In February 2011, Abhijeet Sengupta (name changed), a 27-year-old software engineer in Bangalore complained of palpitations in his left arm. He was immediately shipped to a nearby hospital and, after two hours of being kept under observation, declared dead. A promising youngster, Sengupta, is one of a large number of young corporate employees dropping in their tracks because of an unhealthy workplace atmosphere.
According to an internal survey conducted in August by healthcare service provider HealthcareMagic, the average health risk index of India Inc lies between 60 and 65 on a scale of 100, where 100 is complete health (ideal). The company which provides healthcare solutions to corporate entities across the country conducted a survey among 50 clients and over 50,000 employees for a more accurate picture of their health quotient. “In our analysis of these companies, 75 per cent of employees who were diagnosed with elevated cholesterol had no idea that they were suffering from such a problem,” says Dr Abhilash Thirupathy, co-founder and vice-president, customer relations, HealthcareMagic. He adds that elevated blood pressure (BP) was common in the high cholesterol group.
About 80 per cent of the employees who were diagnosed with elevated BP had no idea that they were suffering from such a problem. “What is even more surprising is that the figures are not restrained. Corporate India is sitting on ticking time-bomb in terms of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and occupational hazards like chronic back pain. Elevated cholesterol levels due to unhealthy eating habits seem to be the norm rather than the exception,” Thirupathy says.
He cites a survey conducted by ASSOCHAM on a sample of 200 IT or ITES companies. “It was found that 98 per cent of the employees are not aware of their health conditions and 40 per cent are likely to suffer from chronic diseases if these issues are not addressed,” Thirupathy warns.
The companies who were part of the survey also have a similar tale to tell. Prasad Menon, Director, Human Resource, McAfee says, “We had an incident where one of our employees died at a very young age from a heart attack. Unfortunately, heart attacks have become very common these days. And the age for potential risk of getting such ailments has now shifted to somewhere between early 30s and late 40s.” This incident involving the young 30-year-old prompted Prasad to provide healthcare facilities to McAfee employees. “Health is very important. Why is the corporate workforce among the most stressed and suffering from chronic diseases? “The reason is simple. Time is at a premium and we are typically not doing enough to maintain our health. Lack of proper food and sleep adds to the syndrome. So we wanted to make a programme where employees could access a medical practitioner at the click of a button and connect with somebody who was just a call away,” says Menon.
The most common problems found in the survey were increased BMI (related to diet or activity), increased stress, thyroid problems amongst women and substance abuse amongst men (smoking/ alcohol). “The primary reason for all these problems are changes in lifestyle. Most corporate employees or those in the top management, for instance, are high achievers and follow the Western phenomenon. This leads to stress resulting in coronary heart ailments,” says Dr Venkat D Nagarajan, cardiologist, Kokilaben Dhirubai Ambani Hospital and Medical Research Institute, Mumbai. He further explains, “Stress itself might be the biggest risk factor or it could be that high levels of stress make other risk factors (such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure) worse. For instance, if you are under stress, your BP goes up, you may overeat, you may exercise less, and you may be more likely to smoke and consume alcohol.”
Another health problem affecting the corporate world is that of poor vision. Due to constant exposure to computer screens and other technological instruments, problems including eye infections, dry eyes, weakening eyesight and cataract are becoming the norm rather than an exception. Dr Shibal Bhartiya, consultant ophthalmology at Fortis Hospital in New Delhi, says, “I see a lot of computer vision syndrome, stress induced headaches, dry eye and contact lens intolerance. All of these problems are actually lifestyle-related issues. A lot of our patients also suffer from refractive errors, allergies, cataract and glaucoma, and we also see a lot of patients with diabetic retinopathy. There is insufficient evidence to say whether the prevalence of the non-lifestyle related diseases of the eye is more in corporate India. But the incidence of the lifestyle diseases of course is manifold in this group compared to the general population.”
So if one is a high-pressure executive and logs in 60 hours of work, with 24x7 hour work commitments, be warned that it can mess with your mind in many ways. Stress puts the brain on alert and triggers no less than 1,400 biochemical changes in the body. And with several Indian corporate heads now in their early 40s, the rat race has begun to turn deadly.
Deepak Kaistha, managing director, Planman Consulting says, “In this era of processed food and instant coffee, health and healthy diet has become the last priority. And a corporate employee is always intimately entangled in the fabric of this sad story.”
Corporate honcho Ronesh Puri, managing director of Executive Access, explains, “The business environment today is extremely challenging. With the ground rules changing rapidly, organisations are forced to be demanding in terms of performance. Employees are let go if they do not deliver or goof up. Also, organisations are becoming leaner which means competition within the organisation is as stiff as outside.” Puri adds that with the number of hours in front of computers increasing, employees today suffer from spondylitis and eye problems much more than they did in the past.
