Tag Archives: Mental health

Indian parents prioritize career success over happiness for their kids

As per a survey [pdf] done by HSBC of 5,550 parents in 16 countries, Indian parents prioritize career success over and above happiness for their kids. Now, this is a small sample size ( ~ 350 Indian parents if one assumes equal sampling from all countries), but I am not surprised. This rings true from personal experience.

Now, the procedure was very simple, parents were asked to pick top 3 goals for their kids. In India, ‘Be successful in their career’ was picked by 51 % parents, as compared to ‘Be happy in life’ (49 %), ‘Lead a healthy lifestyle’ (33 %), ‘Earn enough to enjoy a comfortable life’ (22%) and ‘Fulfill their potential’ (17 %).


Now, by itself, the results may not  seem striking…after all there is only 2 % more Indian parents choosing career success over happiness and about half of the Indian parents are choosing happiness as well as career success, so what is the big deal?


It becomes a big deal when we put things in perspective. The average percentage of parents who have happiness as a major goal for their kids globally is 64%. That is, two out of three parents globally want their kid to be happy at all costs, while only half of Indian parents do. Moreover, in some countries like France, as high as 86 % want their child to be happy, first and foremost!

Contrast this with a focus on career success. Globally, only for 30 % parents, career success is a cherished goal for their child; or stated another way only 1 in 3 parents is focused on the career success of the child globally, while this figure becomes 1 in 2 parent in the Indian context.

What does such an extreme focus on career success, to the detriment of being happy, lead to? High suicide rates in the education hub of India : Kota.

I hail from Kota and know first hand the tremendous pressure that children are subjected to as they prepare for engineering/ medical entrance exams conforming to their parents wish.

The HSBC report also talks about career ambitions parents have for their children. Its a worrying fact that globally 4 in 5 parents(83 %) have a specific career in mind for their child and in emerging economies this number is even higher. What room does it leave for the child to pursue what their own dream/ passion is?

I coach students too and make it a point to be true to my clients interests (the student) rather than their parents interests ( the party making the payments) cause often the interests may not align!!

The report also talks about how traditional streams like Medicine remains a popular choice (of parents for their child) globally (19 %) ; while Indian parents prefer Engineering ( 14 %) and Computer Science (18 %) over Medicine (14 %) for their kids. Also as many as  89% of parents have either paid for, or plan to pay for additional tutoring. (no wonder coaching business in Kota, and elsewhere, is blooming).

I have nothing against getting additional tutoring or coaching for your child( given the reality of competitive entrance tests, that is unavoidable) and I myself had taken coaching with a Kota institute for clearing my JEE (way back in 1994);  but what I find unacceptable is the subtle, and at times not so subtle, peer and parental pressure to  either become a doctor or an engineer.

By not considering what the interests, passions and strengths of the child are , we preclude them from being truly happy and successful in their adult life.

What the report uncovered was that globally, about a third of parents base their career preferences for their child based on income generating potential while an equal number base it on benefit to society or how well suited the job would be to their children’s strengths. With just 29 % parents globally having ‘Fulfill their potential’ as a major goal for their children, this sorry state of affairs is understandable (but not acceptable).

It might sound like preaching, but if we can learn from the appalling case of the numerous suicides in Kota, it is perhaps evident that unless we align students strengths and interests with their future career and ensure that happiness and fulfilling one’s potential does not take backseat to a sole focus on career; we will not only continue playing with precious human lives, but also leave many more to keep living lives of quiet desperation in their adult life.

One solution comes to mind: Making well-being and character strengths a focus early on since school and that is what the promise of positive education is. Its hard to reach out to parents and make them change, but perhaps we can make the children themselves aware of their need to prioritize happiness and equip them with tools to discover and capitalize on their strengths for resilience and well being throughout the life. IPEN is a step in that direction and I welcome you to reach out to me to take it further in India.

Caught in the middle: Mental Health of middle managers

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About three years back a study about concentrations of fecal glucocorticoids in nine female Barbary macaques caught the imagination of science and management bloggers/ journalists.  The study was more methodological in nature, trying to see whether average concentrations of fecal glucoroticoids are a better measure of stress or those collected immediately after and correlated with some aspect of behavior a better measure, but what caught the fancy of the blogoshpere was a small paragraph embedded towards the end:

Female Barbary macaques have a despotic dominance style, characterized by asymmetrical dyadic interactions, often determined through the use of ritualized threats and displacement, as opposed to direct aggression (Preuschoft et al.,1998 ). When adrenal activity was compared between individuals according to their relative dominance rank, we found a non-linear relationship,with mid-rank females tending to exhibit higher,and often more variable fGCM concentration than high-rank, or lower-rank females.

Now to understand the above, we have to digress a bit into the physiology and psychology of stress. Macaques have a hierarchical social structure and use aggression/ threats and displacement to seal their position in the hierarchy.  These aggressive behaviors cause stress. Stress manifests as heightened activity of HPA axis leading to more glucocorticoids in the body (and feces).  Bottom line, you can measure how stressed a macaque is by analyzing the glucocorticoid metabolite in the feces.

And what did they found? Tangential to their main hypothesis, they found that those macaques in the middle of the rank dominance were more stressed than those either high up the hierarchy or at the bottom.

And what are the most common asymmetrical power structures in human context—-its the workplace where power games are not too uncommon.  The authors themselves extended the analogy to middle managers (not in the article , but in their press briefs) and equated the ambition of middle managers, and the consequent conflict with both superiors and subordinates, as one of the reasons for the stress that middle mangers feel.

