16 Apr 2007 – Employee Burn-Out
Harit Roy sat watching the sea through his window. Maybe it was not even the sea but the subtle movement of a lone small wave asserting itself, pointlessly. In a distant way, Harit wondered why the wave was even bothering at all, for there were no other waves. The glare of the sun, the outrageous brightness of the world outside — set off his room, and his mental state, in further darkness.
In an hour, Harit had to present the new product to the operating board. Madhur Vats, the head of corporate investment banking, would be expecting results. This thought dissolved almost audibly, clearing space for a volley of other thoughts that had been there collecting mass and volume. Thoughts with two voices, one his diffident self, the other the higher entreating, trying self… I don’t feel confident of success, something will go wrong; No, I am not capable of handling this. But then why not, you have always brought success, you are seen as a star. Yes, I know. But this time, it is going to flop. With that, gushed forth a fresh wave of diffidence that shut all thinking.
Harish recalled what his uncle had said last week. “But you have always had excellent reviews, then why do you worry about failing?” Harit had said, “You are right. I do deliver eventually, but go through a lot of worries, stress caused by a lack of self-confidence (which is not seen by my colleagues since I am quite prepared when I interact with them), panic attacks, etc. So each time I have present myself, I fear the pattern repeating.”
These were not rare moments of clarity. The unique thing was that Harit suffered both, his diffidence and his clarity, consuming him completely. And here he was again, at the mouth of yet another whirlpool about to be sucked in by an all consuming feeling. He would not call it fear or anxiety — but he knew it was a force indefinable and external to him.
Helpless yet anxious to find a way to break this slowly building state, his uncle had asked, “Can you recall roughly when this feeling of lack of confidence as you label it, began? At school? At IIM?”Harit’s dad was the archetypal father of the 60s and 70s, who decided everything for the family; what to do, where to go, what to eat, etc. He smiled as he recalled how most of his actions were to ensure that Bapu did not get angry… or to please him somehow. He used to shudder taking a poor report card to him, or the loss of a geometry box or pen. “My years at IIT and IIM were terrific, I recall I was the happiest those days!” he said to his uncle. “But the lack of confidence was there in school, say, when I had to write an essay, or ahead of an exam. But in the last two years, it has been worse.”
Uncle pondered, then asked, “And this anxiety had to do with failure or a wider sense of embarrassment before a larger audience?”
“Yes, that I would be ‘exposed’ and ‘embarrassed’ when I don’t live up to what is expected of me!” he had replied.And that was it, even now before going into the board room, his fore most thought was ‘what if I fail? What if I am not in sync with what they want from me?’ Ten days ago,
Madhur Vats had called Harit’s boss and said, “Give me one of your superstars for 10 days, then you can have him back.” Harit could have refused, but he relented because he felt it was expected of him. I have always done things because that is what is expected rather than really explore what is it I would enjoy doing. I went to IIM after IIT as I thought that is best for a great career, but maybe I should have pursued a PhD in engineering, that was my dream. Each time everyone lauded his performance and called him star, superstar, genius. Yet it was that every time he set out on a project, an assignment, he felt sick in the stomach, worried if he would get it right.
Future Bank was going through a major product rationalisation exercise and Madhur’s pet product ‘Maxima’ was under the microscope. He now wanted Harit to repackage it and sell it to the Board. Maxima enabled corporate clients earn some returns on short-term unpredictable surplus funds that would otherwise have remained in their current account earning nothing (though it was a free source of money for the bank itself). This had become a hugely successful product and attracted a lot of new clients, but when Harit studied it, he was not sure the product would be viable always. Harit felt the growth had come from cannibalising existing accounts that were otherwise providing interest-free source of funds for the bank. Hence, while the product itself grew, the bank as a whole lost out on cheap source of funds.
Three days ago he had said to Vats, “Maxima has eaten into our zero cost source of funds. Many of our existing customers now know about the product and are demanding similar returns. Besides, competition is promising better returns, and soon we may be required to match those. That will lower our spreads and revenues.
Finally, the Central bank has been reiterating that providing a return on current accounts is not allowed as per policy.”In reply, Vats said, “Forget the Central Bank. We have enough legal opinions to defend us. Think of how to grow volumes without cannibalising, drive the sales force to look at new segments in the market that are known to have idle funds, which are not earning returns now and would move to us with Maxima. Talk to Treasury to see if they can invest in higher-yielding instruments and so we can provide higher returns to clients without cutting our own spreads.”
