Fresh concerns have been expressed over reports that Indian call centre employees are stressed out and tend to take to drugs. UN Office on Drugs and Crime is now doing a survey on the issue.
It has been known for sometime now that they tend to be overwhelmed by gruelling work schedules, unusual working hours and rude overseas callers.
But since the salaries they draw are high by Indian standards, they are loathe to leave their jobs.
Besides there is no check on their lifestyle, it should be noted. For many of them are away from their families.
That is a situation tailor-made for alcoholism and drug abuse, and that is what is happening, various reports have said. Now the UN itself is stepping into the act, trying to gauge the magnitude of the problem.
Last week the UN Office on Drugs and Crime visited India's outsourcing capital of Bangalore to warn the country's largest call centre companies of the problem and persuade them to cooperate with the first detailed survey on the issue, UK's Daily Mail reports.
Pradeep Kumar, the UN's project coordinator, said it was difficult to convince the major companies running call centres of the urgency of the issue.
"Denial runs pretty deep," he said. "And it's not because they don't know of the problem. They are vaguely aware of it, but it's not really a priority."
He said the UNODC had decided to target Indian call centres after being alerted to the growing problem of drug use by doctors running clinics near the main call centre areas in Bangalore and Gurgaon on outskirts of Delhi.
"It was a matter of anecdotal evidence coming from the GPs, psychiatrists and counsellors, who say that they do see a large crop of young people coming in with drug abuse problems, which was not the case five years back."
India's 7 million-plus outsourcing workers are now reeling under the Burn Out Stress Syndrome (BOSS), it is said. According to doctors, BOSS affects a third of call center workers with symptoms that include chronic fatigue, insomnia, alteration of biorhythms, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal problems and others. Physical problems like back pain and shoulder pain are also common and -- with excessive exposure to computers, headphones and other such equipment -- many ear and eye-related ailments.
India has emerged as the hub of international back-office operations in sectors including travel, education, hospitality, audit and accounts to India's plentiful, highly skilled, English-speaking and cheap workforce.
That has resulted in impressive industry growth, rising by 40 percent this fiscal year alone to achieve US$8.5 billion turnover against $6.3 billion in fiscal year 2005-06. According to a recent NASSCOM-Everest survey, India's outsourcing sector will earn $11 billion in export revenues next year and is poised to be a $50 billion-enterprise by 2012.
But the success has come at a huge price. Indian Journal of Sleep Medicine in May 2007 -- revealed that outsourcing employees have markedly different sleep patterns than otherwise-employed individuals. "Not only were (outsourcing) workers sleepier," reported the study, "but the analysis of the data revealed that the employees were more depressed and suffered from anxiety disorders."
Owing to their lifestyles, the use of stimulants like tea and coffee was also significantly higher among the respondents. Some 40 percent were smokers and the abuse of narcotic drugs found among 27.6 per cent.
Adil, a thirty-year old call centre worker in Mumbai, developed such a severe cannabis problem while working at one of the call centres at the city's Mindspace Park that he had to spend months in rehabilitation.
'It's because of the money - the salaries are too high. It begins with one or two joints, then it reaches a point where you only don't smoke when you're sleeping.'
Adil, who now works for the Kripa Foundation, a drugs charity, says that drug use was common where he worked.
'They use all kinds of drugs, from hash to Cocaine, LSD, and ecstacy - not necessarily during work but during parties.'
About one in ten call centre workers would smoke drugs during work hours, he estimates.
'When it's at work, it's hashish. The excuse they all give is that it keeps them hyped up. They do it in the gardens, in the parks nearby.'
In a first-of-its-kind survey conducted in December 2007 by the National Institute for Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) among Bangalore's IT professionals, a whopping 36 percent of the respondents were found to be "probable psychiatric cases," 10 percent were diagnosed with mental distress, one of 20 regularly considered suicide, 28 percent were constantly under strain, 22 percent couldn't pursue any hobbies and 300 of the 900 men and women in the study battled infertility problems.
Doctors have witnessed a direct correlation between poor sleep and depression, stress, alcohol abuse, narcotics and cigarette smoking. In fact at a conference on sleep disorders in 2006 in India, Dr Lim Li Ling, deputy director of the Sleep Disorders Unit of Singapore General Hospital observed that sleep-deprived youth working in Indian outsourcing firms were most likely to undergo premature ageing. "Heavy food during nights, skipping breakfast, eating lunch in the evening - all such irregular habits affect their health," she warned.
Doctors have often highlighted problems like menstrual disorders and hormonal disturbances amongst women employees due to imbalances in melatonin and cortisol, two hormones that govern sleep and stress, Neeta Lal writes in website Asia Sentinel.
In fact a study by the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in association with the National Cancer Institute in 2001, highlighted that women who work night shifts - commonplace in India's outsourcing industry -- face enhanced risk of breast cancer of up to 60 percent.
"Sleep deprivation and exposure to light at night interrupts melatonin production, thereby stimulating the body to produce more estrogen, which is a known hormonal promoter of breast cancer," explains Mumbai-based gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Swati Bhargava.
The negative fallout isn't just restricted to health. Psychologists report that demanding outsourcing jobs are also straining employees' social and family life, occasionally leading to relationship breakdowns. Difficulties are particularly acute for women with child-care responsibilities.
In addition, according to surveys, female call center employees also often report stress, panic attacks, depression, relationship troubles and eating disorders. Disquieting as it is, more and more working women in Kolkata (east India), report fertility researchers, are turning up at clinics with stress-induced infertility problems that could be eliminated with a healthier lifestyle and closer companionship with their spouses.
"A peculiar problem that has developed over the last few years is a rise in the number of temporary infertility cases," says Dr. Bini Deb, a Kolkata-based gynecologist. "Work-related stress damages the endocrine system leading to temporary infertility." Deb says that young women working night shifts are so stressed out that they find it tough to lead a healthy sex life. This leads many to believe that they are infertile. Other pitfalls of stress? Miscarriages, abortions and underweight babies.
Te federal Health Ministry is talking of measures to ensure better workplace environment for call centre employees. But many are skeptical.
"Our people are willing to undergo anything in order to earn a few more rupees. Unless our values change, there's no hope for us," lament observers.