But is it really the case that middle managers are more stressed than those at the bottom of the hierarchy or those at the top? I have been a middle manager myself so should know, but instead of using anecdotes lets look at research again, this time from a study surveying nearly 22,000 full time workers.

What the researchers found was that middle managers were indeed more likely to be depressed or anxious than their top-ranking or bottom-of-the-pile counterparts. The study divided workers into owners/leaders; managers/ supervisors and workers and found elevated rates of depression and anxiety in middle managers and supervisors as compared to say workers and owners.

Of course one can speculate as to what factors may underlie such a state of affairs; but putting the two researches together, one can see that part of the reason may be the power dynamics that is involved in being a  boss as well as a subordinate at the same time. When the boss asks and puts pressure for something that is not possible in the given amount of time/ resources, the aggression is typically displaced to the subordinates and leads to conflicts and bad blood at both ends.  The middle manger is truly caught in the middle.

What is the way out? Being more assertive to superiors (without being aggressive/ ambitious/ stabbing-in-the-back kind of person) and not displacing aggressive impulses towards subordinates is one thing that comes to mind. The other is totally to stop seeing oneself as a boss or a powerful person and using more influence and persuasion to get things done rather than use authority or control ….this way you detach from the power and dominance hierarchy mindset.  Lastly create a fun climate for both your subordinates and a delightful experience for your managers. We can learn from macaques and chimpanzees to be aggressive or we can learn from bonobos to be more playful and loving. The choice is ours (and has important consequence for our well-being) !

Yesterday, I had written about how relationships are important for workplace well-being; as middle managers that are caught between superiors, colleagues and subordinates we can either get overwhelmed by the hellishness of other people; or we can use these myriad relationships to satisfy our need of relatedness and making a broader impact on the world around us. The choice again is ours!

Unemployment better than holding a poor quality job?

Of course in financial terms, its always better to hold a ‘poor quality’ (we will define that term soon) job than being unemployed, especially in countries like India where there are no unemployment benefits; but the above question is posed in the context of your health….especially your mental health.

Its a well established dogma that unemployment is bad for mental health and those who lose a job are at risk of mental health problems. As compared to being unemployed, being employed is considered good for your mental health mainly due to  ‘higher income and access to resources, having a defined social role and purpose,  access to social support and networks, and time structure.’

However, one stream of research by Butterworth et al believes that we might have overlooked the crucial importance of  psychosocial quality of work when trying the disentangle the effects of employment and mental health. In particular they contest that while high quality jobs do provide the salutary benefits associated with being in the workforce, poor psychosocial quality jobs lead to worse outcomes  in terms of mental health than being or remaining unemployed.

Quick, answer these questions:

  1. Does your job place high demands on you and is complex/ stressful?
  2.  Do you lack control over your work or suffer from lack of autonomy?
  3. Do you feel insecure about your continued employment or job prospects?
  4. Do you get paid fairly for your work?

Assuming you are employed, the more you answered affirmatively to the above questions the more likely you are to be in a poor psychosocial quality job. The job may be paying you well and may come with all types of benefits but if you think (and if indeed it is the case) that your job is high on demand, low on control, low on security and low on perceived fair wage then that job is not good for your mental health.

As per longitudinal research done by Butterworth et al, there are many interesting relations between job status (being employed/ unemployed) and mental health.  For eg., being in a high quality job has the maximum benefits for mental health, followed by unemployment and the poor psychosocial quality jobs come last in terms of mental health.  They also looked at transitions. If you were unemployed and took up a low psychosocial quality job, say just to make ends meet , then your mental health is likely to go down. They didn’t look at the reverse transition, but perhaps one can assume that if someone was stuck in a poor quality job and became unemployed, then perhaps he/ she may get  a boost in mental health.

Why is this important? Given that economic demands and needs necessitate many to remain stuck in low quality jobs over unemployment, how can this new found knowledge help us? For starters, they can make more informed choices and decisions and be aware of what they are trading in for if they take a job or remain stuck in a job with poor pscyhosocial quality. Some may legitimately prefer a period of unemployment over such poor quality jobs especially if their mental health is at risk; while others who are indeed stuck in poor quality jobs can take more proactive measures to move to high quality jobs or take proactive steps to take care of their mental health.

More important are implications for leaders, managers, employers and policy makers. For policy makers and entrepreneurs, the current short sighted thinking that any type of job is better than unemployment has to be replaced with a more nuanced understanding that some features of good psychoscocial quality jobs are also to be emphasized over blind creation of new jobs.

Most important implications are for leaders and managers. What distinguishes a poor psychosocial quality job from a  high quality job are all psychological features that can be controlled. Managers and leaders can design and craft  jobs for their employees such that there is optimal fit between capabilities and job demands;  there is sufficient autonomy over what ,where, how and with whom to work; hiring is done realistically and with restraint so that there is enough perceived job security and lastly rewards are structured and made transparent in a manner that there is perceived equity in distribution of rewards (which is hard to achieve when CEO’s take a fat payout while layoffs are in progress in a firm).

The bottom line is that given the immense mental health costs of poor psychosocial work, which spirals into poor bottom line results for the organization,  it is a duty of all leaders and employers to ensure that work experience is of as high psychosocial quality as possible. Its not just good for the company its also the morally right thing to do.

So all you entrepreneurs out there, go ahead create jobs, but create jobs that lead to better mental health for all!