To many around the world, the Indian IT and BPO industry is the face of the current boom time, of India Rising or of whatever shorthand appeals to the reader or the writer. The industry is represented by NASSCOM, which has lost, through unfortunate coincidence, two of its leaders in their prime. First there was Dewang Mehta, who died at the relatively young age of 40. Dewang Mehta was at the helm of NASSCOM when I worked with a leading IT services provider first in India and then in Europe. He was energetic, enthusiastic and apparently in good health, a description which has also been applied by commentators to Sunil Mehta, a former head of research at NASSCOM whom I never met. Sunil Mehta also was by all accounts in his 40s, when he passed away in late 2006.
Much tut-tutting happened in the Indian press both times, but there was no commentary on the signalling effects of such untimely demises or whether the industry’s work practices need a closer scrutiny. I agree that Kiran Karnik, currently President of NASSCOM and an alumnus of one of the earliest batches of IIMA graduates, is in good health and apparently so are his executive colleagues at NASSCOM. But let’s face it – bad news does make more headlines than steady state does.
To an observer with experience in the nascent heady days of the Indian IT industry, but now with a health hat on, these two untimely demises appear to be more than coincidental. They are probably indicators of the general working practices of the industry, and their long-term health consequences. Such is my interest in the matter that recently a consulting prospect in the IT industry told me, jokingly I was assured, that if I were to get any consulting projects with Indian IT firms, I should keep a firm rein on my desire to make their employees aware of their rights as human beings and as employees, and the need to take stock of their health periodically. Not a good sign of management commitment, is it? But since one swallow does not make a summer, lets examine some trends.
In the 1990s, the industry was characterised by long work hours, even longer during industry jamborees, fuelled by a lot of testosterone and alcohol, never punctuated by exercise or recharge time. Those who left work at 6 or 7 pm were described as part-timers, albeit jokingly and most found it hard to take days off. Women in management roles in the IT industry – not including HR, accounting and software development – were few and far in between, some of whom are now at the helm of leading technology firms in India and elsewhere. Either we played the game by these rules, or we didn’t; but some of us struck hard bargains about working to different rules and were supported by our managers. Many of my colleagues from that time are still in the industry but experiencing, despite being relatively young, chronic problems such as overweight, neck and back pains, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and in some cases, the need for untimely bypasses.
Through the noughties however, with India being described as the world’s back office and increasingly the front office, the nature of work has changed slightly. And to already well-ensconced bad health habits – including lack of exercise, lack of regular health check ups, regular consumption of scrumptious but artery clogging foods – some new culprits have been added. To long work hours, we have added irregular work times, including night shifts, and an upward trend in eating out. The former does a lot more damage than just interfere with the normal circadian rhythm of the body. These ill effects are widely studied and well-documented. The latter, while almost always foods rich in sugar and fats, is made possible by good monies being made by young people too tired to cook or to relax otherwise after long work hours. There are some signs that more and more young people in urban areas are now taking to gyms, but with a greater focus on trendiness and appearance than on health and in the absence of solid data, it is moot whether actual exercise taking has increased.
Statistical data about India, that allow the examination of a correlation between working hours and chronic health problems, or even comparisons with data from other countries, are hard to come by. But the link itself is well understood.
In the interest of ensuring that the Indian economic boom does not become a one-time burst but remains sustainable in its growth, it is well-worth asking whether it is time we started investing in the health of the workforce today. Awareness, capacity and delivery mechanisms are all essential, but in a corporate context, what is required above all is management commitment. And to that end, I hope NASSCOM – and the Indian IT industry – bosses are listening.