The Department of Health (DOH) has partnered with Johnson and Johnson (J&J) to address the health challenges of call-center agents, estimated to have reached a nationwide total of 1.3 million in 2016.
Health Secretary Paulyn Jean B. Rosell-Ubial also noted that the business-process outsourcing (BPO) industry is considered one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Philippines and it is “imperative to address every health risk of the employees”.
“These BPO employees represent a significant portion of the country’s work force today, thus it is imperative that we address every health risk that they face in their work, including lack of sleep and job-related stress that they try to counteract with unhealthy lifestyles, among others. These are all risk factors that can lead to serious health conditions, “ Ubial said, citing illnesses such as respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mental-health diseases.
Thus, the DOH and Johnson & Johnson forged a partnership on October 6 to address the Filipino BPO agents’ health and wellness through the establishment of the BPO Healthcare Program. The program aims to provide quality health-care information to every agent so they can make better health choices. One strategy to achieve this is through the training of health-care professionals with BPO-specific health modules. This will help them provide better diagnosis and, consequently, improve health outcomes among BPO employees.
“BPO agents are among the hardest working employees. Their work makes a difference in helping the country and, more important, uplifting their families. Our goal is to make sure we start a conversation with every BPO agent and help them live healthier and more vibrant lives,” President and Managing Director of J&J Philippines Jeffrey Go said.
The BPO Healthcare Program will be implemented starting in the last quarter of this year and will comprise different activities aimed at ensuring that every BPO agent has access to quality health-care information either through their doctors or nurses, or through digital platforms directed at them. The program will be sustained through 2018 with the ultimate vision of engaging every single BPO agent throughout the country.
The International Labor Organization Asia-Pacific Working Paper Series featured a study, entitled “Business Process Outsourcing in the Philippines: Challenges for Decent Work”, conducted by Lorenza Errighi, Charles Bodwell and Sameer Khatiwada in December 2016. It referred to another study in 2010 that found “high levels of stress common in the BPO sector, particularly in contact centers”. It further said that, on the average, call-center agents entertained 78 calls each per day that could go up to 100 calls on a busy day. “Agents have to respond to at least 91 percent of these calls within 22 seconds, and then were given five to six minutes to address clients’ requests,” the paper said.
Health problems that were often encountered by employees include headache, fatigue, eye strain, chest and back pain and voice problems. Aside from these, a contributing factor is that, since most of the country’s BPO operations served American and European clients, employees had to work night shifts because of the time-zone difference. Night work can cause disruptions in employees’ work-life balance and affect their psychological well-being. Another is harassment from irate clients, which was cited as the prime cause of stress by BPO employees.
The same paper said the BPO sector had a higher incidence of HIV/AIDS than other sectors. It cited a 2010 study, entitled “Lifestyle and Reproductive Health Issues of Young Professionals in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu”, conducted by the University of the Philippines Population Institute, which showed “Philippine workers in contact centers, compared to workers in other sectors, faced a higher probability of exposure to HIV/AIDS; the stress they experience in the workplace, among other factors, could encourage risky sexual behavior.”
Another study cited was an ILO-funded study by the Department of Psychology of Ateneo de Manila University, which validated the prevalence of risky behaviors among contact center workers, including early sexual activity, infrequent condom use and promiscuity (Melgar et al., 2009).
These employees need to be provided with accurate and relevant information to fully equip them in dealing with these health challenges. Since the BPO sector is a recent phenomenon, they are considered special pockets of the population unreached by the health system. Under the Philippine Health Agenda, one of the guarantees is health services for all life stages and against the triple burden of disease. As the DOH is in the last mile of the race to achieve universal health care, the focus is on reaching the unreached, like these BPO employees, and providing them with basic health services such as the annual check-up.