Some months back, a top executive of Encyclopedia Britannica in India allegedly committed suicide by jumping from the 19th floor of an apartment building in Gurugram. A suicide note recovered from the pocket of the 47-year-old COO stated that he was under a lot of stress and was taking the extreme step, as he was “fed up” with his life. A few days later, the 47-year-old head of equities at Bank of America Merrill Lynch India died of a sudden heart attack. The Mumbai-based managing director was apparently on a business trip to Hong Kong when he died, as per reports. Although there is no official statement on his death being connected to stress, the loss of the young life shook the corporate world, especially since the deceased was known to be health-conscious.
Stress at the workplace is nothing new, but has it become such a huge problem? Figures seem to paint a worrying picture. As per data from Optum, a leading provider of employee assistance programmes to corporates, around 46% of the workforce in Indian organisations suffers from some or the other form of stress. Optum’s study had a sample size of two lakh employees (from over 30 large employers) who took an online ‘health risk’ assessment during the first quarter of 2016. “Our data shows that stress has become a concern not only in the workplace, but broadly as well. Optum’s confidential ‘employee assistance programme’ (EAP) helpline gets several thousand calls a month and stress is a key issue reported by callers. In addition, our on-site health screenings and health risk assessments—which are conducted as part of our wellness programmes—show that an increasing number of individuals report high stress levels,” says Amber Alam, an Optum representative in India.
Optum has been offering health and wellness programmes in the Indian marketplace for more than a decade now. It serves several hundred multinationals in India, touching approximately 12 million lives via its EAP. Apart from employee well-being, stress is hitting companies’ revenues as well. A recent study ‘Workplace Stress: Impact and Outcomes: An India Study 2016’ showed that the total organisational productivity loss per year (because of absenteeism due to stress) adds up to approximately R49.6 crore in the the IT/ITeS sector (for an organisation with an average employee base of 10,000). That figure was R105.48 crore for the finance/banking sector (average employee base of 5,000). And for the travel and hospitality sector, it was R10.5 crore (average employee base of 2,000).
The study was undertaken by leading EAP provider Chestnut Global Partners India in collaboration with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) India. “These are huge numbers and can be mitigated only through proper health and wellness initiatives,” says Dedeepya Ajith John, senior knowledge adviser, SHRM India.
What’s leading to a spike in such cases?
Stress has always been a part of the workplace. “In recent times, several studies and researches have brought the concern back into the spotlight and highlighted it as one of the work areas for employers to focus on for improved employee productivity and a healthy work relationship with the organisation. Stress in the workplace is a result of various parameters that include work pressure, aspiration for growth, work-life balance, lack of motivation, cut-throat competition in the market, etc,” says a spokesperson of life insurance company PNB MetLife.
As per the survey, disrespect at the workplace came out as a higher stress inducer in female respondents in comparison to males, who, in turn, showcased a higher concern to unorganised work and lack of clear communication. Respondents who were less than 25 years of age and were at executive/team-lead/junior manager-level positions had higher stress levels due to lack of clarity of goals, lack of achievability when individual opinion is not taken into consideration and lack of flexibility in comparison to those older than 25 years of age and at higher career levels, the study noted. “In comparison to unmarried respondents, married ones get more stressed when they fail to get the required support from their managers or when they need to travel for longer times for business needs,” it further found. As per Alam of Optum India, part of the reason could be attributed to visible changes in lifestyle. “For example, lifestyles of individuals living in major metropolitan areas have become more sedentary. In addition, individuals’ attention to health and wellness is just starting to gain traction in India,” he adds.
The way forward
“Stress has still not become a huge problem at the workplace in India, as we have a beautiful support system called ‘family’, which bears all the brunt,” says A Thiru, president, corporate HR at JK Organisation, an industrial group. “But this can’t be taken for granted any more. Therefore, noting early warning signals at the workplace becomes vital if one wants to be a responsible corporate citizen,” he adds.
As part of its employee wellness initiatives, auto major Maruti Suzuki India encourages staffers to participate in sports. It hosts several in-house sporting tournaments, as “sports is one of the best ways to de-stress and build qualities like sportsmanship, motivation, leadership, team building, etc,” as per a spokesperson of the company. Maruti Suzuki also encourages employees to test their mettle in high-adrenaline motorsports like Raid de Himalaya,
Desert Storm and Dakshin Dare, besides other sporting events like Airtel Half Marathon, the spokesperson adds.
As per Sameer Wadhawan, vice-president, HR, Coca-Cola India and south-west Asia, there could be several reasons for stress, both personal and professional, and one could feed off the other. “In order to allow associates to lead a more balanced life, we have put together a series of initiatives, which encourage individuals to discuss their problems with seniors/colleagues, so that a collaborative solution is sketched out in order to reduce work stress,” he says. For instance, the cola major has an ‘active healthy living’ policy in place that encourages people to take up health programmes like gym, yoga or hobby classes, which are partially reimbursed by the company. Its ‘active well-being’ programme, on the other hand, provides on-site medical health check-ups, lifestyle assessment and counselling services, including lifestyle management, de-addiction, stress management and anxiety management programmes for employees. “As part of this programme, there is also a helpline that provides consultation to employees,” adds Wadhawan.
However, there is still a taboo around seeking professional counselling in India, says Alam of Optum. In order to tackle this, the company recently introduced a new integrated EAP model, where it runs a 24×7 counselling hotline and also has medical professionals such as doctors, nurses and nutrition experts to provide a holistic support service to employees and their family members. “This integrated approach has proven to be more effective. Clients who call in for a regular medical issue can also be screened for underlying stress or anxiety issues and be directed to professional counselling services, as appropriate,” adds Alam.
The real remedy is providing the right solutions without blaming or crucifying the individual, offers Thiru of JK Organisation. “While superfluous interventions to improve the organisational climate can result in a temporary makeover, the real crux is building a strong culture, which provides opportunity for individuals to excel in their sphere of work,” he adds.