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Human Issues in Call Centers and BPO Industry- A Report

Introduction

The purpose of writing this paper is to address, the Human Issues in Call-Centers. I am of the opinion that this paper will be use to HR-Heads of Various Call-centers, CEO's and Center-Heads and also Team Leaders and Project Managers. BPO/Call Centers has given many gifts to People of India, few of them are: High Stress Level, Number of other Illnesses, Broken Marriages Etc. Need is to understand these issues and address them Properly. To start with, let us understand the technology involved, history of call centers and Industry, as a whole. You can also see my article at www.bpoindia.org/research/ or http://bpmwatch.com <link updated to site home>

History-the beginning of an industry

Carrying out transactions over the telephone has a long history, beginning with operator services and later, reservations lines, particularly for airlines. But in the last 15 to 20 years, the introduction of information technologies and telecommunications advances have expanded the types of work it is possible to undertake, while reducing costs. Concurrently, ideas of 'service' and service relationships continue to be redefined as technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, rendering the public more receptive to mediated service interactions.

There are a variety of factors, which have led to the increase of telephone services, suggest Richardson and Marshall, including the transformation of telephony by "the development of digital exchanges, intelligent telephone networks and their integration with computer data bases"; falling telephony costs and the introduction of toll-free numbers; the high degree of penetration and familiarity of telephone technology; and the ability to communicate complex information by phone in real time. In addition to technological progress and social advantages, another likely reason for the burgeoning of the call center industry in the early 1990s was a significant period of retrenchment in a number of business sectors, including a drive towards reducing costs and cutting staff-both of which can be accomplished by centralizing services, reducing branch offices close to the customer, and taking advantage of lower cost real estate and labor costs in locations outside main business centers. Call centers, of course, permit all of these activities.

The US was in the forefront of the call center movement, yet Nadji Tehrani, editor of the first trade publication devoted to the telemarketing and call center industries, writes that when Telemarketing Magazine was launched in 1982 in the United States, there were "only a handful" of companies conducting market research or handling customer service by phone. He describes the rapidity of technological development during the ensuing years: "We have seen the use of 3 x 5 cards and rotary dial phones, evolve to push-button telephones to integrated contact management software and automated dialing to Web-enabled call centers".

Outsourcing centers that specialize in providing call center services for other companies are also expanding. Although most call centers in the UK are currently nationally oriented, there is a move towards pan-European call centers in areas such as hotels, travel, and computing.

Still, despite its rapid rate of growth, the call center industry is relatively new. The "vast majority" of call centers in the UK have "existed for less than ten years" claims Cameron, while Michel notes that in Germany, 25% of call centers in the country were established before 1991, and 41% during what he terms the "call center boom" after 1995. A boom is perhaps an accurate term. One estimate suggests a rate of growth between 20%-25% a year in Canada, while a 1996 Datamonitor report gave a figure of 40% for call center market growth in Europe, a number anticipated to hold until the turn of the century. Similarly, as mentioned above, academic interest in call centers is also quite recent, with the bulk of reported research beginning in the late 1990s and beginning to accumulate in the last two years.

Understanding- "Call Center"

As a first step, it is useful to establish a definition of a call center. This is not a completely straightforward task, as there are considerable variations between types of call centers, which are spread across several sectors of the economy, and which perform different functions for different organizations, both within and across sectors.

The broadest definition in the call center literature is that provided by Norling, who states "a call center is any communications platform from which firms deliver services to customers via remote, real-time contact". Callaghan and Thompson apply a similarly inclusive definition, stating that call centers may be "broadly defined as workplaces that integrate telephone and computer technologies". While these definitions usefully highlight the centrality of communication technology integration in the call center field, it leaves the boundaries of the industry somewhat ambiguous. Taylor and Bain narrow the definition by specifying the types of technologies used: "we define a call center as a dedicated operation in which computer-utilising employees receive inbound-or make outbound-telephone calls, with those calls processed and controlled either by an Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) or predictive dialing system. The call center is thus characterized by the integration of telephone and VDU technologies."

Other authors narrow their definitions by focusing on the types of services which these integrated technologies are designed to provide. For example, in an early definition, Richardson states "telephone call centers are specialist technology-intensive offices that are established by organizations in order to deliver services to customers over the telephone, replacing or complementing face-to-face interaction with the public" . Similarly, Kinnie, Purcell and Hutchinson provide a tripartite definition incorporating technology, technological control, and tasks:

We define call centers in the following way:

Employees are engaged in specialist operation which integrate telecommunications and information systems technologies;

Their work is controlled by automatic systems which virtually simultaneously distribute work, control the pace of that work and monitor their performance;

They are in direct contact with the customer through dealing with in-bound calls, making out-bound calls or a combination of the two.

