Another Brick in the Wall: Resource or Human?

Written by
Sarthak Dev

Amir Hussain has the demeanour of a man completely at peace with the world. Soft-spoken, polite to a fault, his jabs and jokes are both dealt with a smile. He used to work as a Data Scientist with a fast-growing tech company, and it didn’t take me long to tell that he had the mind of a mathematician.

Sometime in 2019, he lost his father. I texted him as soon as I got to know, and his response was swift. He seemed to be in an okay mood, chuckling about having to get back to work soon.

I found out later that he wasn’t kidding. While he was at the crematorium, dressing up his father for his final journey, he got a Slack message from work. The feature he was working on had crashed because of a bug, and customers were complaining.

Did he inform his team of the reason for his leave? “Of course.” When I was hearing this story, with my jaw on the floor, Amir told me that he treats his laptop as if it’s an extension of his body. Work could intrude any time. He had carried his bag to the crematorium too. And when he went back to office on the day after, he was met with more questions about what could have failed in the data pipeline compared to his grief.

The alarm on my face was apparently not shared by his colleagues or friends from work, and scarily, not even him. “Part of the territory for being a senior engineer of a critical feature, isn’t it? It’s all good.” And he said this with that same disarming smile.

Amir had adapted to the air around him. Our circumstances don’t show up on the appraisal sheet alongside our KPIs. When we enter an organisation, we sign an unofficial contract of attaching ourselves to their goals. Our work becomes our identity; and that’s how we get judged.

At that time, Amir’s company could’ve been on a poster for a modern workplace. Glassdoor cabins, pop-colour chairs, meeting rooms named after prime ministers and presidents, coffee and tea on the house. No such thing as a nine-to-five and complete flexibility on dress code. Us friends were a bit jealous.

“I think all these aesthetics and perks are just a ruse to get us to spend longer at work,” Reshma Chandra tells me. For the last six years or so, Reshma used to work in exactly the kind of companies Amir described. She has now moved to Goa and works as a consultant with a startup from Mumbai. And while she is now able to work in loose t-shirts and boxers while enjoying the Arabian Sea breeze, she finds the workplace dynamic much the same. “I’d rather you not give me free coffee as long as you don’t bug me for ‘quick calls’ on weekends. The word quick should be banned from our vocabulary.”

Overworked and will continue working...

Reshma is a dear friend, so I nudged her a bit more. Are weekend calls part of the deal? “Not at all. You know what I think? When an organisation uses ‘flexible work hours’ in their work-culture, it is basically morse code for ‘we have a licence to pile work on you when we want. Flexible!’” 

Disha Ramesh works as a journalist with a popular Indian newspaper. Her grandmother turns 90 in a month. “Her birthday is a big thing in our family. The entire extended family gets together for it.” On that day, last year, she had taken a leave to go spend the entire day at her grandparents’. Some time around lunch, her phone pinged, and while the reverb tail of the ping was still in the air, it started ringing. Her editor was on the line. “I know you’re caught up, but would appreciate it if you could join the edit meet.”

In the summer of 2021, Microsoft ran its first annual Work Trend Index in India. The findings were predictably a mixed bag, but some things stood out. More than half (57%) of Indian employees felt overworked and 32% felt exhausted.

A more recent Gallup report (2024 State of the Global Workplace) throws a spotlight on the mental well-being of India's workforce. The report's "Life Evaluation Index" categorises employees into three distinct bands: thriving, struggling, or suffering. The results are stark: only 14% of Indian employees surveyed fall under the "thriving" category, suggesting a widespread sense of discontent simmering beneath the surface of many workplaces. The remaining 86% hover between "struggling" and "suffering," burdened by uncertainty, financial stress, and a lack of optimism about the future.

Nothing much has changed in 400 years or has it?

The Industrial Revolution - hell of a throwback, I know - was probably the turning point for the thing we know of as 'work'. Everything about the idea of work changed the moment we discovered machines and automation. With technology came demand, and to generate supply and maximise profit, factory owners needed to scale up production with minimal resources. Workers were expected to put in between 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Holidays or breaks meant indisputable pay cuts. Even so, the wages were poor, the working conditions dire, and things like employee welfare were considered belly wash. Those who migrated to industrial cities with dreams of a better life often found themselves disillusioned and discontented.

Zooming out, how much have we progressed? The pay is better and working hours are better regulated, but it's been two centuries, and we're still grappling with the nuances of scale in terms of human productivity. While the onus of running an entire city no longer falls on a single workplace, the intensity of our work culture often betrays this reality.

This sounds like a symptom of a mismatch of expectations between the employee and organisation.

Reshma agrees. “Founders work with a spark in their eyes. Rightly so. For them, their company is their baby. But I feel there’s an unspoken expectation for us to imbibe the same fervour, to buy and commit to their idea of ‘we are changing the world.’ It’s like we have to be an army of humanoids marching towards one mission. Have you noticed how we have to justify and carry a dose of guilt every time we take a vacation? As if we’re short-changing our team for that one week?”

Work has made us less social

That last bit hit home. I remember once asking my manager, almost apologetic, if I could leave early - 5:00 p.m. - for a football game I had tickets for. Then, on my way to the game, I felt apologetic for feeling apologetic, and thankfully the metro ride was short enough for me to snap out of this thought spaghetti before it turned existential.

