Despite aggressive health and wellness campaigns by their employers, two out of three workers in business process outsourcing (BPO) companies continue to live unhealthy lifestyles, with chain smoking and heavy drinking listed as the major vices among the more than 600,000 workers in the industry.

Many of the industry’s workers, whose average age range from 26 to 28, shun regular exercise and the proper diet, Pramod Kumar, executive director of the Call Centers Association of India, said during the launch of “Call Center Olympics,” an event meant to promote health and wellness among BPO employees.

“I would be very happy if 80 percent of our employees participated in health and wellness programs,” Kumar said. “Unfortunately, the sad fact is only 20 to 30 percent of our workers exercise and have healthy diets.”

Kumar said that while smoking, drinking and excessive eating was in no way unique to the BPO sector, the health of its employees has a more significant effect on the way outsourcing companies make money. More than in any other industry, BPO companies have to adhere to strict performance and productivity metrics that, if not met, could mean the loss of valuable accounts to competitors.

“If people are not fit, productivity goes down and companies are penalized by their clients. What happens is that (BPO) companies don’t get enough revenues,” Kumar said. The lack of exercise and unhealthy diets, made worse by unusual hours and other work-related hazards, may undermine efforts to improve the country’s competitiveness as an outsourcing destination, he added.

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The country’s BPO industry, dominated by call centers, employed more than 630,000 workers and contributed more than $110 billion in direct revenues to domestic output in 2012. This makes the BPO industry the country’s second-largest source of foreign exchange next to remittances from overseas.

In 2010, the association hailed the country as the “call center of the world” with around 350,000 working in the industry. Various reports have pointed to the huge English-speaking workforce as the driving force behind this boom.

According to industry estimates, global demand for outsourcing services would triple to a range of about $250 billion to $256 billion by 2016, with the workforce expected to expand to 900,000 employees.

Kumar said maintaining the health of employees, not just physically but mentally and psychologically, has been a key priority among BPO companies in India. “It’s in our interest to keep employees physically fit,” he said, adding that BPO companies spend large amounts of money to make sure that their workers stay fit. “Unfortunately, we can’t force everyone to join (our wellness programs),” he said.

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Earlier this month, the Department of Labor and Employement issued a reminder to BPO companies to adhere to special guidelines designed specifically to promote the health of its workers.

The association has pegged the turnover rate in call centers at 60 percent to 80 percent, the highest in the world. In some companies, it can go as high as 100 percent annually. A full-time call center agent stays in a contact center for an average of 22 months, while part-time agents stay for an even shorter period of 10 months.

The high turnover rate may be attributed primarily to health concerns. According to the International Labor Organization, 75 percent of call center agents suffer from sleep disorders, fatigue, eye strain, neck, shoulder and back pains and voice problems. Other reports cite odd hours, irate clients, heavy workloads and other demands as driving BPO workers to early burnout.

In March 2010, a call center worker shared his HIV story on television, prompting concerns that night workers such as call center agents tend to adopt dangerous habits like drinking, illegal drugs use to stimulate themselves and risky sexual activities after work.

The department of labour and employment guidelines, designed to address “recognized health and safety issues associated with call center work,” include the establishment of occupational safety and health programs and the formation of a health and safety committee in each company.

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BPO employers are also required to maintain an in-house medical staff composed of at least one safety officer, an occupational health nurse and an occupational health physician. Employers should also look after the special needs of pregnant or lactating women as well as the young, older and disabled workers on their staff.

Labor ministry sources has cited the industry’s “peculiar” working conditions that could lead to occupational hazards and health risks unique to BPO companies.

But Kumar said that based on association own internal data, there was “no difference,” no discernible pattern in the illnesses that BPO employees suffer when compared to other sectors. “We compared our own data and the statistics from our HMOs health maintenance organizations and (found that) the top 10 illnesses for BPO employees was the same (as) the top 10 for employees in other industries.”

Nonetheless, Kumar said, all association members were required to adhere to government standards for employee wellness.

“But at the end of the day, we can only do so much. If the workers don’t want to take care of themselves, we can’t do anything about it,” he said. #KhabarLive

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