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.”