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Worked To Death

19/07/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Sarvashresth Gupta, 22 years old and working with Goldman Sachs, was found dead in April this year at the parking lot near his house. Details surrounding his death are still unclear but days before he died, the young man had written to his father complaining of lack of sleep and long hours at work, triggering a debate on high stress levels at the workplace, especially among young executives. His father published a heart-breaking essay, which he later withdrew, on how the early warning signs were misread and could have averted the tragedy if everyone had acted on time.

Edy Greenblatt, who earned her joint PhD in organizational behaviour at Harvard University and Harvard Business School writes, in her book Restore Yourself: The Antidote for Professional Exhaustion that most executives are interested in slowing the earth's rotation to create a 27-hour day. Our work so completely consumes us that we have no time for anything else. A holiday or time out is seen as a luxury, which some colleagues and bosses might even disapprove of. In India, at the time of superannuation, the government permits civil servants encashment of up to eight months of accumulated leave, which is equivalent to leave not having been availed of for eight years!

"Our work so completely consumes us that we have no time for anything else."

It is so important, Greenblatt argues, that we learn to regroup and restore ourselves rather than burn out. In fact, one of the great offshoots of a restored state of mindfulness is enhanced performance and thus, productivity. But then, restoration doesn't just happen. Rather, it is a conscious and active process. We need to participate in the recovery process. Tired muscles, for instance, require gentle massage, ice and stretching, in addition to rest.

Unfortunately, the obsession to succeed, to excel, to do better, to earn more, to win and enjoy economic well-being, social prestige and a higher lifestyle has put considerable pressure on individuals. Evidence suggests that occupational stress has become a major contributor to hypertension. Managing such pressure is not easy and has resulted in declining physical and mental health. Illegal psychotropic drugs and substances, such as stimulants and depressants, have become as prevalent as taking prescription drugs. American psychologist Nancy Etcoff says that as early as 1995, illegal drugs were a $400 industry representing 8% of world trade, roughly the same as gas and oil.

In addition to alcohol and drug abuse ("work all day and party hard all night"), suicides are not uncommon in today's corporate culture. Youngsters are keen to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible and take the advice of role models seriously. Jack Ma of Alibaba is reported to have said, "Get big or get out", while American rapper 50 Cent advises "Get rich or die tryin". While a direct causal linkage between workplace stress and suicide is difficult to establish, no one pays much attention to professional physical and mental depletion until there is a tragedy. The business world has simply not understood the importance of ensuring the personal well-being of their employees.

"Finding the balance between survival and personal well-being becomes a difficult choice."

In their book How Much is Enough, Arun Abey and Andrew Ford argue for the need to find the balance between economic and personal well-being, which, they argue, is the key to being richer and happier. Intrinsic to a better life is understanding the relationship between money and happiness. Take the example of the supermodel Ruslana Korshunova, for instance, who, for a while, was the face of a Nina Ricci perfume. Yet, at the height of her success in her modeling career, and not yet 20 years of age, she committed suicide. In one of the last messages she posted on a social networking site, she wrote, "Who am I? Will I ever find myself?" In the process of climbing the success ladder, Ruslana confused who she really was and who she appeared to be. When she sought to make amends, she found herself woefully helpless. This is the ultimate alienation: me from myself.

With heightened economic uncertainty and volatility, corporate culture has made profit margins the criteria for continued employability. Employees know that they are replaceable and that the next job is not easy to come by. Finding the balance between survival and personal well-being becomes a difficult choice. For Sarvashresth Gupta, Ruslana Korshunova and many others like them, bewilderment and helplessness consumes them. Conveniently, the corporate world has dusted its hands of all responsibility and left the choice to the individual.

There's a quote doing the rounds of the internet (attributed to the Dalai Lama or James Lachard) that makes sense regardless of who said it: "Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result is that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived."

It's a difficult choice but it is a choice worth making: To do what one loves and to love what one does.

Amit Dasgupta, the author of Lessons from Ruslana: In Search of Transformative Thinking; [HarperCollins 2015] heads the Mumbai campus of the SP Jain School of Global Management. He may be reached at amit.dasgupta@spjain.org.

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