Long hours of work, permanent night shifts, incredibly high work targets, loss of identity...are these the dark clouds that threaten to mar the 'sunshine' call centre industry in India?

Many of these young people - between 18 and 21 years - are seeking counselling. "In the past four months we have been counselling at least two people every week who work in call centres," says Dr Jitendra Nagpal, a psychiatrist at the Delhi-based Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (VIMHANS). They come seeking help for work-related stress, irregular sleeping hours, unhealthy food habits and chronic fatigue. Although most such cases do not require treatment or medication, says Dr Nagpal, they need guidance on physical and mental coordination to cope with a job that requires hyper-alert efficiency.

Today, most top executives acknowledge that a steady turnover of staff is an inevitable aspect of the industry. The reasons for this could be boredom with the job, seeking better prospects or a change, or even the failure of the call centre to effectively train employees to stay at the job.

However, what is privately admitted but rarely acknowledged publicly is the toll taken by the inherent nature of the job. Kokila Nath was a bubbly graduate before she joined a prominent call centre in Mumbai. Six months later, her eyes were puffy, her once-blooming skin was red and blotchy and her cheerful temperament lost to a short-tempered and edgy young woman. "We couldn't recognise our daughter. In fact, we couldn't even talk to her most of the time. She slept throughout the day, barely ate and sped off to work where she had to meet targets failing which the entire team would suffer."

Nath admits that the training and work was a very good learning experience. She had to deal with clients of different temperaments, and she learned problem-solving (a major computer firm in the USA was a client of her call centre). Clients were polite, rude or arrogant; some were ignorant and had to be guided into the repairs patiently. Others were so grateful, they insisted on emailing letters of appreciation!

Why then, did Nath leave after a year? The call centre did provide one-way transport between 10 pm and 6 am. If her eight-hour shift began at 2 am, she was brought to work but at the end of a hard night, she had to make her way back home at 10 am. Her holidays coincided with those in the US, leaving her completely out of sync with her family and friends. But the worst part was the weight loss, the deterioration of her eyesight, skin problems, and creeping insomnia. She opted out to seek a more relaxed job with regular working hours.

Leela Swamy left for other reasons. Employed in a centre that did, among other things, telemarketing for a foreign bank, she found that the employees were at the mercy of their team manager for everything - from salaries to incentives and casual leave sanctions.

Her plight illustrates the manner in which basic labour regulations can so easily be given the go-by. Directed to make at least 250 calls per shift, the entire team was under high pressure to meet targets. When they did secure clients, poor tracking systems within the company meant they lost out on incentives - unless the team managers obliged them they ended up with a pittance. The tension on the job got to her and Swamy fell ill. Although told she would be entitled to sick leave and casual leave when she was employed, she was greeted with a pay-cut on resuming duty.

For women like Aruna Kumar there was yet another reason. "It was very difficult for me to convince my family that I should join. The most difficult part was convincing neighbours, friends and family that what I am doing was respectable. It is strange to cultivate an American accent and answer to Anglicised names. I felt a strange loss of identity in the beginning. Social life is the worst hit. Married women find it more difficult to cope than youngsters fresh out of college."

Kumar's health also took a beating. "Depending on where the projects come from, the shift timings keep changing. This plays havoc with our family commitments and body systems, although the canteen ensures healthy food is served during the night shift when oily stuff is avoided," she adds.

Job stress was another factor. "The eight-hour shifts are very stressful.... We do have stress management classes. Under the circumstances, the pay is not bad and it is the best option available," she reluctantly admitted.

The general public is by and large ignorant of the functions of a call centre. In people's minds these are dens of vice where one can procure call girls, the VIMHANS specialist discloses. "We need to highlight the credibility and respectability of call centres because acceptability within the community creates pleasure in the job and increases motivation," says Dr Nagpal.