Harit was surprised by the reply and said, “Treasury has said categorically they cannot provide any other type of instrument. On the contrary, they are demanding a higher share of the revenues made from Maxima. As for sales force, they are already anxious that competition is already undercutting on pricing and unless we match, or improve, we will not be able to attract new accounts.”
Vats replied, “Harit, you have to be firm and not take this nonsense from Treasury! What are they doing other than just providing the instruments? We could have as well bought them from the market directly, we are doing all the work! Your objective is to save the product. It is my pet idea, and there is no way it can be demolished in the board meeting.”Harit was worried that the price war could sharply lower the product profitability, but he could not think of what to do to save it. Can it be positioned differently so that return alone is not the determining factor? Can he think of bundling other differentiated services to Maxima so that financial return alone is not all-important? Just then Sunil Chinoy, a colleague, called, “Morro wants to subscribe to Maxima and this is a biggie. They have huge funds in flow, for relationship reasons, I wish to offer them 7 per cent yield and keep only 2 per cent spread. I understand you have some misgivings about Maxima. But you will get huge volumes!” Harit was taken aback, he said, “But Sunil, if you start, then many others will also want it. Besides, that will also mean that we need to provide return on the existing free balances of Morro group enjoyed by us.”
But Sunil was adamant. “We will get this approved as a special case for relationship reasons; also we will get additional funds moved in from their other banks, so not all will be cannibalisation.” And when Harit tried to explain that this would hurt the future of the product itself, Sunil said, “What is your problem if Vats will sign on it? Morro is big biz… throw your weight behind it, man!”
Harit felt a deep sense of powerlessness. These were terribly short-term attitudes, but he was totally unable to express himself or hustle aggressively as others. Today he had to meet the board and ‘sell’ the product. But he knew he couldn’t. I cannot do this, they will not buy my idea.
Harit shut his eyes as if to block out a memory, but it only came back with greater force; now recalling to him his eighth grade debating team event. There was a choice of eight topics and he had chosen ‘John Adams’s respect for truth and justice compelled him to defend the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre’. But his father had thought it was irrelevant and based on established facts so that there was no scope for real debate. Instead he had asked him to select ‘State of Emergency is contradictory to the tenets of democracy’. Harish messed up four times during the debate as he could not recall the issues — yet he had been smart enough to swing the debate in his favour. But the stress that his team would lose owing to his failure came back as dreams many times later.
And now, he felt a relief as he realised that he had been right about this feeling always being there in the background, humming gently, waiting to assert itself when the time was right. What he felt today about the board meeting, he had felt many times in the past.
His first job at Future Bank was clerical, operational, procedural, yet stressful because the job also demanded one to be in the limelight doing something different and noticeable. It was apparent that progress and rating would be driven more by his networking skills — partying around, meeting outside office hours, talking about self, and being ‘extrovertish’ or doing something exceptional that gives visibility. As he never had been the partying type nor an extrovert, he was always stressed to find something ‘visible’ to do to take him ahead! Consequently, Harit felt he had nothing to show for himself. When he was in trade finance, he managed the staff that was handling the actual delivery. Harit was worried about errors and mistakes creeping in. For example, data entry into the computer system regarding contents of the request, or its processing could be incorrect, and if he authorised an erroneous entry, it would go into the system and hit them later. This worried him. The sheer possibility of such a thing happening made him restless
On the other side of his mind stood bosses, colleagues, customers who were delighted with Harit — a delight that Harit Roy did not ‘see’, just as none of them saw his anxiety. That delight caused his move into cash management. Here, he was not in operations but product management — responsible to grow the product revenues through either new features, driving sales force, identifying new market segments, or introducing new products.
This was again a job where his visibility was critical for getting promoted. So, Harit did worry about what he should do to remain in the running for future promotions. If a product did not do well for whatever reasons, he would get worried about it and blame himself when there was no need to! The whole environment was a pulsating, throbbing canvas that demanded continuous visibility. Effort alone would not count for promotions!
Through and between these anxieties, Harit moved up the ladder in a bank that thought highly of him. That he didn’t think so was not apparent to anyone, for his anxiety never showed. Thus, he moved into a job in Treasury. Considered extremely difficult, it was a job that attracted the top notch talent from B-schools. Harit himself was quite fascinated by trading, derivatives, etc. Trading had ups and downs and he remained stressed about not meeting the numbers. While explaining the dynamics and thrill of the business to his uncle, Harit said, “But then what you make one day, you could lose the next.
