BPO Related Ailments
Outsourcing is a form of transforming a transaction from one organized within a firm to one organized through a market. It is not profitable to perform every task within a firm (no computer company makes its own furniture, or makes waste paper baskets). If undergoing a process is more costly within the firm then outside, then outsourcing that process makes economic sense. This was first demonstrated by Ronald H. Coase in the paper titled "The Nature of the Firm".
With substantial decline in Information and Communication Costs throughout the globe, and huge difference in wages among developed and developing countries, part of business processes and knowledge processes started getting outsourced from firms in developed countries to firms in developing countries. So developing countries wherein the labour force had the required skill set like English speaking and computer literate, among others, strived ahead in the race for cornering the outsourcing contracts. Thus while firms in developed countries like USA and England gained from lower costs, countries like India and Thailand gained from greater employment opportunities.
The Business Processing Outsourcing or BPO popularly known as the Call Centre Industry, or even Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) has been under tremendous global glare for a variety of reasons. In developing countries its widespread entry into the employment scenario and spawning of a new age lifestyle among the youth of those countries has created quite a stir. Among those countries that have profited from this industry, India has without a doubt reaped a lot of benefits, not just in terms of an increased inflow of jobs and harnessing the potential of the youth in the country, but also in widening the service base across the world of which India forms a vital part. On the other hand, the loss of jobs in developed countries like the USA due to BPOs and KPOs has catapulated the debate into the US general elections.
Business Processing Operations have changed the way the service sector works, essentially by introducing the whole concept of a mediated service interactions where the service provider and the client enter a service loop, facilitated by a set of personnel who make the entire gamut of operations far easier, quicker and more reliable. What is most interesting and even intriguing about the entire process is that someone in the UK could have a fault in his refrigerator and his call will be picked up by someone sitting in India and passed on to the right service provider from there. All of this is done via the medium of telecommunication, the very basis of the BPO industry and its operations.
 BPO - The Beginings
Transactions have been carried over the telephone over a long time, however till some 15 years back, it was restricted to just operator services, and later extending into reservation facilities mostly for the airlines companies. With the advent of Information Technologies ( ICT) and advances in telecommunication, the entire concept of ‘service’ and ‘providing service’ has been redefined, making way for an entire revolution – The BPO or the Call Centre Industry.
Alongside, in the 1990s there was a lot of retrenchment that was going on in the world, in a lot of business sectors. Reducing costs and taking advantage of low cost options became criteria for operations which the call centre industry responded well to. Since it was mostly built around developing nations, with a huge and cheap man power potential, the Call centre industry permitted heavy reduction in organizational costs and as a module was widely appreciated. This also contributed to the growth of this industry.
The United States of America was the first to pioneer the movement of outsourcing business operations and handling customer services via the telephone in 1982. This has simply gone from strength to strength due to advances inn technology. The 3 x 5 cards and rotary dial phones to push-button telephones, right up to integrated contact management software and automated dialing and finally to web-enabled call centers all mark the evolution of technology which has aided in the call centre movement.
Despite the rapidity in growth, the call centre industry is relatively new and is slated to grow in the near future. Today all BPO units work at providing information and other services, using a gamut of technological enhancements. The overall aim of all such centres, globally, is to give a better service band to the customers while reducing the organizational costs.
 BPO-Related Ailments
The BPO sector drew a lot of people into its fold with promises of a better life and lifestyle. Fat pay cheques, overseas assignments, pick-ups, office parties, a posse’ of young people …BPO stood for rosy dreams and fanciful wishes, until the glitz and the glamour wore off to reveal the darker underbelly of the Call Centre Industry – irregular working hours, night shifts, health problems as insomnia, digestive disorders, computer related ailments and above all limited opportunities for growth and intellectual stimulation.
As the bag of woes spilled over, BPOs found themselves with the highest possible attrition rates .This has led to a scramble to rectify things and as the industry goes the software way in terms of scale, it is becoming a challenge to keep in line with employee expectations. In fact according to the latest Nasscom-Mckinsey Report, the industry needs up to 1 million people by 2008. So, the challenge to keep this huge workforce satisfied, especially in terms of health and growth opportunities, will only get bigger.
Stress: BPO and call centres usually try and create an environment where there is a standardized format that agents follow so that the output is maintained at a required consistency. This usually calls for a reduction in autonomy among workers which invariably leads them to feel fatigued, stressful. Most persons call it a ‘brain dead ‘type of situation. Over long periods of time, the person starts to feel unproductive and burnt out.
There are four main stressors that work in these organizations:
- Continuous hours over the phone with little time to relax, especially after calls of ‘rejection’ where the customer has been rude. Very little authority to rectify the problem or handle the situation on one’s own makes it still more difficult leading to stress. Very often call centre employees simply want to “get off the phone” especially to get over awkward calls or just to get some respite from the monotony that creeps in.
- Insufficient holidays are another stressor and most of the holidays given do not coincide with the country’s cultural calendar.
- Quality and Quantity Conflict: most organizations seek to keep customers happy and satisfied, yet the whole operations are juxtaposed with the move to keep call volumes up and call times down. The whole effort at trying to keep call waiting queues down and make the customer on the call satisfied at the same time is a source of stress that employees typically face.
- Controlled environment where the call centre employee is just a mouth piece of organizational brain. The constant pressure in living up to the ideologies of the company while handling calls often lead to pressure.
- Targets: meeting performance targets on parameters like call handling, efficiency, call wrap time etc. as well as an evaluation of the call volumes handled over a time frame are huge stressors. In many places the company monitors the performances closely and payment is very often dependent on it. This acts as a huge stress inducer.
