Snapshot of call centre workers in Bangalore, India

“Never say where you’re calling from” is one lesson learned by journalist Andrew Marantz during his summer working at a Delhi, India call center.   Before getting the job, Marantz and the estimated million job seekers in India’s business process outsourcing (BPO) industry complete weeks of training.  The classroom sessions include pronunciation drills to shed their “mother tongue influence” and culture training.

Trainers aim to impart something they call “international culture”—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one. The result is a comically botched translation—a multibillion dollar game of telephone. “The most marketable skill in India today,” the Guardian wrote in 2003, “is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.”

Marantz described his experience in an article in the July/August 2011 issue of Mother Jones.  I was reminded of it when I read a newly published study by researchers with the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Psychology.  Anjali Rameshbabu and colleagues were interested in assessing the relationship between job stress, including irate customers and the mandatory acculturation process, and negative health outcomes among call center workers.

They surveyed 239 workers from six call centers in Bangalore, India.  There were an equal number of participants who worked rotating (combination of night and day) shifts and non-rotating shifts.  The mean age of the participants was 25 years, 81 percent were single, and 66 percent were male.   Nearly 60 percent responded to calls from the U.S. which the authors remind is about an 11-hour time difference from India.

The researchers used a validated instrument called the Standard Shiftwork Index (SSI) to collect data on the call center workers’ social and domestic situation, sleep habits, physical symptoms, perceptions of well-being and work control, and coping strategies.  The SSI has been used in studies of other shift workers, including nurses, EMTs, oil/gas crews and poultry plant workers, but I believe it’s the first time its been used with a group of call center workers.  Here’s what the researchers report:

  •  The respondents’ tenure in the industry was not very long.  The non-rotating shift group participants had spent, on average, 26.8 months in the industry, compared to the rotating shift group with just about 20 months of experience.  As for time in their current call center job, the non-rotating respondents spent nearly twice as much time as those working rotating shifts (mean number of months: 18.7 and 9.6, respectively.)
  • A statistically significant association between time spent working in the call center industry and negative physical health outcome, including gastrointestinal difficulties and body aches and pains.
  • A statistically significant association between inadequate sleep and negative physical health.
  • A statistically significant association between job stress from interpersonal factors (e.g., changing name, fake identity) and negative physical health.
  • No statistically significant association between job stress from work factors (e.g., shift work, work load) and negative physical health outcomes.

Rameshbabu and colleagues explain the findings this way:

“Despite the hopefulness surrounding their first job and the novelty of call center work, participants’ physical well-being was adversely affected by having to deal with offensive callers, a change in identity while on the job (having to adopt a new name and a new speaking accent), and having to work in an environment culturally different from their own, along with the demands of shift work.  In fact, it is possible that this novelty may be more negatively impactful.

…Contrary to expectation, no significant association between job stress from work factors and negative physical health report was found.  … It is possible that participants were aware of the implications of being involved in call center shift work and were perhaps prepared for them. Also, given that most participants in this study were young and single with no dependents, it is possible that they experienced less stress from conflicting schedules with home and family life, which is likely a greater concern among older shift workers having their own families, a population that is more common in shift work research.”

The next time I’m calling a customer service line at 3:00 in the afternoon, I’ll remind myself that it might be the middle of the night for the helper on the other end of the line.  Depending on how long she’s worked in the industry, the shift-work or rotating schedule may be affecting her health.  But that’s not all, the fact that she had to change her name and her accent for my comfort may also be taking its toll on her.

 

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    October 29, 2012

    I had a friend who was an Indian in the US on an H1B visa, who ran into some problems with a Windows 7 installation. He calls customer service and hears a very fake, generic North American voice say, “Hi, this is RJ, how may I help you?”

    So my friend replies in exaggerated Hinglish, “My name is Ramachandra Sivakumar Bose*, and I am not ashamed of who I am.”

    I guess my friend could be kind of a jerk, but the larger point remains valid. If a friendly person in a time zone 11 and a half hours away can help walk me through a hardware or software problem, why should I care if they don’t pretend to be anyone or anywhere else than they are?

    *Not his real name. Probably not a real Indian name, since I made it up out of bits and pieces of other names.

  2. #2 MoM
    October 31, 2012

    I do a fair amount of computer tech support. I have found that if I need to call a manufacturer’s support line, I try to do it by online chat instead. I have much less trouble understanding and being understood, and it seems like many (but not all) of those support people get to use their own name.

  3. #3 Edilberto Durano
    Singapore
    November 23, 2012

    This is a harrowing article. But a lot of people are trying to make ends meet and it’s a fact and working for hours even on wee hours is a must for them due to lack of money. We can’t change the world.
    Ed of Call-KC.com

  4. #4 Gary
    Canada
    August 15, 2013

    May be a little late, but…

    I personally have no problem with someone calling me from India or any other location. I have worked in call centers myself for over 10 years. One thing is true, when speaking with even the most skeptical contact. Yes, they are at first offended that I am paid to call for charities, and 2nd… they get over it quickly when they realize that nobody in their right mind would do it for free and than most wouldn’t even do it if they were paid (in this case, the person being called themself)

    This being stated, if people in my own country do not want to do the job, then let them outsource the over flow. It isn’t taking away any jobs at home, just giving excess jobs to those in need.

    Now, after reading this.. ask yourself.. would I make those calls for free and deal with people like me? Could you PAY me to make those calls? By and large, the answer most people will give to themself is NO BLOODY WAY!!!!

    One person I called asked me, Are you being paid for making these calls? I answered, No, I am being underpaid for making these calls. I added, seriously, would YOU do this for free? The customer said, H*ll.. I wouldn’t even do it for the pay! And we continued with the call. He did make a contribution to the organization I was calling on behalf of.

    So, keep this in mind when you are talking to someone that you figure is probably in another country. Usually, nobody at home wants the job.

    *** Important, be sure to verify the information and make sure everything is legitimate before giving a credit card number, even a partial one! ***

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