Houlihan also includes the types of operations typically performed in a call center within her definition. She lists the tasks most effectively performed by call centers: "Call centers are centralized, specialized operations for both inbound and outbound communication handling. Call center operations are especially suited to information delivery, customer services and sales operations".

Buchanan and Koch-Schulte go one step further and include in their description the organizational rationale for establishing call centers:

Call centers are a relatively recent phenomenon made possible by the dissemination of telecommunications and information technologies. The technology enables telephone service representatives to deal quickly and remotely with customer needs by connecting the representative to the customer's account information on his/her computer as the call is relayed to the headset. As call centers can be centralized in locations far from the customers of a business, they allow firms to cut costs by reducing the number of local service outlets.

In reviewing these definitions and descriptions, it becomes clear that although there are variations in stress placed on different elements, there is general agreement about which elements are key.

Borrowing from this accumulation, we might, therefore, define a call center as a specialized office where agents remotely provide information, deliver services, and/or conduct sales, using some combination of integrated telephone and information technologies, typically with an aim to enhancing customer service while reducing organizational costs.

Understanding - The Call Center "Industry"

There has been some dispute amongst researchers as to whether it is appropriate to refer to such a thing as the "call center industry". As Bain and Taylor point out, "despite similarities in the integration of computer and telephone technologies, centers differ in relation to a number of important variables-size, industrial sector and market, complexity and length of call cycle time, nature of operations (inbound, outbound or combined), the nature and effectiveness of representative institutions including trade unions, and management styles and priorities". To this list of variables, Callaghan and Thompson would add the "degree of product complexity and variability and the depth of knowledge required to deal with the service interaction". Bain and Taylor argue that it is more appropriate to use the term "sector", as call Centers are found across a wide range of industries and may be similar primarily in terms of their core technologies. They do note, however, that there is a professional literature and a collective identity that is maintained and developed through conferences and forums. Belt, Richardson and Webster (2000) agree that call centers are not an 'industry' as the term is generally defined, but rather represent certain ways of delivering various services using the telephone and computer technologies across traditional industry boundaries. However, these authors provide three strong reasons defending the practice of referring to call centers as an industry:

First, the call center community often defines itself as an industry, with numerous national and international call center conferences and workshops taking place each year, industry journals and call center forums organized at local levels. Second, the labor force requirements of call centers are often the same across sectors. This means that many, though not all, call centers share a common labor pool. Third, the organizational templates and technologies used tend to be very similar, regardless of the sector.

To this one might add the remarkable similarities that international researchers have found between technologies used, work practices and key issues including monitoring, control, training, and labor demographics for workers in countries as diverse as Germany, Japan, Australia, Greece, Canada, the US, the UK and the Netherlands.

HUMAN ISSUES IN CALL-CENTER INDUSTRY

Stress

For many employed in the call center sector, "the daily experience is of repetitive, intensive and stressful work, based upon Taylorist principles, which frequently results in employee "burnout". Brown, more vividly, characterizes the work as "repetitive brain strain". These descriptions are hardly surprising, in a way, given that call centers are established by organizations to "create an environment in which work can be standardized to create relatively uniform and repetitious activities so as to achieve economies of scale and consistent quality of customer service". This means, in other words, that workplaces are organized in ways that weaken employee autonomy and enhance the potential for management control, and "a loss of control is generally understood to be an important indicator of work-related stress".

There is almost universal consensus that call center work is stressful. Even in studies that report the observation that some staff actually enjoys their work, mention of stress is still the norm, and a significant portion of the call center literature is devoted to detailing the sources of stress in call center work.

Four Key stressors

'Can we get off the phone for a while?'

The primary source of stress reported is inherent to the nature of the job: spending all day on the phone dealing with people one after another, day after day, is difficult. Doing it under constant pressure to keep call volumes up, with no time between calls to "recover from an awkward call or from 'customer rejection'" is even more difficult. And doing it with "very little authority or autonomy to rectify problems" that arise is perhaps the most difficult of all. Many studies report agents as wanting to 'just get off the phones'. For example, Belt and colleagues note "agents in all three sectors [financial services, IT, and third-party services] spoke of the phenomenon of 'burnout', caused by the pressure of working exclusively 'on the phones'". In the same study, the authors mention that the issue of 'burnout' was also recognized by some managers: "It was pointed out that managers face an inherent conflict between the need to reduce staff boredom and labor turnover, and the pressure to concentrate staff energies on telephone based work".

