The word ‘stress’ is a paradox and an enigma. Stress is increasingly becoming a dreaded phenomenon, especially for industry where pressure and stress to increase productivity is incessant and unrelenting. Rajeev Kumar, Vice President HR at NIIT says, “Stress is as constant as change in our corporate life. And Stress-related health issues are rampant — hypertension/BP; sugar etc. In fact, jokes running around in corporates are that in medical examination reports done at the time of hiring by HR, if someone has no stress-related health issues, it’s a question mark on selection and suitability saying, this guys doesn’t take pressure, hence not fit for job.”

The reality is that continuing stress can lead to significant negative fallouts. Stress can cause burn-outs, lower the productivity of employees, executives and workers in whom the companies have invested for years and who are now unable to take on larger responsibilities. There are frequent cases of executive burn-out or even preference for early retirement, and there is a large percentage of corporate workers who feel older than they should and are tired clones of their aspirational alter egos. The paradox is that stress is a sharp and double-edged sword. Stress can either make you an achiever or stress can burn you out.

The extent of damage is inversely related to the frustration tolerance level (FTL) of the individual. The same level of stress for some could just be an avoidable nuisance factor, or it can have disastrous consequences for those with low FTL. However, if the individual has high FTL and strong N-ach (Need for achievement), stress could be an enabler that releases levels of dopamine and energy that keeps the person going beyond normal limits. Even these high achievers begin to burn out when stressed for prolonged periods. No organisation can afford stress-related slowdown amongst the experienced employees that it has nurtured. Therefore, companies are going the extra mile to understand stress and reduce it, but it is not easy to find the balance between good stress and bad stress.

Some studies reveal, and it comes as no surprise, that the causes of stress in companies are largely related to growing uncertainty in jobs, the high pressure environment for performance, workplace bullying by managers and increasing anxiety in personal lives. A study by Optum in 2018 revealed that nearly half the employees in India suffer from some stress. Urbanisation is a major factor in this. Industrialisation and the parallel migration of workers to the bigger cities results in a breakdown of the traditional family support system. The proliferation of nuclear families negatively impacts the work life balance and enhances stress. There is another view that millennials are at an even higher risk, even suicide, as a fallout from breakups in relationships and conflicts in committed relationships.

Undoubtedly, there is increased stress all around. Yet, the more relevant thread in all these situations is our inability to handle that stress. The culprit is our deteriorating physical and mental health. It is almost a self fulfilling prophecy, because poor health depletes the body’s defences and ability to handle the stress, which, in turn, weakens you further. The cycle goes on and the same level of stress becomes harder to handle. This realisation has been bothering industry in recent years and they are concerned that executives are ignoring the importance of good health. Studies have indicated that desk-bound jobs, lack of exercise and protein deficient diets are resulting in poor health-related absenteeism. According to ASOOCHAM, this could translate to an equivalent of US$20billion loss for the organised sector alone. The Companies and Human Resource experts continue to struggle with balancing work stress and productivity enhancement. It is not easy.

We are hurtling into a technology-enabled but physically impaired world. Lifestyles have become sedentary and energy sapping. Most people are so tired coping with daily routine that the thought of exercise sounds daunting. The challenge of changing lifestyles is not easy to resolve. Today, more and more people are prone to diabetes, hypertension and other physical ailments that reduce our efficiency, productivity and our potential. We are losing control of ourselves and becoming increasingly singleminded and burning ourselves faster and faster. We are taking our health for granted, forgetting that it is our bodies that are doing the hard work and that our spirit and our desire for success is dependent on our physical health. We forget that good health is largely a side effect of a balanced lifestyle, balanced diet, adequate exercise and some genetic influence. Good health is at a premium today.

Corporate India has been struggling with the issue and various initiatives have been floated by individual organisations from time to time. These include liberal leave policies, career conversations, sounselling, even yoga sessions and options of in-house gyms in the office. Today, we all are caught up in the race to survive and it is for the companies to take up the challenge of ‘corporate parenting’ vigorously. We have to work on the principle of self actualisation where individuals have to become aware and take charge of their own fitness.

In recent years many companies have floated projects and campaigns that touch on this issue. Nestle has probably been the leader in this. Sometime during the past decade they started a media-silent campaign that sensitized employees of companies about the importance of nutrition, health and wellness, a balanced diet and adequate exercise. They worked with village communities to increase awareness about nutrition and how to improve diets. Their brands, especially Maggi, have played a leadership role in promoting physical activity for children and the entire family in their TV advertisements. Though opinions may be divided on the impact of the campaigns, it is important to acknowledge Nestle’s farsightedness in exploring such an approach and courage to give it a voice. Nowadays, more companies are focusing on this problem.

