IF some sociologist were to study the last few years of changing patterns of Indian society, surely he or she would be impressed and mystified by the impact of BPO on Indian youth. Not many moons back, Call Centers were a strict no! no! The late nights were looked down by suspicious neighbours, parents would embarrassingly stutter when asked what their children were doing and friends who were working in day-jobs, would chide their lesser BPO pals. Employees in call centers lived in a virtual bubble, a universe of their own, working in the nights and sleeping through the days. Little wonder, so many marriages were made and unmade in these very call centers.But one critical thing was though different: the money was always better.
As the country underwent change thanks to Manmohan Uncle and his market liberalization policies, so did the society. The content-family structure was replaced by ambitious-nuclear families. Suddenly, things like DINKs (Double Income No Kids) and the Metro-sexual Man, and other tags became fashionable. In this scenario, the high-paid BPO population were no longer social outcasts but rather a model of changing India. Those halter tops and low waist jeans, the date allowance and the valentine parties, the pick-up and drops and the Sodex-ho coupons, were all so much alluring. BPO employees were buying flats in beautiful colonies, buying latest cars and taking an annual vacation to an European location. In a few years time, Call center was ‘THE’ place to work in.
Yet, the great BPO dream is steadily dissipating. As the cost arbitrage enjoyed by the BPO companies withers away due to rising Rupee, the salaries are not growing the way other sectors are. My wife, who works in a reputed IT company, tells me that scores and scores of BPO people are eager and keen to make a shift to normal day jobs, even if it means a nominal pay cut. One of the main factor, beside job satisfaction, is the health factor. BPO employees are not keeping well. The sad part is, not many seem to be listening.
Every year Dataquest in conjunction with IDC India, conducts a comprehensive Employee Satisfaction Survey for BPO industry. The idea is simple to gauge the satisfaction levels from the perspective of the BPO employees. This year, I chiefly just analyzed the data from one perspective health. And was shocked to see that over the years, complains have been rising and yet no one seems to be listening. The story I present below, is quite different from the one published in Dataquest and my editors do not necessarily agree with my interpretation. But, yet,I am presenting the story, merely to highlight the issue and hope someone, somewhere thinks about it. Thinking is the first step of doing. The original Dataquest story can be accessed from the following link (http://dqindia.ciol.com/content/top_stories/2007/107111617.asp)
BPO E-Sat Survey 2007: Of Sleepless nights and salary hikes
All is not well on the BPO front. Indian BPO employees are suffering from a variety of health related issues, right from sleep related disorders to anxiety attacks. This year’s Employee Satisfaction Survey maps a disturbing trend, the ailing BPO employee. While the attrition has gone up to 20% and the average wage hike as come down to 14.8%, it is the health issues that seem to be the biggest concern.
In a quaint corner of Goregaon suburb, Mumbai, exists Dr. Ramkumar Moorthy’s clinic. Moorthy is a general physician and has been seeing patients in the clinic for over two decades or so. Known to be quite adept, his clinic is often brimming with patients, from kids to septuagenarians. But over the past year or two, there has been a detectable change in profile of patients pay a visit to the clinic. Any given evening, his waiting room is brimming with groggy-eyed irritated teenagers waiting for their turn. These twenty-somethings can be overheard on the phone, asking for an extra day off from their TLs or assuring them that they would reach the office, in time for the log in.
Not prone to worrying, Moorthy is still a wee-bit taken aback by the sheer number of youngsters that are reporting sick. “The number of young patients has indeed gone up by quite many notches over the past few years. I am saddened to see a 26 year old suffering from high blood pressure, or 28 year old from heart ailment,” he says grimly. In all probability Moorthy might be getting more cases due to proximity of his clinic to the BPO nerve center of Mumbai; Malad.
But then, he is not the only one, visit any doctor in your locality and after the stethoscope has touched upon different points on your torso he or she will invariably start talking about how unhealthy today’s youngsters are. Not with disdain but with a touch of pity and many docs blame the BPO companies or what they refer as call-centers for the sudden spike in these numbers. “What else can be the reason?” asks one doctor indolently.
Surely not in the pink
One need not be Einstein to figure out the link between call centers and increasing ill-health among the young work force. Working continuous night-shifts, and often at unearthly hours like 3 am, is bound to take a toll on the body. The body cycle is completely thrown out of gear, and BPO employees often complain of sleep-related disorders or digestion-related problems.
It sheer travesty that not much attention has been given to the health related impact of BPO industry on Indian youth. There hasn’t been any major study conducted on the issue and even Nasscom, that has a BPO forum, also seems to have ignored the issue. Yet, Dataquest and IDC have been tracking health related information of Indian BPO industry through the annual BPO Employee Satisfaction (E-SAT) Survey. Every year, employees are asked to list down factors that cause stress and also the ailments that they are stricken by. Year after year, the list is collated and released as part of the survey.