"The question of how call center employees deal with stress is an important one, particularly in view of evidence that a build-up of stress leads to illness, absenteeism and turnover," writes Houlihan. Many authors agree, and there are a variety of individual coping mechanisms described in the literature. Tricks to circumvent control mechanisms, such as those discussed above are sometimes mentioned as attempts at stress reduction, although they are unreliable in this role as they may also increase stress. Others mention social interaction squeezed into brief moments--Callaghan and Thompson describe agents using humorous (or rude) gestures towards the phone, or making faces at colleagues to defuse stress over angry or abusive callers, and making jokes to combat the tedium of the day. Lankshear and Mason describe a similarly social approach to reducing tension in one of the sites they observed, where staff often laughed and joked with one another in intervals between calls, with management's approval. More formally, some call centers include stress management as a component in training programs, and many have, or claim to have, team de-briefings which permit staff to vent frustrations while discussing difficult calls or dissatisfactions with elements of work.

Knights and McCabe take a different approach to stress in the workplace. They note that although much organizational analysis and most of the call center literature tends to conceptualize stress as an individual problem, it is actually located within "a framework that emphasizes the interrelationships between structural relations of power and the subjective interpretations and actions of employees". This more nuance positioning may provide more insight into call center conditions, as it allows a researcher to consider the response of employees "forced to interpret the often contradictory demands management place upon them" including "contradictions…over service quality versus the quantity of work output". "Clearly," these authors write, "staff face some fundamental contradictions over unity versus conflict, uncertainty versus certainty, quality versus quantity and these are at the heart of the reproduction of stress, resistance and control". This focus on the "contradictory" nature of demands strikes at the heart of the second inherent sources of stress in (primarily inbound) call center works: the quality/quantity conflict.

Quality/Quantity conflict

Typically, organizational rhetoric in inbound call centers is concerned with 'customer care', or 'keeping customers happy' (providing quality service), yet these goals are juxtaposed with an ongoing pressure to keep call times down and call volumes up. Houlihan describes the difficulty concisely:

Call centers are rooted in contradictory tensions and structural paradoxes, and confront a number of trade-offs on that basis. These set a context for attitudes towards the organization and can impose conflicting role requirements on agents. A core example is that of the pressure for quantity versus the aspiration for quality, the guiding logic of which is the conundrum of trying to get closer to the customer while routinising, centralizing, reducing costs and prescribing standards.

The dichotomy is not completely straightforward, it is important to note. Part of providing quality service from a management perspective is making sure customers do not wait too long for their calls to be answered, even though the push to keep queue waiting times short is typically categorized as part of the pressure towards quantity. As Bain points out, "efforts to attain what is perceived to be the desired balance between the quantity and the quality of calls presents a perennial challenge".

The practice of ongoing work practice modification and target revision as management swings from one side to another of the quality/quantity debate is a major source of stress for call center agents. As Houlihan notes: "The practice of putting a 'drive' on particular targets for improvement (for example, the collection of renewal dates, the up-selling or cross-selling of products, the quality of data input, or the intensity of sales push) and continual reprioritisation means that the 'goalposts' are constantly shifting". Virtually all of the call center authors who write about work conditions mention the difficulty of dealing with these competing goals. Korczynski and colleagues suggest that this dilemma is particularly difficult for front-line workers because they may be likely "to identify with embodied individual customers, for interactions with specific customers may be an important arena for meaning and satisfaction within the work". They contrast this customer-as-individual orientation to the managerial goal of balancing customer orientation with efficiency, which they suggest leads management to prefer workers to identify with a generic category, 'the customer', since "such a disembodied image of the customer will encourage workers to deal with individual customers efficiently because they will be conscious of the concerns of other customers waiting in a queue".

Intensity

The third central stressor in call center work is its intensity. As Bain (2001) argues, "far from being either in terminal decline or on the wane, Taylorism-in conjunction with a range of other control mechanisms-is not only alive, well and deeply embedded in the call center labour process, but its malevolent influence appears to be spreading to previously uncharted territory". There is widespread consensus that "call centers are a new, and particularly effective, manifestation of the increasingly capital intensive 'industrialization' of service sector work, and work performed in them is highly intensive and routine".

