"I'm done with it," says Amrita Sapre, a marketing and sales professional with Microsoft in Bangalore. "One year in this city, and I can't take it any more!" Like many young Indian executives, Sapre and her husband Parag, who works with Satyam Computer Services Ltd., thought a stint working at giant IT corporations in Bangalore would be a great addition to their resumes. But a year on, the Sapres are stressed out, and ready to move to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. "Our jobs keep us so busy that we only meet each other on weekends; there's no work-life balance," says Amrita, "And then there's the infrastructure. Yesterday there was a 15-minute hailstorm, and it brought the city to a standstill. Bangalore just isn't ready to be an IT capital."
Having morphed from a quiet, laid-back provincial city into a crowded, cosmopolitan metropolis of sky-high salaries and even higher ambitions, Bangalore today is a hive of stressed-out techies and managers. In many ways, the city is a microcosm of the changes India has gone through during the last two decades: rapid urbanization, migration and expansion with which its infrastructure has failed to keep pace. Rising incomes have brought significant socio-economic and lifestyle changes, but have also bred discord should you let your child spend on a night out an amount equal to your monthly salary not so long ago? Globalization has brought Westernization, but not everyone is able to cope with the changing values. Young people are having to confront a host of harrying questions such as how long to hold out before giving in to family pressure to have an arranged marriage. And, with the greater degree of upward social mobility has come high levels of work-related stress working night shifts at a call center fielding customer-service calls from the U.S. isn't conducive to physical or psychological health, no matter how good the money.
Experts at the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) have been warning that an increasing number of young professionals, including IT sector workers, are reporting psychological problems. Dr B.N. Gangadhar of the Department of Psychiatry at NIMHANS says he usually sees half a dozen techies on his outpatient days, and the most commonly reported problems are marital discord and depression. "Most IT sector employees are migrants, with little social support in their adoptive cities," he says. "Being young, they're often single and lonely. If married, they have little time for their families. And when things go wrong, whether at work or at home, they have no one to turn to for help."
Last month, the country's attention was drawn to a case in which an Infosys software engineer killed his wife and himself because he suspected her of infidelity. A NIMHANS study shows that Bangalore has a suicide rate nearly three times the national average 30 suicides per 100,000 people, as against 10.5 for the rest of India. Although the IT industry is not the only one facing this crisis, it is the most visibly affected. Acknowledging the problem, many leading IT companies, such as Infosys and Cisco, are offering in-house counseling services for employees.
"Companies have seen individuals breaking down, and they realize that they need to play a part to prevent it," says Karuna Bhaskar, director at 1to1help.net, a counseling service whose clients include HP, IBM and Texas Instruments. In the seven years since she co-founded her organization, she says she has found that the rat race causes a diversity of problems. "Not only do you want to keep up with the Joneses, your children want to keep up with the Joneses' children. But debt is something we Indians have never been comfortable with. So mounting credit card bills become a nightmare," she says. "And then there's the uncertainty over downsizing and job cuts. Our generation has seen our parents stay with the same job for life; for a lot of us the prospect of a pink slip is horrifying," she adds.
Many of these changes are daunting because they have happened so quickly that society and individuals have had no time to develop a response. C. Mahalingam, chief people officer at software solutions provider Symphony Services, says the IT sector needs to evolve a long-term solution. "What we need to do more is to train and educate employees to expand their zone of comfort, and to draw upon their inner resources," he says. "We're taking in all these brilliant Mensa Club types, and we must provide them with a better support system so they can perform."