This aspect is taking a lot out of me. You can only last as long as you continuously make money, which is not always possible.” So every waking hour was treading on egg shells, carefully, alert, poised, quietly frantic, aware of being under a microscope, immersed completely in creating the desired numbers. Every notch up meant he had delivered. Performed. Made it. And then there was not even the awareness of a breath well taken, even as he poised himself at the foot of one number, ready to pole vault into the next 10 per cent.
The job was burning him out where he was continuously on the run, a non-stop marathon. His stress doubled, even quadrupled when markets turned very volatile. He started facing a lot of pressure since numbers were not being met, and when things started going bad, his confidence took further knocks — he began to feel terrible every day.
Now for risk management, there is a maximum loss that each trader or the whole trading desk can take on any day. So if a trader is really sure of what he wants to do, he can say, OK, this is the maximum loss where I will cut the trade and book a loss, if the market is going against the expected direction. (A trading desk has different traders who trade in different instruments, say, like different currencies or different types of trading products like swaps, etc., all reporting to a chief trader.) There were two aspects to it: one, managing the traders reporting to him and the other generating revenue. On the management side, this was his first experience of leading a team of traders where different people have different views, and it is not necessary that the boss’s view is right. The worst part was that the result of a view on the markets becomes apparent by the market action very soon. So sometimes, he had a to take a knock on credibility as traders much junior to him could be proved correct and he could be wrong about his evaluation of how a certain currency would move in the market.
One key ingredient, Harit was to realise later in hindsight, was his lack of an aggressive personality. He never sought to defend himself or repackage himself so as to recover from a situation quickly. Whereas, the more experienced head traders who too faced bad weather in trading, applied their aggression to quell such reactions and show the juniors who the boss was. When the trading desk took big losses, morale was affected and that is a bad thing for a trader, for then every subsequent decision compounds the problem. And thus, it went from one day to another. There would be interim relief when his desk would turn in a profit, but then another day one could see it wiped out; and when you are in spotlight things become even more difficult. More difficult, if one came with Harit’s anxiety. And if you lacked aggression.
Some of the traditional head traders had a reputation of having made big bucks sometime, so they wouldn’t even bother about a setback and fire back the dandy juniors. The younger aggressive MBA head traders knew how to show who the boss is (right or wrong) and say, “Let me worry about my desk. Don’t you come nosing by to watch my numbers!” “You have to love making money to have this attitude,” Harit explained to his uncle once when describing to him the laws in the trading jungle. “Nor have any emotions or feelings for one another! You have to be ruthless!” He had been witness to numerous occasions when the aggressive chief trader would advertise his success to his senior management, talk about it openly and use it to reaffirm his credibility and show his juniors that he is not the boss for nothing. A meeker one like himself would not capitalise on such instances to firmly establish his authority.
In quiet moments, Harit smiled when he watched the aggressive fellows protect their skins from being bruised by junior staff. But he did not have it in him to do likewise. Like bragging about an old success to cover up current mess — it did not undo the loss today. But others used that as an oar, or say, a pole vault, to transcend the current demolishing situation, whereas Harit got stuck, in the loss, in the agony, in the embarrassment that it openly showed up. In short, Harit could not use a lie to survive.
While he joked about this being a skill, at work life was a continuous flow of anxiety. Uniquely, Harit remained aware of when his thinking got jammed. There would be a feeling of constant — fear about how he would perform, feel incapable, angry with himself, and lose perspective. Then followed headaches, nausea and complete loss of appetite, which was worsened by the excessive and opulent lunch meetings where he felt compelled to feign interest in food, lest he cause people to ask about it. So he ate even if his body protested and ended up the worse for it. Consequently, he carried home the bad feelings and worries, which meant he was not able to spend quality time with his family. The kids somehow sensed it even from the way he shut his car door when he parked.
The trading job was sucking out a lot of his energy. Harit was continuously on the computer or on the phone and everywhere the mobile phone buzzed. One day he spoke to Megha, his wife, and expressed how bad his feelings were. Surprised but not expressing it, Megha tried to make him feel positive, but he concluded by saying, “All this is my own creation; I could ignore it, shut it out, look at the positives and feel happy; but I have almost made a habit of only looking at the negatives.”
