A few years ago, in a highly shocking incident, the then MD of Tata Motors, Karl Slym jumped off his top-floor hotel suite in Bangkok. Two years ago, the COO of Encyclopedia Britannica decided to follow suit, by plunging down the ventilation shaft of his apartment building. Prior to that, a young CEO of SAP India, and a friend, Ranjan Das, succumbed to a massive heart attack, reportedly due to deprived sleep patterns. The list is never-ending: Anand Bajaj of Bajaj Electricals, VG Sidhartha of Café Coffee Day, Saumil Shah of BankAm Merrill Lynch India, and so on.
These are not isolated cases. Two recent studies have found that depression, anxiety, and stress prevail among 46 percent of employees in the private sector in India. Demanding work schedules, high pressure on KPIs linked to higher perquisites, and the always-on mobile phone syndrome are the top three culprits. In addition, sleep apnea, relationship issues, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, lifestyle issues such as EMI troubles and peer pressures to maintain luxurious lifestyles complete the list.
The harmful side effects of what we call “management toxicity” are affecting more and more Indians just as we see it among Americans. Of the eight hundred thousand suicides across the world annually, about 100 thousand are literate Indians – potentially employed or employable. India is the world capital for diabetics and cardio ailments are affecting more and more Indians in the 30s.
A surprising number of recent studies have shown that performance is not positively related to work hours. The greater the work hours, the lower the productivity per hour worked. Just working more doesn't accomplish much.
It implies you don’t have to work in a coalmine or chemical plant to get health hazards. In fact, blue-collar occupational hazards have been largely eliminated after the introduction of stringent HSE processes in most companies. Reprising a lesson from the Quality Movement that “what-gets-measured-gets-affected”, companies pay attention to workplace fatalities and incidents, such as falls or chemical spills, where bodily harm can be readily ascertained and benchmarked globally.
Unfortunately for the white collars, the invisible stress at work is intangible, and as with most intangibles at enterprises, these don’t get measured. This inevitable part of contemporary workplaces just keeps getting worse for almost all jobs, resulting in an ever-higher physical and psychological toll. The American Psychological Association’s 2015 report noted that the top two sources of stress were money and work. Another poll reported that nearly half of employees surveyed missed time at work from work-related stress and 60 percent said that stress had made them sick.
Yet, a surprising number of recent studies have shown that performance is not positively related to work hours. The greater the work hours, the lower the productivity per hour worked. Just working more doesn't accomplish much. An HBR article argued that even though managers seem to "want employees to put in long days" and "respond to their emails at all hours," such policies backfire for people and companies.
There is a lot of evidence that long work hours are hazardous:
- A review of 27 empirical studies found that long work hours "are associated with adverse health" including "cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and disability".
- Working overtime was associated with a 61 percent higher injury rate.
- A meta-analysis of 21 studies reported "significant positive mean correlations between overall health symptoms (physiological/psychological) and hours of work.
If the aggregate statistics are disturbing, the individual stories are horrifying. We are sure we all have enough experiences to share ranging from health issues, depression, family problems, missed opportunities, job changes and so on.
The saddest part is that even as organizations encourage management practices that literally sicken and kill employees, they also suffer because toxic management practices do not improve profitability. Unhealthy workplaces diminish employee engagement, increase turnover, and reduce job performance, even as they drive up health insurance and health¬care costs – truly a “lose¬lose” situation.
Ironically, most companies have developed elaborate measures to track their progress on environmental sustainability while little thought is given to “employee sustainability”. Although environmental sustainability obviously is essential, so is creating workplaces where people can thrive and enjoy physical and mental health. We should care about people, not just endangered species or photogenic polar bears, as we think about the impact of corporate activity on our environments. And as companies obsess over their carbon footprint, they would do well to consider their footprints on human beings – a carbon-based life form - who work for them.
Employees will need to learn how to say 'No' when it is right to say so instead of continuing with the servile mentality. It is also important to bring focus to 'jobs to be done' very objectively and adhere to time management principles.
In our opinion, if anything has to change, a combination of the following things will need to occur:
- First, employees must comprehend what constitutes health risks in their work environments. That includes the omnipresent psychosocial risks that are more damaging than physical injury risks. They must choose their employers, at least partly, based on stress-related dimensions of work that profoundly influence their physical and mental health.
- Second, employers will need to determine and measure the costs of their toxic management practices in terms of both direct medical costs and indirect costs via lost productivity and increased employee turnover. That understanding will be a necessary first step toward change.
- Third, governments will need to acknowledge and take measures on the externalities created when enterprises retrench people who were physically and psychologically damaged at work. The famed IT industry is a classic example here. The public costs of privately created workplace stress have already prompted policy attention and action in the UK and Scandinavian countries. With “Modicare” getting launched, it is in the economic interests of the government to reduce unnecessary – and preventable – healthcare costs.
- Fourth, societies will need social movements that advocate “human sustainability” and better work environments as important as environmental sustainability. Dumping pollutants into the air, water and ground have been rampant here even today but of late people have woken up to fight for a better environment and made companies pay for the damages. Because of the public movement, governments all over the world passed laws and developed norms restricting pollution. (Delhi is a live example of too-less-too-late in terms of public movement).
- Fifth, employees will need to learn how to say “No” when it is right to say so instead of continuing with the servile mentality. It is also important to bring focus to “jobs to be done” very objectively and adhere to time management principles.
We seem to be creating truly lose-lose work environments, in which people are making themselves sick for no other reason than to demonstrate their "commitment" and that they will literally risk their lives and health for their employers. If we are serious about building healthier societies, time to act is here and now. It just is not worth dying for a better pay cheque!