Buchanan and Koch-Schulte quote one call center worker who describes the constant pressure graphically: Ellen: It's almost like the army. It's very regimented. You punch in with a time clock. You come in and you sit down, and the numbers are all computerized. As soon as you finish a call, the minute you hang up another call comes up just this constant, all day, repetitious…constant sort of like beating on a drum, but day after day.

The pace of work is determined by the combination of technologies that deliver calls to the headset and account details to the screen, and workers often have no control over this process.

Descriptions such as "exhausting," "robotic," "controlled," and agents discussing the nature of their work often use "machine-like". Houlihan expands on the idea of controlled, machine-like agents by suggesting that this is in fact exactly the way that the organization conceives of them:

Call centers are information handling organizations. As currently characterized, the job of the agent is to be the voice of the organization, interfacing with the client or customer.

The organization rehearses the things it wants said and feeds them through the agent. The agent is largely constructed as a mouthpiece rather than as a brain.

Buchanan and Koch-Schulte spoke with a call-center worker who articulated her feelings about the organization's expectations of its agents in very similar terms: Rosa: You are standing waiting to be used by the technology, and it's a physical embodiment of that. You are standing, waiting until that call comes in to use you to make money. And you are simply another part of that machine.

When this feeling of being a cog in a machine which never stops as it grinds on, repeating the same actions over and over again, is combined with "the cumulative emotional demands presented by the interpersonal nature of the work", stress is inevitable.

Targets

There is a fourth feature of some call center work that may engender stress: performance targets. There are various types of targets, which may vary between inbound and outbound centers. Inbound centers typically have targets for call duration, 'wrap time', and daily call volume. Outbound centers often also have sales or 'completion' targets, which are closely monitored and upon which pay may be partially based. In addition, in some sectors, inbound call centers are attempting to introduce the practice of cross selling, where agents attempt to sell additional products to the customers who call in for another purpose. In these centers, sales targets similar to those in outbound centers are often in place.

Taylor and Bain argue that particularly in the financial services industry in the UK, targets are a significant source of stress for workers as more and more importance is placed upon meeting them in an increasingly competitive business environment. Sales targets, in particular, are difficult to accept, or meet, for staff who often consider themselves as service personnel, particularly when they are set centrally and implemented locally: "Cross-selling is seen by employees, not as an opportunity to engage in creative work, but as an additional and acute source of pressure". This is especially the case when sales targets are parachuted in on top of service targets set originally when there was no pressure to produce sales.

As a CSR in Taylor and Bain's study emphasizes: "When somebody phones in for a balance you have to try to get a sale or get them interested as well as turning the call round in 155 seconds".

Even in centers that claim not to prioritize targets, researchers have found that staff often feels significant pressure. Targets simply intensify the stress produced by the quantity/quality debate, or, as one agent is quoted as saying, "They say that they're not really interested in numbers. They say that they are more into quality. Well, that's a lie. They're usually more into numbers than anything". It is important not to over generalize however. While most call centers do have some targets, they are a source of stress that is directly under management control. Some call centers are managed in such a way that targets are set to realistically reflect local conditions, are interpreted in light of other, more subjective information, and are not used punitively or to intensify work. In some they are even used effectively to motivate and encourage staff. For example, Lankshear and Mason describe a series of conversations with managers in their call center site where management consistently conceptualized their performance reports (for example, one commented that it's 'human nature' for productivity to drop before and after a holiday), and used their stats as an excuse to praise good performance and coach those who consistently had difficulty meeting targets: "Our best bet is to develop the people we have got" one manager is quoted as saying.

Other Health issues…

The result of intense, stressful work may be an effect on workers' health. There are often high rates of absenteeism and sick leave reported in the literature, although there is relatively little exploration of these issues, particularly when compared to turnover. Most often, authors provide a brief list of known health issues. For example, Richardson, Belt and Marshall write that "Health concerns have been expressed, including tension, sleeplessness, headaches, eye-strain, repetitive strain injury (RSI), voice loss, hearing problems and burn-out", but they do not develop the point. More detailed descriptions of the causes and effects of these ailments can be found in industry and trades union reports. For example, the Trades Union Council (TUC) in its brochure targeted at call center workers, cites the main illnesses to which call center staff are prone: "back strain and RSI, stress, eyestrain, and voice and hearing loss".