Megha was uniquely calm. For one because she was not surprised. Having seen the kind of life he led, she had always wondered if it was not excessive. She was not sure if he enjoyed the power play, the adventure with money, the designation, the name and fame. And now this expression of no confidence, stress; this was surely a fallout of overwork, she thought. She had sensed a small drop in his happiness, and now it surprised her that his bank had no meters to gauge this! It was a very hi-stress industry, hi-stress environment… that is where the problem lay. Harit was a calm, earthy person, found his joys in his family and kids, watching a movie or running. (Harit was a trained marathon runner). Clearly, the environ was clashing with his personality. When his condition remained unchanged after a month, Megha asked, “Has your productivity dropped at work?” He replied, “No, how can I let that happen?”
“Has anyone sensed it? I dare say they have not! Yet they crack the whip on their performing monkeys. I am amazed… for all their greatness, organisations are downright ordinary… they can tell you you are a good performer if you run fast, but they cannot tell when you are losing steam! Wah! How many morons does it take to run a place like that!”
Angry and beyond reason, Megha watched over Harit for a whole month, and then suggested with calm firmness, “Take a break, leave the industry because as long as you remain in this industry, there will be a parallel track running, which will show you up as a misfit. As long as that track keeps playing, you will judge everything against that track. The break will help erase old tracks. I am surprised your organisation has not sensed your feelings!”Harit thought about it. I know the problem but am not charged enough to fight it; so I wallow in it when I feel down. “How long can I be sapped of confidence?” he agonised.
“Use cold logic even if it is not believable,” said Megha. “‘Am I lacking in knowledge? No. Am I dishonest? No. Am I low on skills? No. Am I disliked? No. Am I slow and dull? No. Can I do this job? Yes. Do I have the means to do it? Yes’ Then what is stopping me from feeling good? The oppressive debilitating crushing environment.” Harit heard her out quietly and said, “Well even though logic says otherwise, I do feel I am slow and dull, that I can’t be a success and it is like some kind of a force that is holding me back and I have to struggle against it and be pushed into doing something. There are two things, Megha: one is the courage and confidence to do something and another is a passion or will to do something. I think if I find the latter, the former will come, but I am struggling with the latter!” Megha nodded and said, “Passion will come once the will is there, passion is the result not cause in your case.”
As he recalled this chat, he asked himself, “Is will lacking or missing? If I cannot find a liking to do something though logic says that I should be doing that, I find it difficult to take actions to support that — that makes me feel guilty that I am not doing enough to get out of my problem; I guess will is missing, not lacking. Or is it? Oh God, I cannot take this anymore!”
23 Apr 2007 – Time For Reflection
Harit watched the coffee machine. It had been nine minutes since he set it up and there was no trickle of the water percolating. The percolator had been malfunctioning the whole of the past week. And he remembered the DustBuster, too, needed a change of filters. The DVD player’s clock had been randomly resetting itself; he needed to check that, too. There never seemed to be enough time for maintenance… only survival…
Harit put his head down on the kitchen table and thought. What kind of life was this? And he was not even enjoying anything he worked for. He heard his kids pad into the kitchen, laughing and giggling over something. Arjun was miming, “My Spider sense is tingling!” And Anya was shrieking with laughter. Harit wanted to be a part of that. He heard them serve themselves cereal and the shuffling sounds meant they were crawling under the dining table to sit between the chairs and eat. Now they were play-acting at hiding from aliens who were attacking earth…
Harit loved his kids to a point of distraction. Presently his wife Megha came into the kitchen speaking monotone alien talk, “Invoking file ‘Kidsearch’… Magnum 24 spotted Fruit Loops in radius of 2 feet…” More hysteric laughter followed as Megha joined them under the table. Harit felt like an alien… his mind did not have the space or energy to lighten up. What is this life?
Harit’s banking career sat on him like a dreadful pain. His job took a lot out of him, leaving little for family; He was always stressed and worried about work, always preoccupied, always on the phone or laptop. Work was a burden to be done only to earn a living and for financial independence. The most happy times for him were always those spent with family and kids. The past two years had been enormously stressful and anxiety ridden. Anxiety being paramount. So much so that everything else got blocked out of vision and hearing. Harit harboured doubts about his ability — and his capability. (See ‘Employee Burn-Out’, BW, 9 April 2007.)
A unique thought occurred to him, how wonderful it would be if he could be at home taking care of the kids, be there for them while Megha could work? Her career in advertising was soaring; it involved so much travel and each time either her parents or his flew down to be with the kids.
