Performance Stress Drives Executives to Quick-fix Drugs
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18 March 2011
By Devina Sengupta
The HR head of a Mumbai–based FMCG firm was not in the country when the news reached him. He heard that a former employee, who had shown "great promise", had died of a drug overdose. The man had been part of middle management in operations and the HR head had personally recruited him, having seen undeniable talent and ability. "He could have been saved. We tried, too, butâ€¦" the HR head trailed off, clearly shocked by the incident.
India Inc’s employees – some of them, at least – are finding it had to keep pace with their companies’ fast–track mode. The demand to buckle up and meet targets and bottomlines has, in the past, too, led to instances of substance abuse by employees. But it’s no longer relegated to the IT and BPO sectors, where youngsters struggle with the pressures of work and irrational timings.
Substance abuse now reportedly takes place in banks, FMCG companies and public sector organisations, and among middle and senior management as well. For instance, a 44–year–old senior manager in a garment manufacturing firm was admitted to a rehabilitation centre six months ago for alcohol and abuse. He was prescribed a medicine called Fortrivin in a clinic to help him relax, but he got hooked to it instead. After 6pm every day he would go out for drinks. When his company extended the working hours to 7 pm, the manager, who could not wait an extra hour, started hiding alcohol in his cabin. Company officials reported the matter to the higher authorities, and the manager was sent for rehab.
Psychiatrists testify to an increase in calls from companies seeking help for their addict–employees. Substance abuse has become a big issue with the HR departments of companies.
In a change from before, now the reason for abuse is not to escape difficult surroundings but to increase performance. With salaries going up, rewards being linked to performance and variable pay touching a never–before 40–45% of the salary, companies are driving their employees to increase their output.
A pill now and then or a quick swig from a hidden hip flask seems to boost energy levels or calm frayed nerves. Ashok Rao, CEO of the rehabilitation centre Freedom Foundation says companies have started cracking the whip with employees, leading to performance pressure. "It’s like the vacation is over and I’m now going to flog you," says Rao, adding that there have been cases in the last six months where the HR fraternity has informed the centre of increased instances of substance abuse. "It begins on the assumption that [taking substances, like uppers] will help increase output."
The FMCG HR head says in case of the employee who OD–ed, the company had tried to help him recover in every possible way. He was put into a de–addiction centre for four months and, fearing a relapse in his current job, his wife had asked him to change both location and job. "We had borne all the costs, and kept his post vacant hoping he would come back," says the HR manager. He did re–join, and the company kept a close watch on him. But he had a relapse and quit again. "His family never saw anything different in his behaviour, so we can only assume it was the work pressure," says the HR head.
Those who work at rehab centres say PSU employees, despite their seemingly slower–paced work life, also fall prey to depression. Sometimes this is brought on mainly because of the lackadaisical attitude all around them. Although at times it becomes difficult to pinpoint the exact cause for the abuse, work pressures acts as a big trigger. Karuna Bhaskar, counsellor at 1to1 Help, has seen an increase in HR training sessions about abuse.
She says she sees alcoholism among 35 to 45–year–olds, while drug abuse is popular among those in their mid–twenties. "A great hurry to hire people often leads to companies overlooking the problems of substance abuse," Bhaskar adds. "It’s something that can be easily disguised, and managers shortlisting candidates may not always be able to pick it up."
Anticipation of rewards and then sudden disappointment when they don’t come, have now joined the list of triggers for abuse. Adil Malia, HR head of Essar says, "Those who got into substance abuse in their youth 10 years ago, are employed now. Working 8–10 hours with strong result–focused jobs can be difficult to manage."
Aspirations that are not in proportion to one’s capabilities or appropriate opportunities, leads to stress and abuse, adds Malia.