Breaking the hearts of BPO workers



Ric Saludo’s CenSEI colleague Victoria Fritz contributed this column

It brought in an estimated $13 billion last year, with between $15 billion and $25 billion in gross revenues forecast for 2016, employing as many as 1.3 million Filipinos. But business process outsourcing, especially the call centers that employ most BPO staff today, has also brought no little risk to the health of the tens of thousands of young employees working in the wee hours for clients half a world away.

Hence, for an industry that depends on competent, alert and reliable staff performing at their best when they should be in bed, maintaining the health of outsourcing workers has to be a priority if the sector is to maintain global competitiveness and achieve the growth and gains projected for it.

That is the subject of the analysis and research by The CenSEI Report, excerpted here:

According to Offshoring and working conditions in remote work, published in 2010 by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Palgrave Macmillan, “BPO employees face heavy workloads backed by performance targets combined with tight rules and procedures,” making for a generally stressful environment.

Apart from heavy and variable workloads combined with performance targets, relatively low levels of job discretion (particularly in call centers), tight rules, procedures enforced via electronic monitoring, and monotonous and unpleasant work tasks (such as dealing with difficult customers over the phone) constitute a tailor-made recipe for stress hazards.

The Department of Health conducted its own study in 2012, where 1,500 call center agents underwent a “bio impedance analysis.” The DOH found that 60% of the respondents have higher metabolic ages than their actual chronological ages, which is attributed to their bodies being under a lot of stress. That means their bodies are older than their real age.

Also in May 2012, Amrita Gupta, a doctoral student at India’s International Institute for Population Sciences authored a paper titled “Health, Social and Psychological Problems of Women Employees in Business Process Outsourcing: A Study in India.” It cited a 2006 study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India on 272 women working on night shifts.

High percentages of the women were found to have the following problems: sleep difficulty and high blood pressure (60 percent), cold and headache (55 percent), digestive and menstrual problems (50 percent), respiratory illness (45 percent), and backaches (30 percent). The Indian business chamber study also noted that the night-shift workers had a difficult time getting sleep during the day due to household and parenting duties.

There’s more. A 2012 survey of 34 studies, published in the British Medical Journal, shows that shift work raises the risk for vascular diseases. Shift work was defined as evening shifts, irregular or unspecified shifts, mixed schedules, night shifts and rotating shifts.

According to the survey, whose reports covered more than 2 million people combined, shift work was associated with a 23% increased risk of heart attack and a 24% rise in coronary events. Night shifts were linked with the highest increase of 41% for coronary events. Another study led by Dr. Christopher Morris of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School concluded that people who work at night have an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

An April 2012 study, published in Chronobiology International surveyed 1,206 Brazilian poultry-processing plant workers aged between 18 and 50. It found a higher prevalence of overweight (42.2% vs. 34.3%) and abdominal obesity (24.9% vs. 19.5%) than in day-shift workers. Another article on the same month available at the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America explains why night-shift work causes obesity. Because they are up when people normally sleep, shift workers end up consuming more high-calorie sugary food.

Citing the 2010 ILO study, Kabataan Party-list Representative Raymond Palatino filed BPO Workers Welfare & Protection Bill that same year. House Bill 2592 proposes: “BPO workers shall be entitled to a medical examination free of charge upon entry in the BPO company and not merely upon regularization, and every year thereafter during his/her tenure of employment…”

The bill also stipulates: “An occupational safety and health policy shall be formulated by each BPO establishment addressing the safety and health concerns in BPO workplaces…” In May this year, Bayan Muna Party-list Representative Teddy Casino filed HB 6073, which would designate occupational health and safety workplace representatives to monitor the work environment in BPO firms, among other provisions.

In response to findings that BPO workers have higher metabolic age than actual age, the Labor and Health Departments launched the “SEX” (Stress-free, Eat the right food, and Exercise) program for a safe and healthy lifestyle among BPO workers. The project – since renamed “Live Well, Work Well,” after call centers objected to to the SEX acronym – was to be piloted this month in 30 companies covering 200,000 call center agents. Under this program, teams of experts will go to BPO companies to conduct a 30-minute lecture about healthy lifestyles before office hours.

Handling the three-year project is Ethelyn Nieto, a former DOH undersecretary serving as chairperson of the iCare Healthy Lifestyle Office Caravan project technical working group. She says initial on-site lectures will be followed by return visits to assess workers after three months, and then after six months.

Given the phenomenal growth of BPOs in earnings and employment, both government and business have multi-billion-dollar stakes in making sure the industry’s workers live long, healthy and productive lives. And they should get moving even faster on such initiatives even without a law mandating them. That’s the only way to make sure this 24/7 sector keeps being an engine of growth and jobs for the Philippines.

(Excerpt from The CenSEI Report on BPO health risks. For the full report with online research on how to address workers’ concerns, email


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