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Call centre phenomenon: bad throats

February 12, 2003 19:07 IST

Sanjeev Rai, a call centre worker, sighs in a sibilant whisper: "I hate the idea of Valentine's Day this year. I will not be able to say those magic words to my girl-friend, this time around!"

Rai, 22, spends about seven hours a day making cold sales calls to householders in the United States, on behalf of his employers' clients. He gets a short break every couple of hours. He has been doing this for some time now.

And now, his voice is finally giving up on him.

Rai's ENT specialist has been advising him to give his voice a rest, but that is simply not possible in his line of work. Call centres can be quite demanding.

Many toll free services and paid help desks of the US are actually answered through offices in Bangalore. There has been a spurt, over the past three months, in the number of call centres setting up shop in the city, as business in the business process outsourcing segment has suddenly grown.

ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialists in Bangalore report an increase in the number of call centre workers who come to them with throat problems.

"Earlier, we used to only encounter singers and teachers coming to us with a problem that we term 'singer's node'," says well known ENT doctor Girish Rai.

"Now, I find many young men and women who work in call centres coming to us with similar problems caused by over-strain of the voice box."

No figures are available to quantify this phenomenon. And neither have ENT specialists attempted to survey this problem.

"Yes, we do all find more young people coming to us with problems caused by over-strained vocal chords," says Dr Shankar Medkeri of Sneha ENT Hospital. "Nobody has attempted any profession-wise accounting of this, though."

Call centres themselves, of course, deny the existence of any such phenomenon. "We have never come across any such problem," says human resources general manager G V Giridhar of 24/7.

"Not even a single case has been reported to us from our own company. We have had other problems, like stray cases of employees who cannot get used to working nights." (Call centres work through the night in India, to service America by day.)

Adds K Ganesh of Customerasset.com: "I have not encountered this problem either. It certainly cannot be widespread in the industry."

"Our employees do not shout or strain their voices when they speak," continues Giridhar.

"They keep the telephone close to their mouths and speak softly or at most, in normal voices. Enough gaps are given between calls. In the case of outbound calls, clients expect six hours of calls per person. You can regulate this and spread it out enough to give the employee's voice a rest. In the case of inbound calls, we give scheduled breaks: the typical call centre worker speaks eight hours out of a nine hour shift."

Telephone operators working for the various voice-serviced services of Bangalore telephones, of course, point out that throat trouble has been a recurrent problem that they have faced for years.

It is neither new nor frightening. "We usually ask for transfers to other services," says Vatsala Rao, who works for Bangalore Telephones.

Many call centres offer their employees the opportunity to change from voice calls to Web chats or e-mail response work, if their voices are giving up on them.

"When my HR head found that my throat was hoarse all the time, he changed me over to non-voice work for six months," says Santosh P, who works for the India base of a multinational call centre in Bangalore.

These young men and women do not want to reveal the names of the firms they work for, as most call centres in Bangalore have advised their employees not to paint dismal pictures of their work or its disadvantages to the media or the public.

This has happened after much media hype about dual lives these young people lead, where Jayanthi by day became Janet at night or Babban Khan transforms into Bobby with a Yankee accent and a fondness for Coke.

M D Riti in Bangalore