Also in the UK, regulators have been proactive in their examination of the industry, with the Health and Safety Executive issuing a bulletin on call center regulations, health risks and best practices in December 2001. They looked specifically at health issues including stress, noise levels, musculoskeletal disorders (such as back problems) and voice loss, and also at display screen issues, working environments, requirements for work stations, daily work routines, training, organizational working practices and shifts.

Sleeping Disorders

No prizes for guessing the most severe ailment afflicting people working in Indian call centers. Since this is a unique Indian problem, again, no solution appears in sight. Obviously this affects first timers more severely, as they take time to acclimatize their biological clocks, but even experienced people or managers are not able to completely escape from it. Some call centers are looking at devising innovative mechanisms like flexible shifts with sleeping arrangements in the office premises as possible solutions.

Digestive System Related Disorders

Working long and odd hours without any sleep, and eating food supplied by external caterers everyday, has led to 41.9% of the respondents suffering from digestive problems. Especially for the large number of girls working in the industry, the problem is even more severe. Many call centers are now taking additional care to ensure their caterers supply hygienic food; besides stipulating strict conditions to maintain the quality of the food they serve.

Depression

In last year's survey, this was not among the top disorders, but this year it has climbed up the chart, affecting nearly one-fourth of the respondents. Not surprising, since, as the industry matures, the initial glitz and glamour wears away and the real problems come to the fore. Not only are there several health related issues, but, on top of that, the gradual realization that there is limited scope in developing a career owing to fewer growth opportunities is increasing the frustration levels. Coupled with growing mental fatigue and increasingly punishing physical environments, depression is the obvious end result. Some call centers have now devised different stress management programs mainly to counter depression.

Severe Stomach Related Problems

Continuing digestive problems lead to severe stomach disorders like gastroenteritis, as endorsed by more than 24% of the respondents. Even doctors in major cities agree-in recent times many of the patients with various stomach ailments are from call centers.

Eyesight Problems

Globally call center industry employees are considered a high-risk group for eye-related problems. While the quality of monitors might impact these disorders, sitting continually without adequate breaks seems to be the truer reason. The number of people affected seems to be on the rise-last year only 19% complained; this year it has gone up to 23%. At some point of time, this problem might also afflict the IT services industry, but for the call center industry, no remedy seems to be in sight.

Ear Problems

More than 16% of the respondents inform that they have hearing problems. Again, no surprises here, since a call center job involves taking calls throughout the shift, sitting with headphones. While quality of headphones does make a difference, it would not be correct to completely wish the problem away by thinking that changing headphones will solve it.

Some other Human Issues, in Call-Centers, which need Immediate Attention

Personal habits

The young executives are getting more than five figure salaries per month in an early age. They tend to develop certain bad habits such as alcohol, smoking etc. It is not easy to identify such individuals. It is also very sensitive to talk to them. The professional counselors can conduct group-counseling, workshops, educative film shows in order to create awareness on effects of bad habits. Such actions will enable individuals to realize the importance of good habits and they could seek one to one Counseling sessions to solve their problems.

Discipline and behavioral issues

Call centers provide excellent working environment, free food and transportation. There is always a situation where individual or group of youngsters tend to commit mistakes and abuse the freedom. They start behaving like in college campus where they have more freedom. However, the call center executives have more responsibility and accountability, they need to follow discipline and do well in the job. The most common behavior is misuse of food, behave erratically in vans, and smoke in public places, misuse of telephones and other resources of the company. The supervisors always concentrate on performance and achieving targets. They do not have time or interest to go deep into these matters and find out the reasons for such behavior. The professional counselor can play a major role in educating the youngsters on discipline; provide advice to erring executives. The counselors with their wisdom and experience can tackle such issues tactfully and bring change within the individuals.

As said earlier, to majority of them this is the first employment and they are fresh out of the colleges. Few tend to behave differently and they have the "do not care" attitude. Such executives will not take their job seriously, they indulge in teasing, and joking, talking over mobile phones, have friction within the team. These aspects may go noticed or unnoticed by the supervisors.

The fact remains that such unacceptable behaviors will cause disturbance to others and overall it affects the productivity. Sleeping while on duty, reading novels and playing games on the computer during working hours brings down productivity and quality suffers. The HR representatives and professional counselors jointly have a role to bring behavioral change starting from the training days. Continuous education and Counseling will help to mitigate such problems and it is possible to prevent serious problems.

