“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.