Nonetheless, obscene phone calls and invitations are considered occupational hazards that few women are willing to talk about. Some, scared by such encounters, end up quitting their jobs. In fact, a young woman in a telemarketing agency developed an elaborate disguise. She called herself by a fictitious name and once she secured a client, she pretended to quit the company so the client wouldn't pursue her. Then she would adopt another name, approach another client and the process would begin all over again.

The picture that emerges is the absence of any notion of work protections and guidelines. In an industry being touted as the magic wand that will ward off unemployment, no one wants to discuss establishing an equitable and gender-safe work culture. As Visa Ravindran, member of the Joint Action Council for Women and editor of the organisation's newsletter says, "Employment for any job or career women wish to pursue should be the ultimate goal for any enlightened society to aim for. But, one must add a note of caution: the increasing violence in daily life, organised crime, violence against women because they are looked at as sex objects or as a backlash to the freedom they have "dared" to make their own have all made worse an already unhealthy work environment for women."

"Depending on where the projects come from, the shift timings keep changing. This plays havoc with our family commitments and body systems."
As per the directive issued last year by the Tamilnadu High Court, night shifts must not come in the way of a woman's right to work. Amenities have to be made available for them. Based on the same legislative instructions, pick up and drop off, rest rooms and canteens are made available across all call centres.

Referring to the move to withdraw prohibition of women from night duty on grounds of discrimination and the conditions (to be met by the employer) stipulated for this, Ravindran felt that they did show a certain progressiveness of thinking. "However, I would add my voice to those of the women's organisations who have resisted this as impractical in the present state of our society. Attitudes to women, safety nets for their protection, gender-based division of work etc., must change before such a law can be really useful."

What, then, is the psychological impact of repetitive night-shifts, of the stress imposed by trying to achieve such impossibly high targets and of the elaborate switches in identity on the call centre employee? Little documentation is available as yet on this aspect. "I do anticipate three clear issues emerging from the nature of call centre work," says clinical psychologist Dr Dilip Panikker. The first is on the issue of identity. "Usually, the employees are young college students or fresh graduates of moderate means. So you have family and friends relating to you as Shalini, and at work you are treated differently as Susan. One is privileged, paid a lot of money, works in a high-tech office and has this intense interaction with colleagues. When you go back home, you don't quite fit it."

Not all call centre employees work in the 'nice' jobs like servicing customers of laptops or other computer goods. If she is in a job dealing with defaults in credit card payments, she gets a lot of flak. Dr Panikker recalls the instance of an employee who had to deal with a credit card defaulter who had run up a bill visiting a porn site and refused to acknowledge it. Dealing with an abusive and argumentative client was one issue, dealing with her own cultural inhibitions was another.

A second issue is the isolation faced by call centre employees. "Given the intense contact between team members on a shift, there is bound to be some development of inter-personal relationships. When the shift changes, there is a sudden break-up of relations. There is a period of total isolation both within the work environment and without - since family lives get disrupted and contacts between family members break-up," Dr Panikker adds.

The third issue is related to the stress levels of employees put to work on night shifts and given high targets - this may force some towards drug abuse of some sort, he fears. Pep-up pills and other drugs to keep them going - especially when youngsters have money to indulge - is a very genuine apprehension.

It is no wonder that at least two call centres have begun looking for counsellors to refer employees with problems. As yet, no call centre actually retains psychologists or counsellors, perhaps wary of even admitting to work-related stresses and problems.

Dr Nagpal is of the opinion that young employees of call centres need structured counselling. He cited the instance of a girl who attempted suicide because of the intense parental pressure she faced due to her odd working hours.

Dr Panikker also fears the social impact within a couple of years when the first crop of young 19- to 20-year-old employees slogs it out and inevitably suffers burn-out. "Then, they'll quit these high-pressure jobs after getting a salary of Rs 15,000 and suddenly, they are back in a job market they have no more qualifications for. They have given up on higher studies for the seemingly lucrative call centre job. They have no other training, no other expertise. Where do they go from here?"