Workplace stress, lifestyle diseases threaten India’s hi-tech growth

Workplace stress, lifestyle diseases threaten India’s hi-tech growth

New Delhi: A sharp rise in lifestyle diseases such as heart problems and strokes, coupled with a lack of adequate preventive health care, threatens India’s future growth prospects, a research study said.

Experts warn that the country’s hugely successful outsourcing industry could be the hardest hit.

Heart diseases, strokes and diabetes are estimated to have wiped $9 billion (euro6.5 billion) off India’s national income in 2005, but the losses could total a staggering $200 billion (euro144 billion) over the next 10 years if corrective action is not taken quickly, according to a study released late Wednesday.

The study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, a New Delhi-based research group, said India’s rapid economic expansion has boosted corporate profits and employee incomes, but has also sparked a surge in workplace stress and lifestyle diseases that few Indian companies have addressed.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said his biggest concern was the country’s information technology industry that has grown rapidly, riding on the outsourcing boom in recent years.

“It’s the fastest-growing industry in our country, but it is most vulnerable to lifestyle diseases," Ramadoss said. “Its future growth could be stunted if we don’t address the problem now."

Long working hours, night shifts and a sedentary lifestyle make people employed at information technology companies prone to heart disease and diabetes, the report said. There have also been growing reports of mental depression and family discord in the industry.

Infosys Technologies Ltd., India’s second-largest software exporter, has a 24-hour hot line for employees suffering from depression to access psychiatrists.

“We must have prevented at least 30 deaths from suicide because of this hot line," said Richard Lobo, a director at the Bangalore-based company.

“In Bangalore, the psychiatrists say their Saturdays are reserved for marriage counseling for the IT sector," Lobo said.

Infosys introduced a work-life balance plan after a 24-year-old employee suffered a heart attack several years ago, Lobo said.

But not many companies in the outsourcing industry conduct regular health checks or provide similar support to their employees.

Ramadoss said he was in touch with the information technology ministry to persuade companies to conduct health checks on their employees and take measures to minimize risk.

The ICRIER study, which surveyed 81 companies, said they lose approximately 14% of their annual working days due to employee sickness. Less than a third of them provide their staff with preventive health care measures.

Reducing just one health risk increases an employee’s on-the-job productivity by 9% and cuts absenteeism by 2%, the study said.

Ravi Kasliwal, a cardiologist at New Delhi’s Indraprastha Hospital, said many Indians are not aware they face cardiac risk, although the country is expected to have the world’s largest number of heart patients by 2020.

Heart disease is projected to account for 35% of deaths among India’s working age population between 2000 and 2030, Kasliwal said, citing data from the World Health Organization. That compares to about 12% in the United States, 22% in China and 25% in Russia, he said.

The study said corporate initiatives are crucial because of low levels of public health spending and poor insurance coverage in India.

India’s per capita health spending of $7 is one of the lowest in the world and is a fraction of what the United States spends -- $2,548, according to a 2006 WHO report.