 Effects of Stress
Sleep Disorders: Among the first bites to health is the onset of insomnia. Most call centre clients are based in the West and Europe and agents belonging to parts of Asia and South East Asia have to keep working hours to suit the clients. This means that they have to work through the night. The change in the biological pattern takes time and often leads to problems as sleeplessness. First timers are even more prone to these problems as their biological clocks take time to acclimatize. So also are managers and team leaders who often have to work through the night and even through the day to keep pace with organizational requirements.
Digestive Disorders: Long and untimely hours at the work place, stress from other factors that are inherent to the organisational structure, all form the perfect recipe for digestive problems. Most persons working in these organizations eat food that is available in the canteens which do not always adhere to health and hygiene standards. Plus the time for these breaks is also not adequate and most people do rush through their meals making them more susceptible to digestive disorders.
Depression:Most employees do develop a sense of frustration after a certain amount of time. This comes on with an increased understanding and realization of the fact that call centres do offer limited growth opportunities and an inadequate career making prospect. In fact all of this realization comes with a time lag, once the glitz and glamour wears off.
Simultaneously, the punishing physical environments, stress levels and a complete lack of autonomy in decision making add to the growing mental fatigue. The end result is depression. Various BPO units are looking towards combating work place depression by having a qualified psychologist on the panel.
Computer Related Ailments: This is not very surprising considering the fact that a lot of their times are spent in front of the monitor. In fact Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which happens due to overusage of the hands and fingers is very commonplace.Eyesight problems, pain in the back due to bad posture or lack of in between rest and exercises; hearing problems due to being on the phone for long hours and wearing poor quality headphones; hand and leg pains arising from being in one position for long hours…all of these add to the poor health basket of call centre employees.
Personal Problems: Most of these problems source themselves from the high pay packets that these professionals get. A lot of people are straight out of college and often do not know what to do with this new found independence – financial or otherwise. A lot of binge drinking and smoking often begins here. Also the socializing habits encouraged by frequent parties also come with their share of personal involvements. Young adults get into relationships and fail to keep their professional lives separate leading to a lot of problems in the work place. In addition the monotony of the job often leads to people involving themselves with behaviour that is completely unwarranted in the professional sphere – like reading a novel or gossiping or sleeping and deliberately not taking a call, all lead to behaviour that is unproductive. The atmosphere also becomes less than positive and many people find it suffocating to work under such situations.
Company executives are often not really bothered with such behaviour; they are only concerned with the call volumes and organizational targets. Hence they choose to gloss over these making the problems run deeper in the bargain.
 BPO – Plugging the Loopholes
In spite of the gamut of problems, both physical and mental, yet the BPO sector continues to attract people within its fold. The reasons for it can be traced down to a fast tracked career growth (at least in the initial years) and a compensatory package that is at par with global standards. Those entering into this field have access to resources that aid in making key lifestyle choices. And the problems that are there are not just specific to the BPO sector. In fact all professions these days, have their own peculiar set of problems that are as stress inducing as the conditions in the BPO. At least this industry gives better money and a lifestyle to the young people who join it in droves. In fact, the industry is dominated by youngsters between 20-25 years for agents and 25-30 years for mid-management.
So how has the sector positioned itself today, especially in view of the problems the employees seem to face and a high turn over ratio?
One of the best things about the BPO industry is that it is very well grounded one unlike the dotcom boom that was the result of aggressive marketing and hype. It is built on an infrastructure that consists of people and enhanced technology and is a growing sector, especially in countries like India, Srilanka and the Philippines. China and Russia are also preferred destinations, yet the proficiency in English is still lagging. India in fact is a preferred destination for many mainly due to length and depth of skills that are found.
Nevertheless, the BPO sector comes with a lot of stress and health problems and one of the indicators of the low job satisfaction of the people working in this sector is the high attrition rates. People jump due to poaching by rival companies, ussually for a higher salary or better position and growth opportunities. These days the exits points have been more or less plugged with companies paying attention to factors that are causing dissent and dissatisfaction. Simultaneously, BPO is being considered a smart, long term career option by many reducing the frivolity with which people would view this sector.
Another aspect that the sector as a whole is addressing are the charges of limited growth opportunities. It is offering a huge range of roles and functions for its employees in areas human resource, finance, IT, project management, training, facilities management, quality control etc Further these companies tend to be more careful about ergonomics, acoustics and the ensuing work environment so a to cut down the health aspects that arise out of overlooking these aspects. Most companies these days are keeping a counselor and a qualified councilor to look into problems of the personnel…in short an effective, human oriented HR department. This is a move that especially pays well in the long run since people are the backbone of the BPO industry as a whole.
 BPOs - A Lucrative Professional Deal
The BPO sector, in all fairness, does give to its people a training that is international in terms of its quality and exposure. In fact the skills that are required in this sector, such as communication skills, domain knowledge, process orientation, management of resources as technology and manpower, are universal and stand in good stead irrespective of the job or sector or country one is in. With a growth potential that far exceeds other industries, the BPO sector has positioned itself as a lucrative professional sphere. Increased packages, gender sensitive policies, a great breaking ground for freshmen and bettered services, all of this has made BPO a much preferred option. In fact this industry has redefined and reorganized the Service Sector and made rendition of services far more simple and effective.
- BPO India
- Mind Body n Soul
- Chandler, Alfred. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. New York: Belknap, 1993. (2nd edition).
- Coase, Ronald H., "The Nature of the Firm", Economica 4, pp 386-405, 1937.