mind off difficult thoughts and focus on something meaningful for me.

These notes of course do not replace the need for professional support when needed and it is important to recognize when one feels the need, and act accordingly.

If we can reflect, learn and find our meaning from difficult life scenarios, we can grow stronger mentally, wiser, more compassionate towards ourselves and others in difficult environments.

Personal resilience is extremely important during difficult times.

How can you help build personal resilience and help individuals around you?

Life is precious. It helps to count our blessings and make a meaningful difference.  Wish you the best.

I also take this opportunity to thank the beautiful, generous souls near and far who have and are supporting me through difficult times. Thank you very much….

Suggested additional reading:
Life After Loss: Conquering Grief and Finding Hope by Raymond Moody and Dianne Arcangel (Book)

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire. – Schindler’s List

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