- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

NEW DELHI (London Sunday Telegraph) — Americans and Europeans may be infuriated to discover that the company they are calling has moved its customer-service center to India, but their frustration is nothing compared with the heart attacks, ulcers and insomnia afflicting those on the other end of the line.

Research by India’s booming call-center industry has found that the 1.6 million people who work in them, mostly in their 20s, are plagued by ailments arising from the stress of dealing with irate customers.

The Indian government is so concerned about the problem that it is preparing a health strategy for the workers.

A study conducted by Strathclyde University for the Union of IT Enabled Services, which informally represents call-center workers, found that 77 percent felt “very” pressurized and 45 percent identified difficult customers as the main source of their stress.

Call-center salaries have transformed the lives of a generation of young, middle-class Indians, giving them independence and money, but the price is proving high.

The report, to be published later this month, supports the findings of a health survey by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations that found that the outsourcing industry was most at risk from diseases that would affect productivity. Researchers expect heart disease, strokes and diabetes to hurt India’s productivity in coming years.

Staff in call centers dealing with British customers say they have been shocked at the ferocity of the verbal attacks they encounter.

Nidhi Aggarwal, 24, said she had never heard some of the insulting language used — including the word “Paki” as a term of abuse — before she began taking orders for a British catalog company, which routes its customers’ calls to a Bangalore call center.

“At first, I thought I’d get used to it, but it’s been a year now, and it’s not getting easier,” she said. “On its own, maybe I could cope with the abuse, but there’s also the stress of finishing calls in one minute and hardly having time for breaks.”

Miss Aggarwal, an English graduate, said she planned to quit the industry, tired of wishing customers a good morning only to hear: “Oh, I’m through to India, am I? Put me through to someone who can understand English, you cow.”

Some companies offer counseling to employees to help them overcome psychological problems.

Archana Bishta, who runs the www.1to1help.net advice service in Bangalore, said she had helped workers who were suicidal or having a nervous breakdown.

The company’s clients include IBM-Daksh, Dell International, CapGemini, Fidelity and Tesco Hindustan Service center, while other companies, such as Infosys Technologies in Bangalore, have set up 24-hour staff help lines.

Worried call-center managers have also provided cafes, sports facilities and gyms for their staff and offer neck massages, disco nights and picnics in an attempt to ease the pressure-cooker atmosphere.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has promised to introduce a policy specifically for the call-center industry. “Teenagers straight out of school and college, looking to make a fast buck, are collapsing in front of their computers,” he said.

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