Disha felt the same way at her grandparents’ that day. She attended the edit meet, of course. “I would much rather sit next to my grandparents all day, but the guilt from missing an edit meeting would’ve gnawed at me all day.” “That guilt is massive, man.” Sapan works in advertising. We like to joke about advertising as an industry where time is a state of mind. “And it goes both ways. It boils my blood when I receive emails at 11:00 p.m. asking for ‘important changes’, and I feel terrible when I have to make unreasonable demands from others. Like with you.” About a year or so back, I received a call from him asking if I could compose some music for this campaign he was working on. On asking for the deadline, I remember a line of sorrys before he let out, “3:00 p.m., today.” I don’t remember the exact time, but it was nearing lunch. A couple of jestful expletives were shot, upon which he told me that he got the final cut of the video that morning and found that it didn’t have a background music.

I’ve known Sapan for a while, and I don’t ever remember him speaking of his workplaces without a low voice or a shaking head. Disha loves her work, but speaks of her social life as fast-slipping sand from her fist. On being asked what is the one thing they’d do if they were moved to an island without phone network or internet for a weekend, their answer was quick, snappy, and unanimous.


Work is no battlefield

In 2023, McKinsey Health Institute ran a survey through 30,000 employees spread across 30 countries to measure their physical, mental, social, and spiritual health. Indian respondents reported the highest rate for burnout (59%) and exhaustion (62%). For perspective, the global burnout average was 20%.

Last year, Narayan Murthy, a titan of Indian technology and business, suggested that India’s youth should be working their absolute socks off. “India’s work productivity is one of the lowest in the world, so therefore, my request is that our youngsters must say, ‘This is my country. I’d like to work 70 hours a week’.”

There is a halo around Narayan Murthy’s name in India. Depending on the kind of glasses you wear, his statement can either be a rallying cry or a deeply problematic suggestion. 

My first instinct is to be revolted, but Reshma helps me see the other side, even if she doesn’t agree with Mr. Murthy’s views. “Our parents were used to working like this. They put everything they had into work just so that they could be a little more secure in their future. Breaks or mental health was not part of their internal vocabulary. They worked to live. The tragedy of our generation is that we are expected to live to work.”

Our obsession for "more" is showing up in our scouting.

I recently saw a hiring advertisement asking for Krantikaris (Hindi for revolutionaries). One of the perks of joining this team was to get to work with other such Krantikaris. A job post on LinkedIn asked me if I'm customer-obsessed; another organisation is looking for a People Operations Ninja; and one is only looking for those with a lifelong passion for AI and changing the world.

Language matters. The way we talk is a window to how we think. Have you noticed how it is near impossible to come across a hiring post which doesn't dabble in superhero or war imagery? Which is looking for normal, skilled people to work with them? Everyone must aim for the stars, for the ground is dirty.

And by filling our teams with such people, we have created an environment where nothing is ever enough. In fact, your nearest CXO will tell you that being satisfied is the first sign of lacking the edge to cut it in the market. 

At the end of the week, you are only judged by your position in the how much vs how quick matrix. So, if you want to grow in your career, you must constantly be on the move, at a pace that is discernibly quick, and with a load more than anyone else. Sisyphus can eat his heart out. 

According to the ADP Research Institute's People at Work 2023 report, 47 per cent of employees in India do not feel secure in their positions.

Breathing the air of sameness

And how would they? Even if you can code the hydraulics for the next Falcon rocket in your sleep, job safety has become a nebulous concept. A high-profile tech company recently laid off half its design team due to a new CEO's restructuring plans. Similarly, another prominent organisation implemented a workforce reduction of nearly 10% to "focus on the usage of artificial intelligence to drive efficiency and reduce employee costs." For every rosy story of a young startup overachieving, there is a closet full of cautionary tales. These are just two examples of a larger trend. Data from consulting firms suggests an alarming rise in layoffs, driven by cost-cutting measures and job redundancies. The constant churn, even from a distance, creates a sense of working on shifting sands, where employees feel perpetually insecure about their footing.

Resource management is a common motif across my conversations with Reshma, Disha, and Sapan. All four of them feel the first thing they would do, if they were to design a company just the way they want, is to ensure that they hire right and they hire well. “Can’t just overhire, which I feel some of us do. But hire enough talent to never have to over-depend on anyone. But that’s easier said than done,” Sapan tells me, as he is about to leave the call. “Why is that?” I probe. “Because, at all points, our instinct, and the best solution, is to get maximum worth out of minimum resources. Remember the Knapsack Problem?”

The over-depend remark made me think of Sudeep, a close friend from college. He was an engineer at a company beginning to grow into a recognisable entity in the Indian tech space. A few years back, he developed appendicitis and needed to be operated on urgently. His surgery went fine. He was in the same city as me, so I visited him the next day, only to find him sitting up on the hospital bed, an oxygen mask around his nose, nozzles and pipes going in and out of his body, and his taped fingers typing away on a laptop keypad. I asked him, in part-shock, part-anger, as to what in the world he was doing that couldn’t wait until he was fully recovered. “Got a text from the boss. There is a bug in my API code. Just fixing it will be done soon.”

I called him to talk about exactly this incident. He was amused. To this day, Sudeep doesn’t blame his boss for sending that text. “There was no pressure from him. But the code was failing and I felt that it would just take 5-10 minutes. If I can, might as well just do it?” His tone reminded me of Amir.

If a child starts coughing or wheezing, our first instinct is to take them to a doctor, who prescribes a horrible-tasting medicine, some steam treatment, and maybe an inhaler. A week later, they're back to terrorising the backyard. However, if a significant proportion of the city develops respiratory issues with the occasional coughing fit, then maybe there is a conversation to be had about the quality of the air everyone's breathing.


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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