Thursday, 10 May 2012

Call centers: Sunshine industry but what are we doing to our youth?

A call center in Metro Manila

MANY young people gravitate to jobs in the BPOs (business process outsourcing) or call centers  because of the generous salaries and benefits, as well as the glamour of the work. Today, the Philippines has toppled India as the country with the highest number of BPOs. 

I had the opportunity to advise a group of young doctors (Dr Dammang et al) on their research regarding diseases of call center agents who consulted at the emergency room of a private tertiary hospital in Quezon City, Philippines in 2011. 

I am presenting here the findings of their study, with my comments added.

A review of Emergency Room cases seen at a private tertiary hospital in Quezon City in 2011  showed that call center agents were mostly  female, single, and less than 30 years old. Most common diagnoses were diseases of the respiratory system - bronchitis, asthma, upper respiratory tract infection, tonsillitis, pharyngitis  which were more common in males than females; diseases of the gastrointestinal tract- acute gastroenteritis, peptic ulcer diseases, dyspepsia; diseases of the muscular system- muscular strain and tension headaches found common in both sexes; and urinary tract infection which was more common in females than males.

Thus, this study showed that call center agents may be at risk for frequent bouts of respiratory, gastrointestinal, urinary tract and muscular diseases.  

A very important and  erious finding of this study was that half of the call center  patients who sought ER consult were smokers, and alcohol drinkers. Of the smokers and alcohol drinkers, half were females.

The pressure of work  (need to reach quotas, hostile clients, etc) and sedentary lifestyle (long hours of sitting, no exercise) coupled with poor eating habits and smoking and drinking alcohol, can all lead up to early development of  kidney diseases, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and even cancer. Weight gain, depression and psychological disorders may also set in.

Thus it may not be too farfetched to envision a scenario where the Philippines would produce a cohort of young people already afflicted with diseases that can be seen only in those older, the so-called degenerative diseases, because of their exposure to an environment that can maim and kill people at an early age.

It is therefore incumbent on all health professionals not only to treat them but also to provide meaningful health advice to these young people on how to keep healthy under the conditions of their work and workplace.

BPOs should be made aware of the ailments being suffered by their employees so they can institute measures to improve working conditions. These should include, among others, regular restroom and meal breaks, provision of healthier foods in office canteens, discouraging  smoking and alcohol drinking among employees, and  providing health messages within the workplace.

Working hours should also be reasonable and permanent night shifts should be discouraged. Legislation to protect the health of employees in call centers  should  also be considered.

It would be ironic to see that an industry that is supposed to be an engine of economic growth, would be also be an engine of early death and disability of our young people. Before it is too late, let us all act to prevent this scenario from happening.

(Dr EMMA P Valencia, MD, is a Health Policy analyst, writer, poet and journalist, who shuttles between Manila and California. She once worked with Senator Eduardo J Angara to assist him on important health policy legislations.)

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