Rajeev Kumar of NIIT says, “Corporate India is struggling to propagate and maintain employee wellness as this also has a direct bearing on health insurance cost by corporates. At NIIT technologies, we run a programme with the objective ‘Stay Fit NIITians’. We ensure that our people spend quality time with family, rejuvenate their mental and physical wellbeing, remain fit and productive, and avoid executive burn-out. We have defined some basic policies for this. The ‘Take a break’ policy subsidises every employee annually, for a family outing to some resort, while the ‘compulsory leave’ programme requires everyone to take at least 14 days’ leave during the year and does not allow leave to accumulate and carried forward. Simultaneously, we encourage and facilitate health and wellness by providing facilities at the workplace for yoga, gym, swimming and other recreational activities and sports.” Clearly, NIIT is leading the growing club of progressive companies that are worried about the negatives of excessive stress.

On the other hand, Danone believes that strong, healthy muscles play an important role in the prevention of diseases and promotes active living. Several studies suggest that the Indians suffer from a lack of proteins in their daily diet. They say that a study by IMRB in 2017 indicates that 93 per cent of Indians are unaware of their ideal protein requirement. The study also highlights that a sedentary lifestyle and protein-deficient diet significantly increases the rate of muscle mass loss, especially after the age of 30. Physically inactive people and people with protein deficiency can lose as much as 3 per cent to 5 per cent muscle mass and it is a major threat to the productivity of adults. This is corroborated by a study conducted by InBody & Ipsos in 2018 which highlighted that 71 per cent of Indians have poor muscle health, with the working populating scoring poorly at 72 per cent and non-working population at 69 per cent.

Considering that protein awareness in India continues to remain a major challenge, Danone decided to spread awareness about protein as an essential dietary component and in 2017 marked July 24-30 of each year as ‘The Protein Week’. The annual seven-day long Protein Week is a movement to create awareness about protein-based nutrition and the impact of protein especially on muscle health which is important for our day to day functioning. They see it as a movement to change existing attitudes and practices, especially amongst corporate professionals, since they lead a sedentary lifestyle with inadequate diets. According to Shefali Sapra, Director Corporate Affairs at Danone, “The idea is to take protein beyond gyms and sports and bring it mainstream, by making it relevant for every person who wants to lead a healthy lifestyle. The initiatives planned under the programme include mass sensitisation workshops by nutrition experts from Arogya and an in-depth muscle-health assessment of corporate professionals by InBody.”

The logistics industry is working on stress reduction with a totally different approach. This could be because their industry is different, but then every company has to identify their own pain points. The draft report of the National Logistics Policy Council highlights that recruitment and retention of truck drivers is the biggest growth inhibitor for this industry. The reality of a truck driver’s life seems to be cumulative stress. Agarwal Packers and Movers were concerned that the pressure on drivers to constantly keep going despite sleep deprivation was not only shortening the normal lifespan of truck drivers but also leading to accidents and other inefficiencies. They started the concept of ‘Nidra Daan Kendras’ where the drivers could sleep and rest between long drives, free of charge.

RIVIGO perceived that the chronic shortage of truck drivers is deep rooted in the lifestyle of the truck drivers. They are considered outcasts in society. They stay away from their families for long stretches and they are in constant fear of road accidents because of stretched schedules. For Rivigo, the solution was Relay Trucking which is more efficient and human. It is an operating model innovation where drivers change over after every few hundred kilometers of driving, through a network of changeover stops called ‘Relay pit-stops’ and then get rostered back to their home base to return to their families everyday. The drivers are also referred to as Pilots, which increases their self esteem.

Stress is our Gordian Knot today and if we have to cut through it, then we have to make ourselves Healthy and Fit. In order to reach our potential, we cannot wish away stress but we can make ourselves healthier and capable of handling it and even leveraging stress to our advantage for greater productivity. Intuitively, all of us know that fitness is desirable and the essential link between efficiency and productivity. The challenge is in the discipline required to be fit. Ensuring Health and Fitness is a sequential and conscious process. We will have to move forward step by step and create awareness in employees about the importance of understanding their health. As they say, “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.”

(Written by Himanshu Manglik – Founder and President, Walnutcap Consulting LLP. The views expressed here are personal)

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