Inter-personal relationship and friendship

Executives develop friendship quickly and sometime the friendship breaks and there will be misunderstanding among the team members and naturally affects the team performance. The supervisors and counselors can play a major role to sort out the interpersonal relationship and develop team spirit. Healthy relationship among the team members has always helped the team to out perform. When the relationship fails the individuals will also break down mentally. They either absent for duties or fall ill or the performance will come down. It is also true that due to misunderstanding and break in friendship they change jobs quickly.

Love affair and marriages

Few of the boys and girls fall in love quickly. They maintain the healthy relationship, behave in a matured manner, plan the future course of action and such persons have got married with the consent of their parents. They work together in the same organization for longer duration. There are instances, where lovers fall apart, start disliking, creating troubles to each other and vitiating the atmosphere. They are immature, take instant decisions to break or unite and sometimes go to an extent of damaging others reputation. The professional counselors can play an important role in explaining the importance of marriage, preparation required for marriage, how to enter the institution of marriage, which is acceptable to both parents and society and about the new role and responsibility after getting married. Counseling services can definitely give emotional support to individuals.

Absenteeism

Absenteeism is very high in calls centers. Employees tend to be very irregular to the duty due to various reasons. The professional counseling services to such irregular employees on one to one basis will help to bring down the absenteeism. The counselor can educate and explain the importance of attending duties to earn the salary and also to meet the organizational goals. Each individual are unique and the problem they face are also different in nature. Only the professional counselors can understand, analyze and provide long lasting solutions for the individuals.

Higher education and part time jobs

It is possible to do higher education while working in BPO units. Few organizations encourage and offer support services to pursue higher education. However, the time management by the executives is crucial to go forward in education as well as to maintain the performance and career growth. Programmes on time management, tips to study, tips to keep fit and such other programmes can be offered. These steps would help to seek the loyalty of employees to the organizations and helps greatly for the retention of employees.

Organizations do not grant permission to pursue part time jobs while working in BPO units. In order to make quick money and to have options open to change the jobs in future will drive the employees to do part time work. Human body does not permit to stretch beyond one's capacity. The executives need to take sufficient rest in the daytime so that energy levels are maintained. Either due to lack of experience or due to compulsions, the executives keep their one feet in call center and another in part time jobs. In the long run this would affect individuals health. The HR executives must identify such persons and offer professional Counseling services to them.

Remedial Measures for Stress Management

Understanding that the "Stress" is a major concern for all Call-Center Employees, it is a duty of HR-heads of Call-Centers to address it properly. Some of the common signs and symptoms of stress Although we all experience stress in different ways, there are certain signs that are most frequently reported. These signs fall into two major categories; physical/behavioral signs and emotional signs. If we become aware of our own stress symptoms, we will be more effective in dealing with them sooner rather than later. What follows is a list of some of the most experienced symptoms of stress.

The physical/behavioral symptoms include; muscular tension, muscle spasms and tics, rapid heart beat, shortness of breath and high blood pressure, cold hands and feet, backaches, headaches and neck aches, stomach problems, indigestion, irritable bowel and ulcers, feeling fatigued, irritable, decreased ability to concentrate, insomnia and changes in eating behavior. Since these physical symptoms may be related to physical problems, you should consult with your medical doctor before you assume that your symptoms are purely stress-related.

The emotional symptoms include; anxiety in a variety of situations not limited to the stressful situation, depression, hopelessness and a strong urge to cry without specific incident, withdrawal from social interactions and avoidance of previously enjoyed activities, powerlessness and decreased self esteem, hostility, anger and resentment, fears, phobias and unwanted thoughts.

Learning to become more aware of your own stress symptoms is the first major step in the stress management and healing process. It is often helpful to monitor your daily symptoms in a stress diary where you match the stressful events with the symptom experienced. For example; you made find that if you are stuck in early morning traffic you may experience irritability and headaches. In this case it will be important to use these symptoms as a cue that you have to begin managing that stress more effectively when it happens.

What are the consequences of unmanaged stress?

We all know that stress is something that doesn't feel good to us physically and emotionally. What is even more compelling is what happens below the surface each time we experience stress. Stress researcher Hans Selye, determined what happens internally each time we experience something as threatening or stressful. According to Selye, when we perceive a threat in the environment the thinking part of the brain sends an alarm message to the nervous system via the hypothalamus. The nervous system then makes changes in the body that prepare you to handle the perceived danger ahead. These changes include increases in heart rate and blood pressure as well as pupil dilation. In addition, there are hormones and chemicals secreted such as adrenaline, that give the body the necessary push to be able to manage the threat ahead. Although there are situations in which these adrenaline surges are very helpful in helping us mobilize, the constant adrenaline surges due to repeatedly perceived threats, have a toxic effect on the body. For example, recurrent adrenaline surges inhibit some of the other important functions in the body including growth and tissue repair, digestion and the immune response.