Most of the times, health takes a backseat to issues like increasing attrition, wage issues, or dipping or upping employee satisfaction levels. But this year, we have decided to play it a tad differently. On going through the data available for the last few years, it is obvious that health related issues are on the rise. As DQ has always stuck out its neck and drawn attention to issues that might turn into whole scale problems, so would we do it this time round.
Going by E-SAT 2007, one thing is apparent; Indian BPO workers are not in the pink of health and if attention is not paid soon enough they would be in the red of it, figuratively speaking. The biggest bane of BPO employees is ever increasing stress, which is the root for numerous other physiological and psychological ailments. Reasons are aplenty, right from working hours to insufficient holidays. The top 5 reasons thrown up by the survey for high stress remain more or less the same as that of last year, namely; travel time, work timing, insufficient holidays, work load and long working hours.
As most of the BPO companies are pinching corners in terms of cost saving, one of the first perk — home pick-up and drop – has been withdrawn or curtailed. Every major BPO company today at max offers either pick-up or drop, seldom both. Result, half-awake individuals rushing home in the day or half-asleep beings making a dash for office late in the evenings. Except for New Delhi (as there is not much of public transport to talk of), in most of the cities, BPO companies often loath to provide even home pickups or drops, even when it is only one that they do. They prefer to drop or pickup employees from central or vantage points, thereby saving on costs.
While such measures might shore up the company’s bottom line, they are certainly not helping the employees. Over 32% of the respondents listed travel time as a major reason for increased stress. Things have come to such a pass, that the few companies that still provide pick-ups and drops are much in demand and HR managers do not forget to mention the benefit at the time of interview. For instance, JP Morgan Chase prominently displays the fact that its employees are provided air-conditioned cars to ferry them to office or drop them back. According to a few HR managers, prospective employees are known to have settled for lesser sums for companies that provide drop and pickup. Little wonder, it can be used a good tool for curbing attrition.
Sleepless in India
Returning after a 9-hour shift in the noon, Shweta Puthran is seldom able to sleep, even though she desperately wants to. It has been a few years since she has been suffering from insomnia, and has even tried sleeping pills. The condition has marginally improved; more so because her biological clock has now got more or less acclimatized to the change, sleeping in the day and slogging in the night. Yet, there are days when Puthran would keep staring the musty roof, waiting for slumber to set in.
Going by the data available through the E-Sat Survey; sleeping disorder, digestive system related disorder, eye sight problem, severe stomach related problem, depression, are the top 5 ailments afflicting the BPO employees. Insomnia is the most common of the ailments for the industry and it mostly affects the agent or CRE level employees. As manager and senior TLs tend to have flexi timings or at the least take the weekends off. BPO companies that have a high focus on European operations, mostly UK, tend to be more in demand then US-focused BPO companies (since, difference between UK and India is a more manageable 5 ½ hours rather than 12-14 hours, as with the US).
Digestive ailments figure prominently on the list after sleeping related ones. Not surprisingly, as most of the employees are eating at odd hours and more importantly eating odd stuff, from medu vadas at 4 a.m. to American chopsuey at 7 p.m. Junk food has more or less replaced proper meals for BPO employees. According to one physician, BPO employees are increasingly becoming obese and it would result in many more health hazards like Diabetes (type 2), high blood pressure and even heart related ailments.
The other worrying ailments that have increased over the years are psychological ones like depression and anxiety. Indeed, BPO employees are well versed with panic or anxiety attacks, and often a friend or a colleague who has been a victim of the same. The survey has also for the first time collected data on back pain and this year close to 2.34% complained about persistent and niggling back issues. Most of the BPO companies have a doctor on-board but he or she is usually in a reactive mode, i.e. if you have an ailment while at work, you could consult him or her.
A few companies seem to have woken to the issues. Take the case of e4e for instance, it keenly promotes flexi timing as a means of lessening stress. It even has made it mandatory for the managers to ensure that their juniors are taking at least a week off annually. While a lot many have tied up with local gymnasiums and health centers, offering heavy discounts to employees. But it is too little or too less.
Many would argue that health and stress related statistics has more or less remained constant over the past few years, hence there isn’t much to worry about. But a spike is not necessarily an indicator of a problem, constancy is a big issue as well. For instance, when you are running a high temperature, the big problem is if it does not come down, not whether it keeps going up.
The industry that employs over half a million individuals and accounts for over $8.4 billion annually, needs to relook at things and take corrective measures before things get out of hand. Hopefully, after the publication of this report, associations like Nasscom would look into the issue and hopefully conduct a comprehensive health related study on the BPO employees in India. Till we really know and understand the problems faced by employees, there is little than can be done to help them.
