Smoking and Outsourcing: The Public Health of the Call Center Generation

By in

The Philippines is a major player in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.  Places like Eastwood Cyber Park, Ortigas Center, Makati CBD, Bonifacio Global City, and cities like Baguio, Cebu, and Davao all have economic ties with contact centers, staff offshoring, and outsourcing in general.  While much has been said about the positive economic impact of the BPO industry, many negative points have also been raised especially to working conditions.

If there’s another point I can raise about what I call the “Call Center Generation,” it’s a public health concern.  You would hear of an endless number of illnesses caused by work-related stress and fatigue from graveyard shifts: hypertension, insomnia, narcolepsy, and chronic fatigue, just to name a few.  The unhealthy lifestyle of a BPO worker also contributes to the public health concern, and it’s not just about fast-food restaurants and unhealthful foodstuffs served at office pantries.  The unhealthy lifestyle is compounded by – for the lack of a better word – different sorts and varying degrees of addictions and substance abuse.

If we take the word “drugs” in its broadest sense, then a lot can be said about latent drug abuse in the call center industry.  Caffeine is consumed in massive doses, whether it’s from a Nescafé vending machine or from Starbucks chain stores.  Alcohol is consumed liberally in bars, restaurants, gasoline stations, and watering holes frequented by call center agents.  There are stories – real ones, not tall tales or urban legends – of amphetamines, cannabis, and Ecstasy sold at back-alleys or even office restrooms.

Yet if there’s any one “drug” that is definitive of the BPO industry and its hundreds of thousands of employees, it definitely has to be nicotine.  If there’s any one vice that deserves special attention, it’s the cigarette.

The focus on health in this discussion is important, because much about the BPO industry revolves around healthy employees who are able to put in regular hours, not necessarily happy employees.  If alienation is a non-factor and a non-issue for BPOs, then social capital (in the form of health) must be a factor and an issue.  The happiness of BPO workers, in truth, comes secondary to their ability and the necessity to come to work on time and take the fewest number of sick days and vacation leaves.  For a BPO company to thrive (despite the flawed economics that make it very possible – if not inevitable – for the model to fail), it has to invest in the health and well-being of its employees; most of whom are ignored in favor of market and capital expansion.  As an industry that depends solely on human resources and human capital, the BPO industry must take steps to protect the investments and assets that is the workforce.

Just to make things clear, this is not a tirade against vice or the outsourcing industry; instead, I’d like this article to be read as an illustration of the many personal, social and public health problems that confronts and imperils the “first truly globally-oriented generation of Filipinos.”  In effect: this globally-oriented generation is an ill – and an addicted – generation.

Putting yosi into perspective

As a worker and an employee for a BPO in Ortigas Center, there’s a lot to be said (to a certain extent even doubted) about the utility or the sensibility of cigarettes for work.  There is much less to be said about the benefits of cigarettes; while there is no one-to-one correspondence between an illness (like lung cancer or emphysema) and smoking, many reports particularly by the World Health Organization (WHO) (access PDF here) have drawn up a very strong set of cases against tobacco, the tobacco industry, and smoking.

For a chain smoker (like myself), packs of cigarettes can take a big chunk out of one’s already small salary.  Many BPOs discourage frequent smoke breaks, especially if the job involves 24-hour customer sales and support.  The five minutes it takes to consume an average king-size cigarette can mean millions of dollars in losses and plummeting values on productivity charts, yet it can mean a morale boost for stressed and overworked employees who put up with the working conditions in an average BPO.

Most smokers (including myself) who work in BPOs do not necessarily see yosi as an “addiction,” but as a habit carried over from college.  There are definitely occasions where a person develops a nicotine habit because of the stressing work at BPOs, but smoking is mostly a case of old habits that don’t die hard.  The absence of iterant vendors or “takatak” boys at the affluent business districts are compensated by the seemingly overbearing presence of convenience stores like Mini Stop and 7-Eleven at every corner, where cigarettes never run out of stock.

