Depressed IT workers: Nasscom & HR managers need to know!

According to a recent Economic Times report, depression and stress levels among IT sector workers are reaching alarming levels. Says P Satish Chandra, director, NIMHANS, “In the past six months, more and more IT executives are coming in with problems of acute depression, insecurity, low confidence, dejection, aversion to social life and panic. Earlier, fewer people came and with different problems, mostly stress-related issues such as anxiety and lack of appetite.”
 
The report goes on to say that this is not just a Bangalore phenomenon. Sameer Malhotra, head at Max Healthcare’s Mental Health and Behavioural Science department in Delhi, says roughly a third of his patients are techies. The number, he says, was much lower two years ago.
“This group has no human touch and is connected mostly through social media, where everyone puts up their best photographs,” says Nirmala Menon, founder of Interweave Consulting, who has counselled many IT workers struggling with depression. “They don’t discuss work problems and everyone wants to pretend they have a slice of happy life” adds Menon.

What’s causing the stress?
Not only is the IT sector hiring 50,000 less employees this year compared to 2012-13, layoffs are happening in large numbers because enough projects simply aren’t coming through. Recent media reports of software giants like Infosys firing upto 5000 employees did not help matters at all. All this has only revived painful memories of 2009, when nearly 5% of 2.2 million IT sector jobs in India were lost. Scary stories of colleagues getting fired without notice were everyday office conversations, and many such incidents found their way to the web as well:
English: Effects of stress on the body.
English: Effects of stress on the body. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hussain, February, 2009 www.pankajbatra.com: This is the first time I’ve witnessed any layoff and it was terrible. There were a few of us who joined Sapient in the hope of a great career. A few had gone on vacation only to return to the bad news that they had been laid off. The management says that they are living Sapient’s core values—openness being one of them. That’s why they had been so upfront in communicating the news of the downsizing. What a shame!”

 
The same Economic Times report quotes Satish Sen (name changed), a professional with six years’ experience, slipped into depression as soon as his project shut down and he was put on the bench. “I have no life outside my job. I routinely did night shifts and worked on weekends to meet targets,” he says.
 
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Large scale layoffs, increasing numbers of employees on “bench” and random reallocation of projects and work-locations without employee consent are the primary reasons driving the depression. Added to it is the general work culture and lifestyle of IT employees, where they are expected to work upto 10-12 hours daily, and pitch in on weekends too, with no additional pay in order to appear “committed” to their work.
So what’s the Solution?
 
Recognize the issue!
“When we were growing at fast pace, people said stress;  now.. depressed. Quality of work has improved,” says Nasscom President Som Mittal. Clearly such a denial mode will not help matters. If the high industry attrition rates are anything to go by, the IT sector is losing crucial talent, and losing fast. The Nasscom President may have his own reasons saying what he did, but labour authorities need to take stock of the matter right away. In the name of liberalization, the IT industry has been given a free hand since the last two decades- perhaps it’s now time to revise some of these policies.  The following selection of online comments on the same article on ET provides interesting insights into what these very IT employees are thinking-
 
According to Nadhas, from Chennai:  Nasscom is in denial mode because it wants to constantly project the Indian IT industry as a rosy picture of growth while not showing even an iota of concern for occupational hazards for employees at the workplace. The HR department is the sloppiest in IT industry as they have failed to ensure employee productivity within the defined working hours. Rather all we see are cases of employees working overtime (without compensation), working on weekends thereby compromising on personal life and a few get rewarded by their bosses for ‘going beyond the call of duty’. IT industry should take a leaf out of manufacturing to understand the real definition of productivity.”
 
Implement labour laws immediately:
The IT sector has had the enviable luxury of being exempt from practically all Indian labour laws. The government must understand that such exemptions were given in a particular economic context two decades back. Incredible favours like a ban on employee unions/associations, free hand to hire/fire as the company pleases, ability to randomly shuffle projects and locations without employee consent, no regulations on work timings or extra hours, etc. might have been necessary in the early 1990s to attract IT investment, but such anti-employee labour practices (which go against all primary conventions of the ILO) cannot be conferred indefinitely upon the IT sector. It’s necessary to start regulating employment practices in the IT sector, and the time is now!
 
Train the managers:
Due to rapid growth of the IT industry, the IT sector has a whole crop of middle level managers who are great at technical and business skills, but are dismally low on people management and soft skills. They have no professional training whatsoever in dealing with large teams, how to handle workplace stress and emotional issues, or how to create a healthy working environment. Some IT companies have taken the initiative by conducting mandatory training modules, but these are woefully inadequate to deal with the enormity of the challenge. Says another IT worker, “Many top guys in IT industry don’t know how to get the work from their team. Just they put pressure to get the deliverables  instead of understanding the issues in execution and resolving them in a sensitive, humane manner.”
 
