Mani was a normal 21-year-old till he got a job a year ago. Now, he is suffering from health problems usually associated with people twice his age—insomnia, fatigue, and indigestion. Recently, things have worsened. He has started exhibiting signs of a split personality. This is because his job requires him to pretend to be Matthew and speak in a false American accent for eight hours a day.

Mani works in one of India’s call centers, which have mushroomed in the last couple of years because of the outsourcing of back-office jobs from the U.S. and Britain. And while there is much heartburn among workers in the Western countries who are afraid that their jobs may soon be shipped off to the developing world, those who work in these ventures in India are facing health and social problems of a much more serious nature. While cases like Mani’s may be rare, continuous night shifts, high work targets, and irregular mealtimes are taking a toll on the health of the workers. Not just that, working according to American and British holiday schedules wreaks havoc with their social life.

“We are constantly on night shifts because then it is day in the U.S. and Britain,” says Sudha Bajpai, who works in a leading call center in New Delhi. “So we return home only in the mornings and sleep through the day. Then it is time to go back to the office.

“We also do not get holidays on festivals like Holi and Diwali but on Fourth of July! As a result, we hardly get to spend time with even our families.”

Most call centers expect their workers to make up to 250 calls a day on an average, which can be very demanding. Many are unable to cope, and psychological problems are becoming increasingly common among workers of Indian call centers.

“These days, the number of people between 18-21 years who visit psychiatrists has gone up significantly. Of them, almost 15 percent work in call centers,” says Jitendra Nagpal, consultant psychiatrist, Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (VIMHANS) in New Delhi. “Many of them exhibit symptoms of burn-out stress syndrome (BOSS) like chronic fatigue and insomnia.”
Perhaps that is one reason why the attrition rate in call centers is as high as 35 percent, according to estimates by the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), India’s apex association of information technology software and service companies.

“Because of the night shifts they face and impatient or angry customers they have to sometimes deal with, employees have high stress levels,” Aadesh Goyal, executive vice president and general manager, Hughes BPO Services commented at a recent seminar on outsourcing. “Half of them smoke too much and many quit the industry due to stress.”

Not everyone agrees with this hypothesis, though. “Candidates know what kind of schedule they will have to follow once they join. Many also undergo formal training in institutes before joining large call centers. Therefore, stress cannot be the only reason for the high attrition rate,” opines Vandana Ranganathan, head of corporate communications at Daksh eServices, one of the country’s leading call centers. “Which job today does not involve stress and deadlines? Do people keep resigning for this?”

One reason call center employees are unable to handle the stress could be their relatively young age. Most of them are between 19-21 years and without specific training in stress management, they are ill equipped to handle rude customers on the phone. In the U.S., on the other hand, the average age of call center agents is between 26-29 years so they tend to be more mature.

Several call centers have begun to address the problem by introducing stress management sessions and appointing counselors. Despite that, problems like Mani’s split personality continue to be largely ignored because they are rare. Management admits that agents are told to introduce themselves with an Anglicized name to the calling parties, but they say this is only to put the customer at ease and ensure that time is not wasted by them trying to clarify the pronunciation of Indian names.

As for the put-on American accents, Wipro Spectramind Chief Executive Officer Raman Roy says: “All we do is ask our people to neutralize Indian accents and remove any Indianisms that may get in the way of easy conversation.”

Psychiatrists, however, warn that the workers may begin to relate more to their on-the-job personalities over time.

For the moment, industry watchers do not believe such phenomena are responsible for the high attrition rates. They say a primary reason for so many people leaving could be the lack of opportunity to move up the job ladder as the management pyramid is very narrow at the top. “They do not consider it a career option,” says Goyal.

Yet another reason for the high turnover rate could be that call centers are increasingly employing young women. This is because they find them better suited for voice-based projects. The women, on their part, are attracted by starting salaries of Rs. 120,000 per year (approx $ 2,600) plus incentives, which is fairly decent by Indian standards. Today, women form 30 to 60 percent of the industry’s work force, according to ICE World, a trade publication.

While this may seem to be balancing the scales in favor of women who have faced disadvantages in the job sphere for so many years, trouble starts when these young women get married. The in-laws of many of them usually do not take too well to their all-night work schedules, forcing them to quit.

The industry has woken up to the fact that employing women also entails developing a relationship of trust with their relatives. “We try to reassure relatives of our women employees by organizing family days on a regular basis,” says Zia Sheikh, chief operating officer of Infowavz International, a Mumbai-based call center. Besides, pick-up and drop facilities are the norm for all those working night shifts.
Then there is the inevitable poaching by rival companies as the $1.6 billion Indian call center industry expands. To offset poaching and give their employees avenues to let out their stress, leading call centers provide them with in-house gymnasiums, pool tables, subsidized medical care and five-star food. Weekend parties and tastefully decorated work places are the norm.

Despite this and the facts that India has a huge pool of English-educated graduates and rampant unemployment, the industry is unable to attract sufficient talent. It is clear, therefore, that things are not yet right as far as employee satisfaction goes. The Indian call center industry has to gear up to meet these challenges. Research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, CT predicts that the global offshore Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) market is expected to reach $1.8 billion this year and grow to $24.23 billion by 2007. India is likely to attract a major chunk of these projects. The Indian BPO industry must realize that to keep growing, it must keep not only its customers but also its employees happy.
Saikat Chakraborty is a writer based in New Delhi.