The apparent “benefits” of smoking

Ruling out the WHO reports and the many scientific studies that are against smoking, the “benefits” of smoking are quite evident and even true for many BPO workers.  The cigarette, for many smokers in the call center and staff offshoring industry, plays host to a number of different benefits and advantages.  The cigarette is:

  • An affordable indulgence. Unlike gourmet coffee or movies, cigarettes are cheap and can be bought on a daily basis.  The most commonly smoked cigarettes can cost as low as P23 for Winston Lights and as high as P55 for Dunhill Frost.  My usual brand, Marlboro Lights, costs P35 at a 7-Eleven.  Compared to a frappe at Starbucks (P70) or a movie (P150), cigarettes are inexpensive indulgences.
  • A stress-reliever. The addictive substances in cigarettes, especially nicotine, are “effective” ways of relieving stress, monotony, or boredom.  It serves other purposes outside of mental catharsis; no meal or snack is complete without one or two cigarettes to round out a one-hour lunch break.
  • A panacea and placebo. Tobacco is somewhat a form of self-medication to warm the body during cold or windy days, or to prevent the onset of fever and flu.  Smoking can also get rid of nervousness, fatigue, or arrest depression and anxiety.  The cigarette is also a great way to relieve hunger pangs.

Cigarettes and Colonialism

West has McLaren-Mercedes, Marlboro has the Marlboro Man, and Winston is “The Spirit of the USA.”  It is difficult to legitimize, encourage, and institutionalize smoking without putting it into perspective… no matter how distorted it is.  From here, we can draw a parallelism between two quintessentially colonial (in this case American) products: cigarettes and outsourcing.

In a August 1995 New York Times article entitled “A Letter to Granddad, The Tobacco Farmer,” Allan Gurganus writes:

Tobacco is the quintessential American product.  It fulfills no appetite but the one it creates.  Predicting a throwaway culture, it is rendered useful only by being destroyed.  Along with autos, movies, jazz and striptease, it remains our abiding gift to world mass culture.

An interesting study by Babere Kerata Chacha of Egerton University, Kenya (available through PDF) draws some rather interesting parallelisms and conclusions as to the “tobacco boom” in the Kuria District of Kenya in 1969-1999, and long-term socio-ecological damage.  While tobacco is a major cash crop in Kenya, it did result in consequences like environmental degradation and an impaired ability to produce food.

Still drawing on that parallelism: could there be a relationship to outsourcing and the Philippines as well?  The boom of outsourcing, as with other economic booms – bubbles – like Nursing and medical transcription, results in what is generally accepted as underemployment.  While outsourcing does contribute to economic development, it does contribute to underemployment.  But I digress.

With an quintessentially American cigarette comes quintessentially American diseases like lung cancer and substance dependence.  The continuted dependence on cigarettes may account for the following non-productive consequences of the drug and its two-pack-a-day chokehold on overstressed, overworked, and underemployed call center employees:

  • Cancer
  • Emphysema
  • Pneumonia
  • Upper respiratory tract infection
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Chemical dependence

The Impasse

I was at a MiniStop at Ortigas a couple of days ago (yes, buying cigarettes) and I asked a call center agent if there’s anything that can be done about the two-pack-a-day habit “enjoyed” by call center agents.  For an industry where across-the-board health care is often optional and graveyard shifts are always necessary, the impasse is quite difficult to surmount.  Substance addiction is a means of coping for stresses, whether it’s a sleeping pill or a cigarette.  In the WHO report, 28.4% of Filipino male respondents and 5.9% of Filipino female respondents smoke cigarettes on a daily basis.  The incidence of smoking?  An alarming 38.1% of the Filipino population smokes.  No data is yet available to me with regard to the incidence of smoking among call center agents, although the Tata Memorial Hospital in India is studying tobacco control among Indian BPO employees; the study will be completed in February 2009.

