Working through lunch, ministerial agendas and executive health 

By TP Saran

Should one work though lunch? The obvious answer is NO!

And yet in very many cases, both in the private and public sectors, this takes place regularly. Perhaps even more in the public sector, especially at the top levels of the executive class. Not only do a number of officers at that level go on working through their lunch hour, they even proudly proclaim: we have no time to… take time off for lunch here, we continue to work at the same time and take a quick bite or a drink.

Until one day they simply drop dead. Premature death is what awaits them if they continue to be reactive and go on to develop stress that slowly but surely affects them. As a bravado, some of them would disdain any health advice and say they know better, particularly in the early stages when there are no really telltale signs. No wonder many of them suffer from high blood pressure which does not come to be known until it is already too late.

One day pain in the chest is felt, and they find themselves diagnosed with heart disease too. With this comes anxiety, more stress, need to diet and take medicines. Now the pressure at work builds up even more, they become easily irritable and start losing control of their situation. Especially if they work with masters who are slave drivers – most of whom are, in fact.

And if they happen to be political, that is ministers, it’s even worse. Some of the latter could not care less about the health or well being of their executives. Because of their acute need to show that they are doing something, they will keep the pressure up, driven more often than not by unreasonable public demands. And these derive from the equally unreasonable expectations that the promises by politicians have built up in them. And so goes the vicious circle: unrealizable political promise – high public expectation – pressure on executives – expectation cannot be met – more promise for action … and so on it goes.

The classic response of the executives is the most inappropriate and the exact opposite of what it should be; instead of overseeing, coordinating and delegating they take more upon themselves by concentrating and appropriating to themselves what should be done by the respective officers/divisions concerned. In the process they inflict even more harm to their health – but power also seems to go to their heads at times, and they remain ignorant of the risks they are exposing themselves to.

This phenomenon is continuous, but it manifests more prominently when a government’s mandate is nearing its end before the elections, or soon after the elections when the new ministers are sworn in. At these two crucial periods, the predators close in on the ministers to rush through projects. The ministers, eager to please and again to show that they are made of stern stuff, know no better than to zoom in on their executives and bear down on the latter to receive X, Y, Z and attend to their whims, without any consideration of the heavy load under which their officers are already labouring to simply make day to day work run smoothly.

To endless meetings, and critical decisions that need time to be make coolly, are added the totally avoidable and unnecessary additional burden of coping with unscrupulous lobbyists whose only concerns are their selfish ones. And even the ministers get sidetracked at the expense of the national interest, as individuals with apparent clout breathe down their necks.

Again, the new ministers, unwittingly, keep yielding to demands for appointments without so much as checking with their executives who would know better what exactly is the state of affairs on a given issue. It is no use to call the officer in the presence of the person who has asked to see the minister, because the person concerned invariably gives a uniquely one-sided version of the matter.

The officer cannot be expected to have every information at hand regarding what the lobbyist has come for, but he is forced into taking up yet another matter that can wait its turn, causing disturbance in the machinery. Under the circumstances, the impact on the state of health of the executive can only be negative. And it shows to those in the entourage. The subject himself/herself does not realize what is happening subtly, and how the cumulative effect can be serious and detrimental, if not fatal.

Ministers are bitten by a bug to be showy, and to create an impression. So they make grand announcements, with no consideration as to the implications. Many a time the coup d’éclat is something that has figured on the agenda before, and found to be impractical. Or needing more detailed and in-depth attention by experts before a viable plan is proposed.

One thinks of the 100 000 students to frequent Mauritian universities for example. Pray, where are they going to be put up? On roof tops or in the cane fields? Anyone who has frequented a true university knows about halls of residence and campuses. Here, it seems that there is no notion about the need for such infrastructure. Forget about the campuses and just think of the accommodation problem for 100 000 students. That’s a big city for Mauritius. If residences were to be built for 500 students, that’s 200 such residences. Means 200 plots of land or equivalent agglomerations to be built. The procedure for acquiring the land itself takes more than a year. Building from planning to finish will easily take two years, at a minimum.

Yes, we may be allowed to dream big, but we cannot afford to be absurd! And unrealistic. We have not even started talking about all the staffing requirements and other human resource and all the logistical and support cadre to sustain such a project. Where is the trained teacher workforce in adequate numbers to teach them? Will they be produced out of thin air? Are we confusing secondary schools with universities? Do we have a clear idea of the concept of university? 2015 is not that far away in political time, we will see soon enough.

And so with other coups d’éclat in other sectors. As was said of Tony Blair, ‘he didn’t understand how institutions worked. He thought that willpower and rhetoric were enough, and was shocked when they turned out not to be.’

Ministers come and go, but executives remain. In the past decade there has been a proliferation of books on executive health, because with so much stress they have among the highest rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cholesterol (etc) besides being unable to keep physically fit by proper exercising and, most importantly, relaxing. But they have no time for such essentials – which for them are luxuries. No time, always on the go. And their political bosses do not care a damn; instead, they will stress them to the maximum.

In this country, there is a lot of talk about the quality of life – and it is time that the example came from the top. Will it?

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2010

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