Puneet Vatsayan, co-founder of The Hatch, a start-up accelerator, says, “I do not think that entrepreneurs have a lifestyle that is different from the society around them. Sedentary work environment is a reality across many industries, be it large companies or startups. Many companies realise the importance of healthy eating habits, and there are quite a few startups too who provide healthy eating options to their team members.” He adds that given the lean team composition of startups, they are likely to be multi-tasking in their venture. “If they are unwell or indisposed, a startup feels the impact a lot harder than a more established company with adequate resources to handle different aspects of the business,” he explains.
Corporate heads also point that given that there are still a large number of organisations that have a six-day week, encouraging a few relaxation techniques such as frequent leave might help boost performance and health. Puri says, “Employees are expected to work on Saturdays even though they are supposed to be non-working. A five-day week does provide a better work-life balance. There are several companies which do not sanction leaves or discourage employees from taking leave. This builds stress levels and can be detrimental to the health of employees.”
The survey also traced some macro and micro issues. These include the utilisation of healthcare facilities by companies and their direct impact on corporate employees. “The usage of healthcare facilities by corporates is a tricky one as we have less than five per cent (HCM has over 50 clients) of the total target audience in India who are using our services. But amongst the people who are using our services the trends are of two kinds in the IT and the non-IT sector,” says Thirupathy.
The macro trend seen it the IT sector suggests that the usage of healthcare facilities is very high in the first quarter; typically hitting between 20 and 30 per cent unique visits due to the novelty factor. “We then tend to hit about two to three per cent unique on a monthly basis to add up to about 50 to 60 per cent unique for an IT company overall over a period of one year,” he says.
Sathyanarayana Chandra, Head Compensation and Benefits, Akamai India, the web application provider and a participant of the survey explains this trend. “We have about 48 per cent unique uptake (which does not count same employee using more than one service) on an annual basis. Consulting through chat and with diet chart requests are most often used services. Also, out of 332 people who took the health risk assessment (HRA), 213 did one or more among reaching out to a doctor or a specialist,” he says. Chandra believes that the trend of the unhealthy corporate lifestyle is very much tangible but companies are making an effort to change it.
He says, “As most of the companies, even Akamai had its various wellness-related programmes from multiple service providers, which had resulted in increased costs and administrative inconvenience. We planned a combination of online health risk assessment and onsite biometrics to give an analysis of Akamai employee health risks along with charted programmes and awareness sessions.”
The other trend observed in the survey is an assessment of the non-IT sector. The usage of healthcare facilities is slightly more sober with the annual unique numbers adding up to between 30 and 35 per cent. Thirupathy explains, ‘This is because of a fractured employee base; for instance, banks or insurance companies. Employees spend less time online leading to less familiarity with online solutions.”
The non-IT participant, United Colors of Benetton, explains this trend. Deepak Pillai from Benetton’s human resources wing, says, “Benetton India is a young organisation that has employees with an average age of about 27 years. Young Benetton-ians highly value interventions that aid health and fitness. Hence we have several initiatives focused on these aspects and that is why about 50 per cent of our employees use this service,” he says. Pillai adds that while some employees in the 30-40 age bracket have cholesterol issues, other employees in their 20s want to cut down on their alcohol and tobacco intake and reduce weight. “About 25 per cent of our employees have taken the initiative of calling a doctor or a specialist,” he says.
The micro trends observed in the survey include an analysis of the services used. Thirupathy says, “Live chat with a doctor accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of all queries, understandably so as general practitioner queries tend to be the highest in the realm of healthcare as well.” The Online Health Risk Assessment accounted for about 15 to 20 per cent, requesting a call from the dietitian accounted for about 8 to 10 per cent and asking a specialist accounted for about five to six per cent.
The mindset breeding in the Indian corporate world has prevented employee health from being an important issue. Experts say that it entails investments in terms of time and money to give long-term returns. Thirupathy says, “People do not visit a doctor when ill because of a few factors—lethargy or they think that their health issue is not a priority as it is not interfering with their day-to-day work.” Not being able to factor in that the time and money they save by not seeing a doctor when people have a minor health issue results in a huge bill when the issue becomes chronic. “In India, we have a mindset issue with respect to health where people do not give it as much importance as it needs and will visit a doctor when the health issue may be out of hand. Fundamentally there is a lack of awareness about pro-active healthcare in India,” he says.
But like every problem has a solution, unhealthy India Inc can be converted to healthy India Inc. Dr Aakriti Gupta, Clinical Psychologist, B L Kapoor Memorial Hospital, New Delhi says, “At times we listen to people saying the term, ‘I perform better under pressure’. If this
statement is followed over religiously, the performance will decline as our body can take up only limited stress and pressure. So everybody should understand the level of stress or pressure they can take and then work forward.”
Doctors suggest a change in lifestyle can bring the crippled health of corporate India back on its feet. “Given that awareness is pretty low, acceptance of its being a sub-set is also low. This can change if a healthier lifestyle is adopted, and time taken out for exercise. But sadly these are very basic and regular activities that everybody knows how to do, but not to follow,” says Dr Nagarajan.
What is the road ahead to survive in this corporate jungle? Eat right, exercise, meditate, quit smoking, take vacations and most importantly, leave all the technology behind. Focus on one task at a time and breathe slowly. Health is the real wealth, and earning that is an individual choice.