Develop alternative Sources of employment:
Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the Indian manufacturing sector lost 3.7 million jobs. The worldwide economic slowdown since 2008-09 dealt a heavy blow to India’s manufacturing units, especially those catering to export markets. Sadly, overemphasis by the government on the IT/BPO sector has ensured that the manufacturing sector is yet to recover from the slowdown.
 
According to J.S.R.K. Prasad, a first generation entrepreneur who is the CEO of Vijayawada-based Better Castings, “Manufacturing has been neglected by the policymakers who attached undue priority to the services sector in apparent deviation from economic principles…The consequences of this are going to be felt in the near future as the economy struggles to sustain the growth in agriculture and services sectors. The government would do well to remember that countries like Germany, which survived the recent global recession, could do so just because their industries were robust enough to withstand the shocks.
 
A glaring indicator of the sordid state of affairs is India’s poor position (59) in the Global Competitiveness rankings. It was 51 in the year 2010 and 56 last year. The reason for this is excessive dependence on natural and human resources which glossed over the need to innovate. Undue emphasis is being laid on software and BPO kind of jobs while the agriculture sector struggled to overcome the teething problems. Manufacturing found no place in the larger scheme of things not to mention the wastage of entrepreneurial talent.”
 
Is the Government listening? May be not, but some IT workers are already realizing the bigger picture and are looking at alternative sources of employment. This is what Rohit from Delhi has to say: “I had to quit my job because of neurological problems created by work related stress. I was part of IT industry for almost 8 years and then I had to quit. Now I am looking for alternative career options. IT is one of the most over-hyped industry. After quitting IT I realize now how much I missed on life and life is not just about coding. I used to work for big banking companies. Money was good, but stress too was disproportionately higher. And worse still, role models in IT companies are geeks who simply do not have emotions, any social connections and are megalomaniacs. I have been under treatment for 2 years and not I realize I was becoming a sick guy like my role models. Thankfully I am out of IT and probably able to start my own business and be able to have fuller life.”
 
What can HR managers in IT companies do?
Policy changes may take time to come by, but HR managers in the IT sector need not wait for that. Is is really necessary for the law to tell an employer something as basic that workers should be paid for the extra hours they put in, or that employees can not be fired without proper notice and compensation?Here’s a list of questions that HR professionals in this sector need to ask themselves:
 
1. Being sloppy, or being seen as sloppy by employees is no longer an option. Employee trust in the HR managers is low as they are seen as stooges of the senior management. Are you standing up for those workers who report genuine grievances.
2. Also, are harassed employees treated fairly? Can you ensure that there is no retaliation for lodging complaints?
3. Stop random project and location allocations. Can you take employee’s suggestions before doing the same?
4. Can you reduce the bench pool and make more effective utilization of the workforce?
5. Can the billing model with clients be reworked? Should the old model of payments being done based on deliverables and not hours/efforts put in by employees go on forever?
6. Is the distribution of billed amount from clients equitable? Is it fair to pay an employee Rs 20,000 per month who is billed by the company for $ 20,000 per month?
7. Are employee skills being utilized effectively? Will an engineering graduate be glad doing backend maintenance work for months on end? Is the job adding any value to his/her career and talent?
8. Is there a proper work life balance among employees? How many hours are they clocking in in a week, and are they being paid for the extra time? Can the several hours of travel in cities like Bangalore be utilized for work, and be paid for?
     9. Are middle level managers trained enough to deal with a young, increasingly diverse pool of talent and their myriad expectations from their professional and personal relationships?
 
In today’s tough global scenario, companies are getting tough with their costs and policies. Falling prey to depression and stress is a natural consequence of a fiercely competitive global economic scenario and a completely unregulated labour market. Nasscom may not be worried (as yet), but the Labour Department and HR professionals should be.

References:
1.Economic Times, 25 Apr 2013: Psychiatrists report sudden rise in cases of depression among IT workers, Nasscom says all is well.
2.The Hindu, 28 Feb 2013: ‘Indian economy cannot ignore manufacturing sector’
3.Outlook Business, 27 June 2009: Chronicles of the rise and fall of the Indian software engineer.
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Depressed IT workers: Nasscom & HR managers need to know!

by Udayan Dhar time to read: 9 min
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