The thought assumed unprecedented proportion, more owing to the immense joy he felt each time he imagined not having to go back to work. The sense of relief he felt was already a huge attraction. Yes, it will be good to take a break… He would either take a sabbatical or work out of home… the whole idea of a clean break felt tremendously joyful. He felt a relief that was completely overwhelming. Funny thing was, Harit had not felt happy in a really very long time.
Over the next week, Harit discussed this with Megha. At first, she was sceptical. This high flier, could he sit home with no trading, no deal closure, no heart-racing excitement of interest rates going up? But having watched him the past three years, she agreed it was wise to take a year off. Thereafter, the next moves would be easier.
Harit spoke to his boss, who was typically startled but not surprised, and agreed that Harit would work on an assignment basis. The only people who kept a profound silence were his parents. “Will you be earning? It is not nice to live off a woman’s earnings.” But Megha told Harit to remain unperturbed.
Into the sabbatical: Harit was a picture of joy, happiness and effervescent with energy. The whole house reverberated with his laughter and joy. The kids got the best out of all this. Rarely were they lost in the PlayStation or TV. They were out in the playground playing aggressive soccer. Harit had been a star football player at Mumbai’s Don Bosco School, where he had played for the state. Today he coached the team at his kids’ school and especially was the idol of the 5th grade girls’ team. Gone was Anya’s mild stammering, thanks to the soaring confidence that she gained from ‘Anya! Your dad is too cool!’
Harit learnt to cook, played with the children whenever and whatever they wanted, helped with their school work, planned several holidays with family with no constraint of having to match holidays with Megha. He went back to playing the tabla and taught English in the local government school for free. He even worked as a substitute teacher of physics at the kids’ school.
One unusual fallout of this was a chat with the school principal. Father Dias once stopped him and said, “I always agonised over the boys who played well on the field but produced poor grades, especially in the sciences. Today most of them have crossed the 70 per cent score and are taking a healthy interest in their studies. Their parents will not believe that a sports coach can bring such a change in self-esteem!”
Harit felt a great sense of wellbeing. There were no demands in terms of deadlines and pressures and politics and dependencies on others, etc. so it was unmitigated fun.
During the initial 6-7 months, he did not even think about work; he thoroughly enjoyed the period , thus validating to himself how working was taking away all the joys of his life. It was a treat to receive the kids when they come back from school, make things for them, take them to museums, etc. It was also great fun trying out new cuisines and recipes, and going to the gym made him feel physically fit — so it was really blissful. Harit had booked to see live music shows of his most favourite bands that were performing in the city. He even made trips to Delhi to attend the AIR Sangeet Sammelan.
When he was working, he used to be so preoccupied that he was only physically present at home, but mentally always worried about something. But during this period, he was wholly present and thriving. It was lots of laughter, fun, good feelings. Whenever someone called he was happy to talk and said he was feeling great, rather than like before when he would talk as if he was carrying a heavy burden. In short, his mind space was released — he had space for what he enjoyed… a feeling that came to him as a surprise.
How amazing it is, that our core personality gets submerged under the weight of falsity! Periodically, colleagues from the office called to share in his experience. It was not uncommon in banking and in many software companies, where people took sabbaticals. In fact, just a few months before him, three others had gotten off the conveyor belt, in a manner of speaking, to go off to the hills for some quiet.
His diary notations read: “I wanted to take a clean break to feel totally free, not be controlled, not be constrained by any obligation towards anybody; least of all financial considerations!”
Periodically, as if to wake him up, some family member would call to say, “Enjoy while the going is good, for soon you must get back to work.” And then, Harit would think about getting back to work… and once again the doubts returned. As the excitement of doing something new started wearing off both for Harit and for his family, the routine threw up some rude realities that one has to come to terms with. I lacked the efficiency that a more experienced housewife would have. I would feel disappointed when the food was not appreciated, blame myself for not keeping the food ready on time or handle sudden changes of plans. I would feel touchy if Megha would be upset that the house remained messy. When I noticed how she could efficiently manage various types of housework on weekends or sometimes even after coming back from work, I was reminded of my own deficiencies — of being forgetful, thoughtless, disorganised, clumsy, etc. and how difficult it was to manage housework. This used to make me feel disheartened at times though later, I came across an observation that made me feel better — that women are far better at juggling multiple things than men!