Big versus small
The Indian BPO industry had been growing at a steady rate, even though under a lot of pressure. According to Nasscom estimates the Indian ITES–BPO exports grew from $6.3 billion in FY 2005-06 to $8.4 billion in FY 2006-07 and expected to touch $10.5-11bn in FY08. Employing over 553,000 people, the industry is facing a lot of pressure in terms of competition from other low-cost destinations and Indian economic factors. The biggest bane for exporting BPO firms has been the rising Rupee. As a result, this year the margins have been badly hurt.
Fortunately, Indian BPO companies have so far been able to more or less nullify the ill effects, and continue to grow at a steady rate. There have been two things that BPO companies are doing assiduously over the years, first moving into niche and specialized domain that pays more and secondly they are becoming more productive in terms of seat utilization and a smaller bench. Many BPO companies are looking at KPO seriously, thus even when they continue to depend on plain vanilla customer interaction services to provide the bulk of their revenues, they are also looking at niche business services, like financial accounting, HR administration, logistics hand ling, etc. to shore up their revenues.
Returning to the BPO E-Sat 2007. The ratio of bigger BPO companies vis-à-vis smaller ones, more or less remains the same. There are 6 big BPO companies (with over 5000 employees) featured in this years list. It more or less corresponds to last year’s figure.
It is the mid-sized (greater than 1000 and lesser than 5000 employees) companies that take up the maximum ranks. Close to 50% places, as many as 10 mid-sized companies are featured on this year’s survey.
There are lesser small BPO companies this time round. Last year, there were 5 BPO companies (with less than a 1000 employees), this year the number falls down to 3 (though, one of last year’s small company has moved up to being a mid-sized outfit). Out of the three, Equinox Global and Knoah Solutions are making a debut on the list, while Motif India continues to retain its rank at 17.
Of the top 5 BPO companies on the list, 3 of them happen to be big BPO companies, namely IBM Daksh, Genpact and Wipro. The two smaller companies at the top vCustomer and e4e exist solely due to the employee satisfaction score (both have been ranked as number one and two on E-Sat score rank). And that is where the difference lies. The big companies score well on the HR ranks, while the smaller ones score well on the employee satisfaction. But employee satisfaction can be transitionary, it can be won easily and lost easily as well. Thus, smaller companies need to focus more strongly on the process and put them in place.
Movers and shakers
Every year, there are shifts that happen on the list, companies climbing up a few notches and then there are those that fall a few. It always makes an interesting read, as it is more or less gives an idea of the best practices that are working in the marketplace. The biggest fall this year has been that of 24/7 falling to 16th from last year’s 10, a fall of 6 places. The reason behind is not hard to gauge, as the company’s HR score have fallen quite drastically due to decrease in absolute employee strength, average salary hike, average tenure of senior professionals, etc. Even its employee satisfaction has fallen, the areas in which the 24/7 employees were found to be most dissatisfied are; overall satisfaction and company culture.
The other big fall has been that of TCS BPO, falling by 4 places to 13th rank this year. Ironically, while the company’s HR rank has gone up by five places due to huge improvement in the employee size, average salary hike and CTC as compared to the last year. The result, HR rank has increased from 10th to 5th. But the employee dissatisfaction seems to be increasing. The drop on E-Sat Score has been more dramatic than the gains on the HR rank, falling 8 places and standing at 15th this year versus 7th last year. The major area for employee dissatisfaction has been salary and perks.
In terms of gainers, except for the big IBM Daksh debut at the third rank, the biggest gainers are Brigade and EXL Service, both by 2 ranks. Brigade has shown marked improvement in its HR rank basically due to improvement in employee size and average training days in absolute terms. The score in average salary hike has also increased as compared to that of previous year by reasonable amount which has resulted in rise in its rank from 19th to 15th in HR part.
Meanwhile, EXL has shown improvement in employee size, average training days in absolute terms which has resulted in rise in its rank from 7th to 6th in HR part. Whereas it’s E-Sat rank has fallen by a single rank to stand at 14th place this year.
Of the companies that participated last year, 7 were missing this year, namely, Office Tiger Database, ICICI First Source, Sutherland Global Services, SlashSupport, AXA Business Solutions, Keane Worldzen, Integreon. Sadly, these companies did not take part in this year’s survey. Similarly a lot many ‘big’ companies were also missing, like Infosys BPO, WNS, Intelenet, and others. Hopefully, next year these companies would not shy away from sharing data about their employee satisfaction, which is the best indicator of how good or how bad they are doing.
Ask any BPO company’s CEO or HR manager, what is his or hers biggest challenge, and attrition is the word that will escape their mouths. The industry’s biggest demon is rampant attrition, with scores of BPO companies looking for talent, BPO professionals are in hot demand and often these fresh out of colleges graduates hop from one job to another, till they can hop no more. With each jump, the package going up by as much as 20%.
