India's Call-Center Workers Stressed

Outsourcing firms increasingly offer counseling to help employees deal with health and even relationship troubles.

Chicago Tribune
April 26, 2008

BANGALORE, INDIA -- After two years working nights at a U.S. company's computer call center, Vamsi knew it was time to quit when his 6-year-old son brought home a school portrait he'd drawn of his father, asleep in bed.

"He was asked to draw a picture of his mom and dad, and he drew me sleeping. That's the only way he ever saw me," remembers Vamsi, 31, who like many southern Indians goes by only one name. "He never saw me doing anything else."

Indians may have taken over three-quarters of the world's call-center jobs, but they've also taken on the stresses of those jobs: weight gain, depression, boredom and, often, relationship troubles.

Worse, for the legions in India busy helping Americans reboot their hard drives or refinance their mortgages, the problems are often more severe, both because of cultural differences and because the work, by virtue of time differences with the U.S., largely takes place at night.

"There are a lot of pressures on people. The jobs are very stressful and not very creative," said Karuna Baskar, a director of 1to1help.net, a Bangalore-based counseling service that was contracted by 27 mainly information technology and call-center offices in India to work with troubled employees.

As more and more Indians spend their nights drinking too many colas, trying to sound like Americans and dealing with impatient clients on the other end of the phone line, "it's very clearly showing up in health problems and also tiredness and irritability," Baskar said. "At work and with their families, they're more irritable than they should be, and that's affecting their relationships."

Indian call centers and other outsourcing companies now employ more than 1.6 million people, mainly young Indian college graduates, who earn relatively high salaries. But the fast-paced, repetitive work is creating a growing number of stresses, some of them peculiarly Indian.

In a nation where dating among young people is still the exception, and most marriages are arranged, twentysomething outsourcing workers can find it both exciting and confusing to find themselves out at night with attractive co-workers, even if they're simply sitting in the next cubicle wearing a headset.

Archana Bisht, a director of 1to1help.net, remembers counseling a young man who proposed marriage to the young woman working next to him, only to become depressed and confused when she indignantly refused.

"The girl is friendly, and in their minds they've already decided she's the one to marry," Bisht said. "And when she says no, they go through all the emotions of the breakup of a relationship even though there wasn't any relationship."

Other call-center workers end up packing on weight when they trade home-cooked meals with their family, still a staple in India, for a diet of fast food, often the only thing available when they arrive home looking for dinner at 3 a.m. or breakfast at 8 p.m.

"We find people are not even having one proper meal in an entire day, just junk food and coffee and cola," Baskar said. "They say, 'I'm young, I'm fine.' But we tell them you'll face a lot of problems later in life," particularly in a country with already high rates of diabetes and heart disease.

In India, drinking, smoking and drug use are still relatively rare, especially among women. But young call-center workers are taking up the habits with disturbing zeal, researchers say, either as an effort to cope with stress or to project an air of hip modernity.

A study last year in the Indian Journal of Sleep Medicine found that 40% of call-center workers surveyed smoked, compared with 7% of a control group, and 36% had more than two alcoholic drinks a week, versus 2% of the control group.

Counselors in India also noted a separate study, published recently by a World Health Organization cancer research agency, which indicated that people who work overnight shifts may have higher rates of breast and prostate cancer.

India's government also has raised concerns about risks to call-center employees. "After working, the [employees] party for the rest of the time," Anbumani Ramadoss, the minister of health and family welfare, said at a public meeting late last year. "We don't want these young people to burn out."

The combined effect of sleep deprivation, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and a sedentary lifestyle at the keyboard "is killing people," said Vamsi, who has since left his job as a call-center worker for an American computer firm in Hyderabad. "People are killing themselves."

Relationships also are feeling the strain. During the years he worked at Dell, Vamsi said, his wife worked a day job, so "by the time I started going to the office, she was set to hit the sack."

And when his son told teachers his father didn't go to work but only slept all day, "it was pretty embarrassing," he said.

The boy "never saw me doing anything else," he said. With so many problems, "you can imagine the life. There was no life."

Such pressures have driven at least a few call-center workers to suicide. But for a growing number of harried workers, counseling is starting to make a difference. Organizations such as Baskar's advise the sleepless, for instance, to try using earplugs and to turn off their cellphones, both keys to coping in a nation where bustling extended family homes are still common and bedrooms are often shared with siblings.

Counseling, at least outside the family, remains a fairly new phenomenon in India, but it is increasingly embraced by companies faced with high employee turnover, falling productivity and workers prone to making mistakes or breaking down in tears at work.

Among the client companies listed on 1to1help.net's website as receiving its counseling services are Dell International Services, IBM, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, Applied Materials and Motorola. The counseling agency says that by providing services, "the company gives a clear, practical indication of its concern for employee well-being."

Call centers also are experimenting with setting up full-service dormitories for young employees, aimed at giving them a quiet place to sleep during the day, healthy meals at all hours and such perks as gym access.

"Call centers aren't going to go away," Baskar said. "So we have to gear up for them. Otherwise we'll have a nation of ill people."

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