And then there were other dampeners. While my desire was to master playing the tabla with adequate practice, it was not translating into reality. Probably due to age, I felt I was not learning as fast as say my son learnt it. I could feel the beats but could not express them digitally. My interest in cooking and trying out new things also waned.
Another thing that started bothering me was a concern expressed by my parents and in-laws about how long I wanted to be on the sabbatical and what I planned to do after that. Try as I did to ignore what others said or felt about my decision, it kept bugging me whether it was all right for me not to be working. And yet despite these negative emotions, on balance I felt a lot happier than when I was working, as I always had the time to handle these.
As is natural in a period like this, there were those still moments between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. …moments when time could be ‘seen’, and felt, as it crawled with him around the house, even if he was jogging on the treadmill or cataloguing his music… these were moments when time spoke to him, questioning him whether he would remain happy playing the role of a house husband at all times. Stepping into the uninvited role of alter ego, it spoke to him and asked, “Are you really doing a good job of helping the family, or is your mind rusting? Don’t you think, if you continue like this, you could become so miserable that you will neither be good at housekeeping nor have resurrected any chance of resuming your career?” Harit felt disturbed, but he shut out the chatter. But it also got him to think about all his women friends and relatives — those who had to give up their careers either temporarily or permanently. Those who maybe sat on the fence of hope, like he did, unable, but blamed all the same. Harit wondered if this was how they felt.
Writing his diary was the most satisfying act. At one level everyone was’ ‘enjoying’ witnessing an all-new decision that someone else had made. The operative word here is’ ‘someone else’. It was a nice window to watch and learn the outcomes or maybe validate their own self doubts over such a decision. They were at one level happy, at another relieved that I was getting a break from an enormously stressful work environ; they were not overtly anxious because we are a double income MBA-hi flyer couple. So, money was never on anyone’s mind. But once the novelty and challenge of observing a grown man stop working had been enjoyed, the extended family started making polite noises… ‘don’t you feel like getting back to work?’ ‘How long will you sit back like this?’ to ‘You must start thinking about work’. Then came more subtle ones, since I was not falling for the gross ones — ‘what do you plan to do ‘after this’? Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the ‘after this’ period. If I thought stress was over, here it was coming back in a renewed package. Yet when he looked at his kids and wife, everything was wonderful. It was only the extended family for whom all this was not socially acceptable. They felt Harit would never enjoy a decent social life.
And the mind does feed greedily on such thoughts, as mine started to, aided and abetted by self doubts over ‘what if I go to waste?’ Questioning led to self doubts and like a vicious spiral, the self doubts closed in to eat into Harit’s own confidence in being able to do well in any profession, despite all past evidence to the contrary. Any attempts to look for a purpose in life that would balance his own desire to spend quality time with his family while pursing a profession would end without any clear ideas. As days passed without a resolution to this quest, Harit started feeling restless, anxious once again about what he would do with the rest of his life. Should he just shut all these confusing thoughts and get back to the grind? But again that would not be fair on the family and the children. I have to solve the problem of balance… I cannot shut out work to be exclusively with family nor can I embrace it with all its attendant anxiety to the exclusion of family.
This was around the ninth month of his sabbatical, when thoughts about the future and his lifestyle took over aggressively. And when he started thinking about getting back to work, the confidence and anxiety issues came back. Gingerly and tentatively, he sent his CV to a host of companies and sat back and suffered. What if they don’t get back? What if they did get back? Will they buy my sabbatical? What should I tell them? If they get back with a good job, will I do it to satisfaction?
Every time he thought about going back to work, his stomach churned — often he even said he could smell his office. During moments of clarity he tried to figure whether it was the office or was it going back to work. It had become very difficult to hold on to a feeling that I did not want to go back to work, and not feel terrible about it. A sort of confusion set in; from trying to shun work, sometimes I felt I should put my confusion to rest and just join a job again, then I don’t have to worry about what to do.
I cannot recognise any great passion for a specific type of work, though something tells me that I must try to find that passion… if not I will be seen as weak. I should find a pursuit that would keep me mentally engaged while still giving me all the time for my family! Sometimes I also feel lonely, so I think it would be good to work with a team (as I used to really enjoy where we were a large team and it was fun to support each other). For nine months he had been joyful and at peace, but the recent call from his dad asking about returning to work hurtled him down many levels. Once in this confused state, Harit logged on to a chat room where he often went to ideate with the rest… and this is what happened:
Harit: Are we socially prepared to help a chap who is burning out?