Just as the thinking part of your brain is responsible for turning the stress response on, you can turn it off by changing the threatening appraisals you are making. Once you are able to determine that a threat does not exist or that it can be effectively managed, your thinking brain stops sending panic messages to the nervous system. As a result of this reappraisal, the hormones and chemicals cease to be released and the body returns to normal.

Bringing the body back to an "un-stressed" state is very important since almost every system in the body can be damaged by stress. Although our bodies are adaptive and can recover from periodic stressors, chronic stress has serious consequences. We experience the consequences of stress on three important levels; physically, emotionally and behaviorally. What follows is a description of the specific consequences in these three categories.

Physically, the body is likely to develop a stress-related disease as a result of the stress toxins that are released. For example, chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular disease by elevating blood pressure, damaging the heart and arteries and increasing blood sugar. Respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis can result from stress-triggered changes in the lungs. When stress inhibits the body's digestive functions, diseases such as ulcers, colitis and chronic diarrhea can occur. In addition, stress contributes to inhibited growth of tissue and bone which can lead to decalcification and osteoporosis. The immune system is also inhibited by the reduced efficiency of the white blood cells, making the body more susceptible to disease. Increased muscle tension, fatigue and headaches are additional consequences of chronic stress.

The second category of consequences of chronic stress is the emotional consequences. Depression can result form chronic stress due to the constant release and depletion of norepinephrine. What also contributes to the depression is the thought that life is terrible and that it is never going to get better. What then results is a feeling of helplessness and ineffectiveness, feeling like a failure and a reduction in self-confidence. Individuals who are depressed are also likely to withdraw from relationships and isolate themselves which often increases the intensity of the depression. In addition, anxiety and fearfulness are commonly felt emotions if someone constantly perceives threats around the corner. In addition, individuals who are chronically stressed are likely to exhibit increased cynicism, rigidity, sarcasm and irritability since they believe that their situation is not likely to improve.

Chronic stress also has significant behavioral consequences. The behavioral consequences often result from the innate survival urge we have to seek relief, to fight or to flee. Unfortunately, these relief-seeking behaviors eventually become problematic. For example, "addictive behaviors" can result from the repeated efforts to soothe or escape the painful stress. Alcohol, drugs, smoking and overeating are often seen as tools to help manage the stress even though their effects are short lived and the consequences of chronic use are destructive to the body and mind. Unfortunately the mind's ability to deny the long-term consequences in order to fill the short-term need to escape perpetuates the problem and increases the excessive use behavior. Similarly, procrastination, poor planning, excessive sleeping and the avoidance of responsibility are examples of behaviors used by stressed individuals to temporarily flee from the pain. What is most significant about these behaviors is their ability to generate additional problems that are as severe as the original stressor. For example, procrastination or avoidance of the management of a stressor only serves to increase anxiety and exacerbate the stress experience.

The stress consequences reviewed above suggest that in addition to being physically and psychologically distressing, they reduce the likelihood of effective goal reaching. The rationale for properly managing and coping with the stress is for health protection in the future as well as making the present more productive and satisfying.

Managing Stress

Since stress is an inevitable fact of life that we can't always prevent, our efforts need to be focused on coping with stress more effectively. What follows is a description of a three pronged approach to stress management which includes behavioral/practical techniques, relaxation techniques and cognitive/thinking techniques.

The behavioral/practical approaches to stress management include exercise and eating a healthy, balanced diet, which includes selections from the basic food groups. In addition, it is recommended that one avoid the excessive use of alcohol, caffeine and sugar, which contribute to fatigue and vulnerability to mood swings. It is also important to allow the body to rest and replenish to help inoculate the body against future stress. Building this stress resistance also includes scheduling time for leisure and pleasure, which provides for a more balanced, fulfilling life. Anticipating and preparing for recurrent stressors by managing time, setting priorities and limits, delegating responsibility, and not procrastinating are helpful stress reducing strategies. These techniques are effective stress management tools because their utilization is within our control.

