Six-months into a fancy BPO job, and life was no longer the same for the 22-year-old Siddhartha Kashyap. He was suddenly earning big bucks which came with other attractive perks, but at a price. He lost weight (over 12 kilograms) drastically, and was also faced with a host of new problems — failing vision, headaches, dark circles and lossof apetite. And he lost his sleep.
Kashyap is not a case in isolation, there are several others like him who are losing their health to highly paying BPO jobs. Changing shifts and stimulants such as tea, coffee and alcohol are adding to stress and playing havoc with the sleeping patterns of BPO employees. Of the many things that today’s round-the-clock working culture has robbed us off are peace of mind and family time.
A peep into any BPO office and you will find a band of 20- somethings talking their way through yet another night, coping with the working hours of client companies in a different time zone.
Experts warn that these young workers don’t realise but they are prone to Circadian rhythm sleep disorders (CRSD) or a host of sleeping disorders affecting, among other things the timing of sleep.
Those who put in more than 10 hours of work every night are unable to sleep adequately during the day. This leads to cumulative sleep debt leading to significant sleep deprivation.
To begin with their is fatigue, but other than that the victim of a sleeping disorder also suffers mood swings. Dr J.C. Suri, senior chest physician and head, department of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, Vardhaman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung hospital enlists some other health hazards. He says, “All this sometimes leads to decreased cognitive functioning — attention problems, focus and memory concentration. Then there is poor executive functioning which affects decision making, and results in impaired vigilance and a predisposition to infections.”
Dr Suri and other sleep experts at Safdarjung Hospital studied 181 BPO workers and confirmed poor sleep patterns and high substance abuse in the Indian Journal of Sleep Medicine in May 2007. The study revealed a markedly different sleep pattern of the BPO employees than normal individuals.
“Not only were BPO workers sleepier but the analysis of the data also revealed that the employees were more depressed and suffered from anxiety disorders. Owing to their stretched lifestyles, their use of stimulants like tea, coffee was higher and in a lot of cases substance abuse was also marked,” says Dr Suri.
Cigarette smoking was reported in 40.6 per cent and coffee/cola/beverage use in 65.7 per cent as against 7.5 per cent and 49.7 per cent in the control group respectively. Abuse of narcotic drugs was reported to be at 27.6 per cent of BPO workers as compared to 4.1 per cent of the reast of the population. Another interesting alcohol pattern was marked in the BPO employees, which definitely raises health concerns — of the 181 employees, 35.9 per cent reportedly drank more than two cocktails per week as against 2.1 per cent of the normal population.
Doctors observed a significant correlation between poor sleep and depression, sleep and stress, and sleep and abuse of alcohol, narcotics and cigarettes.
Learning to cope
In a conference on sleep disorders in 2006, Dr Lim Li Ling, deputy director, sleep disorders unit, Singapore General Hospital, who was on a visit to India observed that sleep-deprived youth working in BPO firms might undergo premature ageing. “Heavy food during night, skipping breakfast, eating lunch in the evening — all such irregular habits affect their health,” she warned.
“The fact is that India has one of the largest pools of low-cost English speaking scientific and technical talent, making it one of the obvious choices to outsource work by multinational corporations. We know it brings in a lot of revenue and promises bread and butter to so many households. Researchers are finding ways to fight these problems and create a healthier workforce,” promises Suri.
Talking about precautionary measures, Dr M.K. Sen, senior chest physician at Safdarjung hospital suggests a preemployment examination for the employees. “This helps in pin-pointing the physical characteristics of an individual- judging if he has the strength to cope with the long hours and strenuous work hours. Secondly, it is important that the call centre ensures shift rotations according to specific patterns.”
Dr Sen also advises early identification and treatment of an ailment. “We all know that sleep disorders are only a trigger to several other ailments, physical and mental. While one cannot do much about the working hours and long shifts at BPOs it is important to eat healthy and sleep well and take necessary medication as prescribed by a specialist,” he adds.