RealMan: No, we are not. We are an unforgiving, stuck-in-the-mud, cast-in-stone, ritualistic bunch of idiots. Corporate India sniggers at people who ‘break’.
Harit: Are you an HR person?
RealMan: That explains my pseudonym… I need auto suggestion, if not my profession is very demeaning. We don’t get to treat people as people. But then we are all HR people at one time or the other. Because the employee is a machine who gets worn out by the negativity, the stress, the long schedules, the rigour, the balancing act.
Sancham: But really, why do we hire people? For their creativity, their joy of working, their positive attitude, their
efficiency; but these qualities get worn off. In fact, organisations should encourage employees to take a year off, reconnect with selves and come back better people.
Harit: OK, this is about a friend of mine who was in a high power seat and took a break. (Harit explained the story). Today he is a bit unsure how the market will perceive him…
RealMan: I envy your friend’s guts. It takes a real man to get up and do what he did. This chap must have grown so much in this time! I hope organisations realise this. But they are all nerds out there.
Sancham: Shut up, realman, you need to get out of that organisation where you die every day. There are good organisations out there who are investing in people — they will see the break as going for servicing and coming back. If I were running a consultancy, I would hire this guy at a senior position because he has a) displayed singular courage to take a break.
RealMan: Agree, that means he is not afraid of taking unconventional decisions.
Sancham: b) he has done something totally different from his earlier job — he has had time to rest his mental muscles and gain perspective.
RealMan: Let me add c) he has had a good rest period — that makes him a better employee. He recast his day, his hour, his minutes he sat and looked at time and made it do different things for him — and that my dear chap, is a BIGGIE! We need these sort of people now, because everyone is looking jaded and dead these days. I am on the operating board of an ad agency and I always feel I have walked into a janitor’s room full of limp, soggy, dead washcloths!
Sancham: I would totally go for this guy. People who have known the flavour of rest are people who will work carefully and they are more creative. Period! Reflection is a skill few people have, most are caught in the ‘now’. Anyone who can reflect and takes time out to do so is going to be a better manager.
RealMan: I doff my hat to this guy for doing it. I am sure his wife must have supported this fully. They both must be losing focus on the important things in life to take this decision. I have been a people shepherd for 19 years and, trust me, very few people have the courage to step off the treadmill of a career. All of us depend on our careers for self-esteem and power. This guy is ultra cool. If he is a marketing guy, or from finance, send him to me.
Harit: But won’t he be looked down upon by the market when he returns?
RealMan: On earth you have to lie a little bit, by that I mean not say the whole truth. He should not call it a sabbatical — what he has done is gotten in touch with himself — it is a corporate detox programme. He should send all sorts of bills to his boss and claim all kinds of money. This is what companies need to be paying people to do!Harit felt assured. He was, in fact, caught between getting back to work and not doing so yet. But now he experienced a warm feeling. He couldn’t say what it was, but RealMan made him feel better about his decision. Over Megha’s support, RealMan’s verdict sounded real.
Slowly but surely, Harit started realising that he was responsible for finding the solution. It is all in the mind. Why can’t I work without getting “worked up”, so that I can also be emotionally present with the family? Can I not train the mind and emotions to achieve this? Can this alone not be a defined purpose in life, whatever be the profession?
Harit sat by the window and gazed at the street. His last 6-7 years swam before him, with fluorescent highlights of the critical moments that had led him to take this sabbatical. It was justified. Taking time out to reflect is not a weakness… reflection must be a part of one’s evolution…. I took time off to stop, to pause, to be… to recompose my life around the realities of my life… with those being core. Whereas earlier the core was my bank, my career and the feelings of my bosses, while the softer realities simply garnished it. Now I have established my softer realities where they belong. What I experienced until last year was also a valuable experience… Sancham was right, no experience is negative. All experiences add to life. Never mind what anyone has to say.
The next few days were slightly different. Harit found mental activity easier. Possible. He was able to see a road ahead. Earlier it was a blur. Now, he saw some detail and that detail was about a purpose.
In two weeks’ time Harit had articulated, “I must return to a life of purposefulness, not to a life of control.” He decided he was going to extend his sabbatical by another six months. During this period, he would define purpose , and then define the kind of career and job he would work in. Only one small anxiety remained, something that RealMan had said, “Your friend will still have to explain what he did during the sabbatical”.
Harit said aloud, “I am working at changing from being a controlled individual to an individual in control.”