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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India Inc’s woes with workplace stress

Operating among multiple hierarchies can help beat stress at work

A silent killer stalks India Inc. And it is taking its toll. The evidence is building that in India, like in the US, job stress is by far the single largest source of tension for working adults. Four years ago Ranjan Das, chief executive officer (CEO) of SAP in India, died of a massive heart attack. He was only 42, a fitness freak but subject to the abnormal stress that is the lot of a CEO in the tech business. What made it worse was that he got by with a mere 4-5 hours of sleep a day.

A survey by industry lobby Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India in 2012 showed that due to demanding schedules and high stress levels, nearly 78% of corporate employees in India sleep less than six hours a day, leading to severe sleep disorders. The survey pointed out that 21% of the people in the sample suffered from depression, the third most prevalent lifestyle disease, ahead of high blood pressure and diabetes.

The problem with stress is that its consequences do not show up immediately but add up over time. Stress affects the brain in such a manner that an individual takes irrational decisions, including those that end up increasing the stress even more.

Not that there aren’t enough triggers already. A high-cost economy which has been in prolonged slump, shrinking incomes and fear of layoffs have turned private sector India into a tough place. On-the-job stressors range from fuzzy job expectations and deadline pressures to noisy work areas, the bane of open offices. This is compounded by off-the-job stresses such as the need to take care of children, increasingly fraying marriages and familial relationships as well as the daunting tasks of addressing medical issues and other concerns of aged parents.

All of these present a completely unprecedented set of challenges for the growing numbers of sandwich generation Indians—those who have to simultaneously take care of elderly parents while also raising young children. Add to this day-to-day travails of the working classes—while Arvind Kejriwal is sprawled on dharna blocking all roads to the centre of the capital city, meetings are being postponed or missed and half hour office trips balloon into three-four hour nightmares.

A survey of software engineers by M.S. Darshan, Rajesh Raman, T.S. Sathyanarayana Rao, Dushad Ram, and Bindu Annigeri of the department of psychiatry at JSS Medical College and Hospital in Mysore, showed that 51.2% of those surveyed were professionally stressed at the time of the interview while 43.4% were at risk of developing depression.

It isn’t as if all jobs are stressful. The real issue seems to be one of square pegs being desperately fitted into round holes. Individuals are made up differently. Some need the adrenalin rush that comes with jobs where uncertainty and a pressure cooker environment come with the territory. These people would be seriously underwhelmed if they found themselves in assembly line work which doesn’t give them control. Others, and that doesn’t make them necessarily deadbeat, enjoy steady single-tracked jobs in which they can work within their comfort zone. When these two crosscurrents get mixed up it can wreak havoc in the lives of people.

The risk of mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and substance abuse, and depression goes up proportionate to the increase in stress levels. Depression is, in fact, not a function of will but a disease because of the inability to take what is termed neurological insult. Long-term neuro insults through psychosocial pain lead to feelings of helplessness and ultimate abandoning of rational judgement. A 2011 Princeton study said that both alpha and delta males ranging from the lowest member of the social hierarchy to the top-enders suffered from the highest stress. Depression leads to anhedonia by interfering with dopamine or pleasure circuitry so that one feels no joy. Without spurts of joy, our brains get soggy and foggy and are unable to take the right decisions.

But the good part is that as a species we can operate among multiple hierarchies. We can be serf in office and king of carrom, listen to music to sweep away stress. That is an option that has to be strengthened in our social discourse as we seek to get off the treadmill.

Can corporate India tackle the growing problem of job stress? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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