The relaxation approaches to stress management include a variety of techniques designed to help you effectively manage the body/mind tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is an active form of relaxation where you individually contract the major muscle groups of your body for about five seconds and then you relax the individual muscle groups for a five second holds. The contrast experienced by this exercise relieves muscle tension and relaxes the body. Some of the more passive relaxation approaches include listening to music, reading and using saunas and hot tubs to relieve tension. Techniques used to relax the mind include meditation and visual imagery. Meditation teaches you how to clear the mind of stressful and distracting thoughts by focusing the mental energy on positive coping thoughts. Visual imagery is designed to help the individual visualize him/herself coping effectively with a stressor that was previously experienced as overwhelming. The behavioral and relaxation approaches described above are necessary but not sufficient conditions for stress management. The third prong to stress management, the cognitive or thinking approach, is essential to effective coping with stress.

The cognitive or thinking approaches are an integral part of coping effectively with stress and now the primary focus of many stress management programs. Since it has been determined that we can turn off the stress response by changing our threatening/dangerous event appraisals to appraisals that help us view these events as manageable challenges, we have a direct link to controlling the stress response. The first step in the cognitive approach is to identify our thoughts or internal dialog that is negative, perfectionist, black and white, rigid and demanding. In other words, you are more likely to experience stress if you believe that you, the world and other people "should or must" behave in a manner consistent with your demands and standards. For example, you are likely to experience stress if you believe that the world and your life should be stress free and that you do not have the resources to handle stress if it does occur. In addition, demands of perfection on yourself and on others important to you, increases the chance of feeling stressed since these expectations are unrealistic and rigid. After identifying your stress producing thoughts you are then able to move onto the second step in the cognitive approach; recognizing the consequences of this negative, rigid dialog.

The motivation to change the stress-producing dialog comes from the determination that there are serious consequences that result form these negative, rigid thoughts. When you talk to yourself in a defeated, pessimistic or rigid way, you deny your ability to cope and are not likely to manage situations effectively or meet goals you set. In addition, perfectionist demands are experienced as appropriately unrealistic and contribute to a "why bother" attitude. This attitude reduces the likelihood that you will address these demands since it is a realistic fact that no one or nothing is ever perfect. Once you are convinced that the dialog is negative and counterproductive, you are ready to move on to the third step in the cognitive approach; challenging and replacing the negative internal dialog with a healthier, more productive internal dialog.

This important step in the reappraisal process requires that you challenge your rigid dialog by asking yourself a series of questions about that rigid dialog. For example, "Why must I perform perfectly in order to believe I am a valuable human being?" In addition, "Does that demand for perfection increase my anxiety and reduce the likelihood that I perform well at all?" "What would I feel like and would I be more motivated if I changed my demand for perfection to a desire to do well?" Another example of this reappraisal process can be seen in the area of criticism and rejection. A negative internal dialog that would create stress in this area is "I am worthless because I was rejected and this proves that no one will ever love me." A healthy challenge to this belief would be, "How does the opinion of this person reflect my personal worth?' "How does it follow that this rejection will lead to future rejections?" It is also important to add, " Even if I were to get rejected repeatedly, could I work to make desired changes in my personality without condemning myself or feeling worthless?" By replacing the negative, rigid dialog with more realistic, flexible dialog, you are more likely to feel healthier emotionally and behave more rationally and productively.

The behavioral, relaxation and cognitive techniques described above have been determined to be effective ways to manage and cope more effectively with stress. The techniques give the control back to the individual and empower him/her to manage the inevitable stressors that will occur in life.

Conclusion

It is desirable to employ professional HR Professionals with knowledge of Human Psychology in BPO units/call centers. The services offered by professionals may not be felt in the initial stages. Companies like Tata, L&T, MICO and few others have employed professionals in their factories. The professionals can do wonders in BPO sectors as well. People are the backbone of BPO industry and it is certain that professional HR or Human Psychologist can make inroad in this emerging organization and facilitate the growth of organization in an immense way.

Source and Links:

1) http://bpmwatch.com <link updated to site home>

2) www.contactcenterworld.com

3) http://columbia.edu <link updated to site home>

4) Inputs and Research Done by Virgin Management Consultancy

5) SweatShops - Perspectives and Cases by ICFAI, Hyderabad


Looking forward to your comments and Feedback.

Regards

Sanjeev Sharma

(Blog: http://sanjeevhimachali.blogspot.com/)

Fonebell offering best and affordable Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) System, call management, call center software solutions, cloud telephony services and more.
Fonebell Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) | New Delhi, India - 110058 | 1800 3000 1127

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