So far, my informal observed data indicates the following:

  • Preferred cigarette brands: Marlboro Lights, Winston Lights
  • Frequency: one pack a day
  • Most common reasons: stress, fatigue

Are the BPO employees of the Philippines smoking because of the demands of the industry?  Is the industry taking a serious step to address the smoking situation, or is it even dependent on it?  That itself begs study: something I think that BPOs based in the Philippines should seriously undertake.

*     *     *

I am not against smoking; for crying out loud, I’m a smoker.  Yet smoking comes with the caveat that while it is a matter of personal choice, disease and addiction is never a choice made by a smoker.  There are two assumptions that should be held true at this point:

  • As long as there are cigarettes, there will be smokers.
  • If you work in a BPO, you smoke more.

For being the “globally oriented generation,” Filipino BPO workers are addicted.  When worse comes to worst, cigarettes will become so engrained into an already engrained subculture of “callboys” and “callgirls.”  I won’t speak for legislation or tobacco control, but I would speak for my need of a cigarette right now.

Like I said, this generation is colonialized and addicted.  I’m no different,

19 comments on “Smoking and Outsourcing: The Public Health of the Call Center Generation”

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  2. Reply

    It is true that due to graveyard shift there is an endless no of illness caused by work – related stress and fatigue and companies like are aware of it and that’s why they take extra care of their employees and try to make work place more fun and happening.

  3. Reply

    interesting. first i’ve ever read on the joys of smoking. i’m forever trying to quit 😉

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    • Louie
    • January 7, 2009

    Great article. I’ve also thought about those insights, and I think that you’re right, the acculturation and Americanization of Filipino lifestyles has brought its negative consequences. These consequences may surface shortly after consumption, or after some years. The latter is more probable. The agents are making a trade-off between present salaries and future health costs. Since some may be unable to be as forward-looking as they have to be for the sake of their health, they may be unlikely to stop smoking. I just hope that they store up their income for the future, when they definitely will be needing it. I think a study should be done on this too.

  8. Reply

    this is very interesting…and i hope to read more of this kind of blog
    since i am in line with a call center environment
    i would to take this opportunity to post our website — Durasol BPO, and we are
    Offering low-cost telemarketing, appointment setting,
    and lead verification services for $5 only…

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    • June 21, 2009

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  10. Reply

    Any other good solutions to stop smoking?

    • vic
    • August 8, 2009

    This is an alarming article, agents must be aware of the effect for having those habits. I worked in a call center for 4 years, I never smoke or drink knowing how call center culture leads me into unhealthy living, but now, i am sufferring from severe earpain and tinnitus.. And I cant enjoy myself going to bars, concerts or even in a small group discussion with high volume of sounds anymore… i tend to stay away from these kinds of recreation because my ears were no longer capable. I got this illness from my previous job. So sad to accept. And this now uncurable…

    • rom
    • August 8, 2009

    @vic, could it be that your tinnitus came from those headsets and not from other people smoking or drinking? come ON!

    • Maureen A. Bawang
    • October 21, 2009

    Í was surfing the net for some references that I will be using for my research next semester when I came across this article. I’m currently taking Master in Public Health at Saint Louis University Baguio City and my proposed research title is Factors Associated with Smoking among Call center agents in Baguio City – I will consider studying the Knowledge, attitude and Behavior. I’m realy glad that someone had an interest in questioning these unhealthy practices (partcularly smoking)among our call center agents. Thank you for posting this article, it help encouraged me to realy pursue this research. Thanks, God bless and more power.

    1. Reply

      No problem Maureen. By the way, I’m a smoker too.

  11. Reply

    call centers in the Philippines are taking in Billions now and they say by 2011 it will increase by another 15% thats staggering compared to any other industry, is it not?

  12. Reply

    It is hard to Stop Smoking at all but i tried so hard to quit smoking because of the fear of lung cancer .

    • ynah
    • June 22, 2010

    is there any other reaerches about call center agents?

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