I used a work stress calculator, and this is what happened

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A new tool helps India Inc. calculate growing stress levels. But, will it help companies tackle the problem?



We are almost always thinking about work. No matter how much we love our job or stay productive, the never-ending to-do list—about deadlines, unfinished assignments, suggesting new ideas—has become a best friend we never wanted.

And the impact shows. Stress is high in India Inc. While several organisations have been finding ways to address rising stress levels—from conducting interactive sessions to planning offsites—the problem seems to be growing. In a 2023 survey by ADP Research Institute of over 32,000 workers in 17 countries, 76% of Indians said that stress has a negative impact on work performance, with 49% expressing similar sentiments about their mental health. Globally, 65% of those surveyed said stress affected their work.

Surprisingly, there aren’t many tools that manage or help address work stress in India. Keeping this in mind, Gautham Melur Sukumar from the department of epidemiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), along with his team, has developed a tool called TAWS-16.

It is a multi-choice Q&A style tool, which includes 16 questions about stressors at work, and another 16 about physical symptoms, like headaches, backaches and indigestion issues. An employee has to respond to the questions, which are a combination of work environment and psychosomatic symptoms, and depending on the summation of their answers and they can know whether their stress is “manageable” or they have reached the “burnout” stage. The idea behind TAWS-16, now being used by some leading companies (Sukumar didn’t wish to name them over privacy concerns), which is to strengthen health services in the country for non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues and diabetes) and common mental disorders.

I took the test last week—and also spoke with Sukumar to understand which aspect of work is keeping India stressed. “I suppose the value of life is less. And where does one draw the line between working hard and managing excessive work stressors? People don’t perceive stress as a problem, because they love their jobs more. There is a general feeling that stress should not be reported, especially at a workplace because it will hamper their career growth,” he said, adding that there has been a change in the past decade. “The No.1 cause of death in India is heart disease with 42% reporting ischemic heart disease. One of the major risk factors for ischemic heart disease is chronic stress. This condition has started to affect young professionals which has brought the issues of work stress to the forefront.”

In India, companies adhere to the Factories Act (1948) aimed at people who work in factories and their health concerns. The problems faced by those in cubicles are different and so, they need to be addressed differently.

Sukumar points out a few major work stressors common to most organisations: the culture of assigning jobs without providing adequate training; unrealistic timelines make managers and their teams vulnerable to grave errors; and the imbalance between effort and reward with employees feeling that they work too much but are not fairly compensated.

Across the world, there has been a lot of conversation about reducing stress by adopting a four-day week. Earlier this month, Germany introduced the model owing to shortage of labour. Can this model also work for India to promote a better work environment and increase productivity? Sukumar offers a nuanced answer: “We (in organisational psychology) have a term, presenteeism, which refers to lost productivity or not being fully present at work through the day. To put it simply, presenteeim can be avoided by a combination of an employee’s commitment to tasks and capacity building or support provided by the organisation. If one of them is off key, it will affect output. Reducing a work week from six to four days without changing the working ecosystem will not increase productivity.”

In such a situation, perhaps remote or hybrid work models is the way ahead, as several studies and books have shown and suggested. Sukumar weighs in: “As long as working professionals are able to maintain their well-being and productivity there should be no issues with hybrid work.”

There is an area of concern, though, he says. “An office supports blue collar jobs comprising drivers, caterers, electricians, plumbers and more. If everyone starts working from home, their livelihoods will be lost, which is a major stress factor too. As for white collar employees, coming to office establishes a social connect essential in a balanced work environment. Hybrid model may be the answer for now, but whether it is the only answer, nobody knows. It needs more research.”

At the end of the day, the office can only do as much. It’s the employee who has to put their health first and be more honest and open with their managers about how the workload is affecting them. Talking about the TAWS-16 tool, Sukumar said there’s a high chance that employees may lie while answering the questionnaire because they are afraid of how the employer will perceive them. That’s why he suggests workers to do a follow-up with biochemical tests and measure the oxidative stress levels and cortisol levels. By combining the answers of respondents with the findings of these tests, one can arrive at a more accurate conclusion, and take positive action.

It made me think of my initial avoidance to the tool. My score shows that my stress level is manageable. Work stress is inevitable, prolonged suffering is not.

 

 



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