Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
The author is Director, Academy for Management Excellence, Chennai.
That there is a direct connection between employee health and the stresses and strains imposed on the individual by the pressures of increasing competition in business and organisational life, is so well established as to be a truism. Obvious though it might seem in retrospect, for most of the century just ended, Frederick Taylor's mechanistic models informed much of management thinking. They dealt with the life in the work-place as though it stood on its own with little reference to the human, organic factors of emotional states or family life. Essentially, people were thought to be a plentiful, easily replaceable, relatively inexpensive "resource" - to be purchased and employed by the industrial organisation. As Henry Ford observed, he wished he could get just a pair of hands from the worker, rather than the whole person with all the attendant messiness! People of the worker category tended to be referred to as skilled "hands". The idiom reflects the mindset. The relationship between the state of well-being or even health of the employee and his productivity received little or no notice.
In contrast, a study conducted among 2000 managers in the U.K. last year and published in Management Today, draws attention to what they call "stress drain". One in three managers surveyed complained of some extreme effects of work-related dysfunction, such as loss of sleep, impotency and high blood pressure, often with some heart-related problems. In a significant minority of cases, the job related stress has led to marital breakdowns.
Well-being is neither entirely a mental state nor merely a physical phenomenon, but a composite of both. Does it however mean that one cannot tackle them separately? This is a difficult problem for the medical profession all over the world. The paradox lies in the fact that the distinction between the mind and the body is not natural but man-made (or should we say, mind-made!). Put it another way, we make the distinction conceptually, but it can be argued that it is not real.
The lack of "disease" however, does not amount to health or a sense of well-being. This first and fundamental point in the traditional Indian wisdom of Ayurveda is being increasingly acknowledged all over the world. Deepak Chopra, a Boston-based Indian doctor and author of a number of bestsellers has brought millions to this point of view. For him, holistic medicine must take into account the intelligence that every cell in our body already comes endowed with when we are born. "You can never become healthy by swallowing medicines" is how a famous Professor of Ayurveda put it during a discussion I had with him recently. So how does present day Indian society deal with this growing crisis, is a question that arises naturally. Can we take refuge in the traditional assumption that the quality of family support and personal life are better overall in India, even if there is less affluence overall than in the so-called "advanced" economies?
Since about 1991, some of us have sensed that this is not so true any longer. For many, one of the less spoken of effects of the new liberalised economic regime must be the increased stress in everyday life. Consider the multiple forces, career and societal, at work and their effects. Increasing workload at the office is an almost universal feature in our lives. Businesses everywhere are spurred on by competition. Here it is augmented by a race for a share in the growth opportunity offered by a burgeoning industrial economy.
In this article we look at this issue from the point of view of the modern, urban "salaryman" as the Japanese refer to him. The business world sees well-being as a by-product of a sense of personal achievement especially of the kind that carries with it some public reward, if not acclaim. It rewards and praises a high energy level, high level of activity and "busyness" as well as speed. Some psychologists describe the A type executive, as one who is perpetually in a hurry, short of time and on a short fuse, full of ambition and restless energy. We must all know of someone of our friends, who is constantly on the go, living on adrenaline and putting in 70-hour weeks, of not only ceaseless motion but also the ever-present mental pressure of competing with other executives similar to himself. So much is the accent on work that even holidays and breaks must be regulated and planned, without the much needed spontaneity and ease that relaxation demands. The hard working executive, especially in the West but increasingly in India as well, takes even his exercise in short sharp bursts. The choices could be lunchtime jogging or a hectic game of squash, or better still, working out in an indoor all-weather gymnasium provided thoughtfully in the basement of the office block itself!
The issue today simply stated is this: organisations the world over, increasingly recognise that individual motivation and personal effectiveness alone are the major forces contributing to results of the organisation. At the same time, the radical change in the nature of work and careers merely reinforce the importance of allowing free play of initiative, creativity and self determination, all of which means a letting go of the command and control model of hierarchical governance. Tapping into individual creativity and peak performance dictate that greater flexibility in routines. The employee has to be more secure and at ease at work, whereas the situation both within and outside seems to do precisely the opposite.
How are we to marry the two demands happily? This is an unresolved dilemma in organisational life. This is neither peculiar to nor confined to the commercial and business world.
The emergence of the knowledge based industries and the post industrial revolution are mega-trends now almost fully played out in the advanced economies, but will no doubt do so elsewhere too. The emphasis everywhere is on learning as an integral function of the organisation. Thus the search is on for the magic recipes that would make the employee willingly exert himself to excel. He must want to go the extra mile for the benefit of the employer, continuing to innovate and develop his expertise - all to keep the corporation competitive in the market place.
Enlightened leaders of companies have begun to see that it is a rare human being who can match this demand out of voluntary altruism! Keeping people happily engaged at work therefore, is clearly no longer a romantic ideal of "soft hearted" human relations, but makes hard headed commercial sense. After all why should a highly qualified young person want to sweat it out for someone else to become a billionaire, if he too can make a few millions for himself elsewhere? This is the implicit issue that drives the more recent developments in people management policies and practices of high technology industries. Employee stock options are meant to give the young software specialist the meaning and purpose to do his utmost to make the company thrive. It is also an incentive for him to stay with the employer. Employee turnover is endemic in sunrise industries where the supply of competent people is chronically chasing demand. Frequent job changes in one's twenties are a sign of ambition, success and drive and not instability or fickle loyalties.
