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Outsourcing industry facing health blues

According to a new study, productivity loss on account of health problems faced by outsourcing industry employees could cross $20 billion in 10 years.

business Updated: Dec 26, 2007 23:07 IST

The job came with a good salary, and better perks. But, 26-year-old Vaibhav Vats will tell you, it was doing him no good. His weight had grown to 120 kilos, and he was missing out on social life, as he worked long hours overnight at a call centre. Eventually, he quit.

"You are making nice money. But the tradeoff is also big," said Vats, who spent nearly two years at IBM’s call centre arm in India, answering customer calls from the United States. Call centres and other outsourced businesses such as software writing, medical transcription and back-office work employ more than 1.6 million young men and women in India, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who make much more than their contemporaries in many other professions.

They are, however, facing sleep disorders, heart disease, depression and family discord, according to doctors and several industry surveys. Experts warn the brewing crisis could undermine the success of India's hugely profitable outsourcing industry.

Heart diseases, strokes and diabetes cost India an estimated $9 billion in lost productivity in 2005. But the losses could grow to a staggering $200 billion over the next 10 years if corrective action is not taken quickly, said a study by New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

The outsourcing industry would be hardest hit, it warned. Reliable estimates on the number of people affected are hard to come by, but government officials and experts agree that it is a growing problem. Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss wants to enforce a special health policy for employees in the information technology industry.

"After working, they party for the rest of the time ... (They) have bad diet, excessive smoking and drinking," he said at a public meeting last month. "We don't want these young people to burn out."

The minister's comments have infuriated the technology sector, which says it has been unfairly singled out for problems that also exist in other professions.

The outsourcing industry has come under fire because the sedentary lifestyle of its employees combined with often stressful working conditions that make them more vulnerable to heart disease, digestive problems and weight gain than others. Some complain of psychological distress.

Most call center jobs involve responding to phone calls through the night from customers in the United States and Europe — many of whom can be angry and rude. It is monotonous and there is little meaningful personal interaction among co-workers.

This can also be true of other jobs such as software writing and back-office work. "There are times when the stress is so overwhelming that they fail to cope with it. Then they come to us," said Archana Bisht who set up a counseling company, 1to1help.net, in Bangalore six years ago.

Her clientele has since grown to 25 companies — seven of them were added in the past two months — including such names as Intel, IBM, Hewlett Packard and Mindtree Consulting. Each day, about 60 to 70 employees at these companies seek counseling from 1to1help.net. The complaints are many, but marital incompatibility and relationship issues top the list, Bisht said, often because the long, odd working hours means couples don't have much time together.

More women than men ask for help, she added.

The industry is getting sensitive to these problems. The National Association of Software Services Companies (NASSCOM), the main trade body of the outsourcing industry, said many of its member firms are already providing facilities like advice on health, gyms and money for regular checkups.

Companies like Infosys Technologies have set up 24-hour helplines for counseling by psychologists. Some like HCL Technologies have built daycare centers for children.

India's case is alarming because of the sheer number of people affected and the factors that make them vulnerable to these diseases, said Ravi Kasliwal, a cardiologist at New Delhi's Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. "To top it all, there is lack of awareness," Kasliwal said. "One out of 10 persons aged 35 years or more in this country is prone to heart attack."