But the companies have woken up to this tactic and are loathe to hire job-hopping monkeys. An HR manager working with a reputed BPO company says that nowadays the company lay a lot of significance on the “dependability” of the new recruit and pays much attention to the antecedents. The companies are trying to find potential job hoppers at the interview stage and then not hire them. “Prevention is often better than cure,” she says. Nevertheless, be it no-poaching agreements or not hiring high risk individuals, the average attrition rate has gone up by 2 percentage points, up from 18% last year to 20% this year.
The most common factor for employees leaving an organization or being dissatisfied is money and nothing else. Not much surprising as the BPO industry is in cost-saving mode, the increments are getting lesser and lesser. In fact according to the DQ-IDC Survey, the average salary hike across categories has decreased from 17.2% to 14.8%. It is quite a significant drop and is surely one of the main factors that promote dissatisfaction among the employee base. The second most common reason cited by exiting employees is growth opportunity, followed by higher opportunity and of course job timings. The survey findings reveal that transport facility, work pressure, and work timings are amongst the top reasons for employee dissatisfaction.
A lot of BPO companies are able to arrest attrition through a variety of HR strategies. It has also been noticed that salary is a big issue in everyday voice centric call centers, while in the KPOs the employees are known to put up with lesser amount as long as the work is challenging and interesting. HR managers also seem to support the view and hence are taking more interest in employee’s workload, trying to find cues that trigger an employee to call it quits. In the end, there is just as much as a company can do to control attrition as it is more of an industry wide issue rather than specific to a company or more. And as the BPO companies keep squeezing the salary increments, the attrition is bound to go up.
As said earlier, it isn’t all about money, honey. Many companies on the E-Sat Survey are employing a variety of innovative HR strategies to hold on to their employees. Take the case of Hyderabad-based Brigade. The company has appointed a Chief Fun Officer that looks into ways and means to ensure that employee stress levels are low and they remain highly motivated. The secret behind Brigade’s joie de vivre is not that hard to miss. As the BPO companies are facing immense pressure due to the squeeze on the margins, retaining good employees is a priority like never before. Frequent hiring and retaining can be quite costly, so if you can hold out to your employees, anything is justified.
Or take the case of Bangalore-based e4e, most of the employees grievances are sorted out during the HR powwows, wherein the management and employees discuss problems face-to-face. The company also has a policy where it is mandatory for employees to take 7 days off in a year and it is the manager’s responsibility to see that his junior takes it.
In both the above instances, the companies were able to arrest attrition by proactively reaching out to employees, e4e has been ranked at number 1 and Brigade number 7 on the E-Sat Score Rank. Similarly a lot many companies are pursuing newer ways of employee retention. At the end, it boils down to innovative HR practices. Going by the data available, smaller and mid-sized BPO companies stand a better chance by being imaginative.
One of the disturbing trends noticed in BPO E-Sat Survey has been the falling ratio of woman employee base. Based on analysis of figures of common companies who are participating since 2005 in a row, namely, e4e, Genpact, HCL, Ajuba, Motif, Cambridge, the ratio of man Vs woman has been increasing.
In 2005, the man: woman ratio stood at 1.80:1 (12136 males for 6708 females). The ratio increased marginally to 1.97:1 in 2006 (17822 males for 9044 females) and now there are over twice as many men for each woman, 22696 males for 10870 females.
Could it be that women are unable to cope up with the pressures of BPO, namely unearthly timings and high stress and opting out of this industry? There are many assumptions that one can make, but it is the health one that seems the most plausible. Hopefully as things improve, the ratio will improve in the coming year. It is a misnomer that BPO companies would be a dull place if women start shunning them.
Hard times to come
In the end, the overall satisfaction index has improved over last year, while the average salary increment has fallen proving beyond doubt that an Indian BPO employee expects a lot more than money. Indians are basically an emotional lot, and if BPO companies can touch a chord with their employees, they can often get away with lesser salary hikes.
With the companies facing the squeeze, it all boils down to imagination. Are Indian companies ready to experiment newer and innovative ways of employee retention. For the same we need a new breed of HR managers that do not hide behind management jargons but take the bull by the horns, or rather be ready for a ‘powwow’ with employees. Will they pick up the gauntlet, will be proved in next years E-Sat Survey.
Also let’s hope that next time round, as the BPO companies wake up to health related issues we would have a healthier employee force to contend with. BPO companies are in many ways the custodian of Indian youth, and if they turn a Nelson’s eye to their workforce, a whole generation might have to pay. Let’s cross our fingers that it won’t be so, and that while Moorthy’s practice in Mumbai continues to do well, the number of youngsters sitting in the waiting room would diminish. Amen!