Still, we are only just at the beginning of a discontinuous change. I believe management practice has to go much further. It must realise that working hard and long hours, commuting long distances and the pressures of deadlines can only be partly compensated by money or perquisites or even titles. In the end (and this will be reached sooner than later) executive burn out is a reality in one's thirties. And that takes a heavy toll of well-being not just of the wage earner but all the family. One can now see why the European culture in particular, emphasises family holidays, privacy, sport and recreation on weekends and personal time for hobbies.
Here in India, it is the exceptional individual who plays a serious game or goes out on a wilderness walk, beyond the age of forty. At management seminars, when asked to introduce themselves mentioning hobbies and games played, over two-thirds say, "watching cricket on TV and music"! Static and sedentary habits, both. This can hardly be conducive to well-being.
Often the sensitive and thoughtful young manager on a rising career graph finds it difficult if not positively embarrassing to admit to facing this dilemma of being sensible versus successful. Doing so would carry with it a not so flattering connotation. Others might write him off as what Maggie Thatcher would have described as "wet". He could be consigned to the scrap heap as one who could not quite hack it, or being not quite up to it. Yet, if we look around our own immediate vicinity, we are bound to find examples of more illnesses related to the strains of coping with an intolerable extra amount of work, less leisure and greater pressures of all kinds.
The medical profession of course exhorts us on all sides on the utter criticality of the right kind of food in time, rest, exercise and relaxation. No magazine is complete without advice on how to remain active, aggressive and competitive and yet stay sane. I submit that this is a hoax we are playing on ourselves. One cannot hope to deliberately nurture insecurity by career-threatening situations and still expect the individual to cope.
Taking time off whenever the pressure cooker appears almost ready to explode and diving for cover is no solution. The emphasis must be consistently and equally on the workplace as well as at home. Furthermore, the work schedule should be varied enough to give some relief from the inevitable jaded feelings which thus arise with greater frequency. Lowered effectiveness and declining satisfaction with work is the inevitable result of not doing so.
An often ignored element in feeling a lowered sense of well-being is the damage caused by pettiness, jealousy and political and ego clashes. These could wreak havoc as great as cancer - and indeed cause it! Deeply concerned thinkers both in the West and here are now recommending a need to "find one's own centre", to anchor oneself through a meditative practice. This could result in a more realistic appreciation of what one is, one's place in Nature and creation and how to be true to oneself rather than lose oneself in the hype of others' images about oneself. A high achiever and hero role is great while the dream lasts, but it is only a dream. Here the traditionalist advice is to seek solace from lofty thoughts from a religious book such as the Gita. The author's experience is that this is too often adopted mechanically, almost like another therapy. The root cause lies in our enshrining and worshipping the false gods, of careerism, one-upmanship and self-aggrandisement. It is futile to cling to these tillone turns 50 years of age, indeed extol their virtues as the only way of "getting along" in this world and then turn to religion as a last resort. There is something inherently contradictory and wrong in this. Only a broken and fragmented human being can be a "street fighter" and ruthlessly competitive to the extent of being amoral in the office or factory - but expect 20 minutes of meditation to wash off the sins of the day at home. The two behaviours are inherently untenable in the same person without extraordinary self deception!
What we need instead is to openly admit that one cannot have "all this and heaven too". By all I mean the pleasures of prestige, power, adulation and "winning the race". These come with a price tag. And the tag is seen in drinking bouts, inexplicable pride and blindness to one's faults, hubris and an inability to relate to people authentically. We have only to search our own memories honestly to recognise this profile in senior officers, politicians, industrialists, top managers who make headlines these days. Most of them are not particularly likeable as people, and many are so ill at ease when not surrounded by the trappings of power that they try desperately to cling on to some office or title long after official retirement is passed. Such people can be seen among the senior managers and bureaucrats immediately on retirement. They are typically very free with advice to the young on the lofty values they should live by. This is a sure sign of lack of real emotional and mental health!
Many authors can be quoted in support of the new developing interest in holistic living and working in this rapidly degenerating environment. Suffice it to say that all of them point out the futility of trying to "solve" this situation as if it were yet another mechanistic problem in managing.
As Dr. S. K. Chakraborty of IIM, Calcutta says, how can we hope to manage anything else if we cannot manage ourselves? What kind of a manager is he who lives in a watertight compartment at work with a set of values and behaviour completely separate from - and even contradictory to - those he really wishes to practice in his personal life? Whether one comes at it through a deep understanding of our roots in Vedantic philosophy or reflection and self awareness, the key to a full sense of living wholly and well is to emerge from the dreamlike make-believe world of combative achievement and become finally wide awake, to return home and live in contact with the here and now.
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