Toxic Work

Work-related health problems such as sleep disorder and fatigue which afflict nearly half of workers in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry increase the risk of depression, a Cebu-based mental health expert warned yesterday.

Dr Glenda Basubas, Cebu chapter head of the Philippine Mental Health Association, no one is insulated from depression, not even people who are perceived to be “happy”.“You can never say that when a person is jolly, he or she is not depressed,” she told Cebu Daily News. Basubas made the statement as the incident involving the alleged suicide of call center agent Ernie Antigua Jr. continue to grip Cebu's BPO community. Antigua, 24 reportedly jumped to his death shortly after midnight Saturday at the i2 Building at Cebu I.T. Park in barangay Lahug, Cebu City.

Based on messages posted on his social networking site account, he was despondent over a failed romance. Police said he left behind a six-page suicide note, which the victim's family members handed over to homicide investigators. Antigua's friends described him as a “very positive” and “jolly” person. “Lingaw gyud kaayo na siya jud. Komedyante ug dili na siya hilomon (He was a fun person to be with. He was always joking around. He wasn't the silent type),” said an aunt whom CDN earlier interviewed on condition she not be named.

Dr. Basubas however, explained that the resilience factor to adjust in difficult situations varies among people. But she highlighted the importance of enough rest and social interaction to mitigate any possible depression. “Lahi ra man gyod ang pahuway sa gabii (A night's rest is still different),” she told CDN. Basubas said that a person who lacks sleep or suffer from a sleep disorder can become irritable which is also one of the symptoms of depression. A 2010 study conducted by the International Labor Organization on BPO workers in the Philippines concluded that a significant percentage of workers employed in the country’s BPO sector are suffering from work-related health problems.

“[The study] reveals that 42.6 percent of BPO employees in the Philippines work the night shift, which is associated with occupational safety and health concerns, such as sleep disorders, fatigue, eye strain; neck, shoulder and back pains; and voice problems," the ILO study said. The study, titled “Offshoring and Working Conditions in Remote Work," written by Jon Messenger, a senior researcher at the Conditions of Work and Employment Programme of the ILO, said 47.7 percent of Filipino BPO workers surveyed suffer from insomnia, while 54 percent are suffering from fatigue.

The study also indicated that BPO workers have less freedom, and are constantly under “high levels" of stress. “Workers, especially in call centers, have also relatively low autonomy. Their jobs typically involve heavy workloads backed by performance targets and tight rules and procedures enforced by electronic monitoring which are known to produce high levels of workrelated stress," it said.

Some of the stress-inducing factors mentioned in the study were harassment from irate clients, excessive and tedious workload, performance demands, monotony, and regular night work. Another negative aspect of the BPO industry is the high rate of staff turnover, which can reach as high as 100 percent or more annually in some countries, according to the study.

Basubas said with most call center agents just fresh out of college, the way they cope with work-related stress further drives them to more serious health problems.

“Ang uban kay modirecho na og laag, wa pay pahuway, Mag-inom. Alcohol is a depressant baya (Some would go hang out straight from work without even taking a rest. Some resort to drinking and alcohol is a depressant),” she said.

Basubas also said that the with the advent of social media, people nowadays especially the younger ones would rather communicate virtually rather than having person-to-person contact.

“The tendency is they tend to depend more on their social media accounts. They forget the closeness and the quality of the relationship, only on the quantity,” Basubas said.

She said industries should factor in mental healthcare in their employee wellness programs. “We should advocate for mental health and remove the stigma that whenever one seeks professional help, the person is already crazy. The person should approach professionals for help,” she said. A human resource management expert consulting with Cebu-based BPO firms however, disagreed that the work environment drove Antigua to reportedly take his own life.

“No, I don't believe it has something to do with work. I see it more as a generational issue. Millenials have different coping mechanisms than those in the older generation,” the source, who requested to remain unnamed for professional reasons. The source is not connected with the BPO firm where Antigua works. “We are dealing with a generation of workers who constantly crave for instant gratification and if they don't get what they want in an instant, they snap and leave,” the source added.

The source said he had advised his client-firm to factor in spirituality and values formation in their HR programs to help “repair the generational gaps”. “We have instructed our team leaders to always engage with the agents on a more personal basis to find out if they're really OK. The staff also know that we have an open door policy, they're free to come in and talk to us and we're ready to listen,” the source said.

The source said many BPO firms in Cebu already have a “welcoming environment” but managers could not do anything with factors outside of work.“There are a lot of triggers for depression. These are young people. They get paid more, but they work at the time their friends are partying. But they should realize that in the professional world, there are choices to be made,” the source said.

2014 Cebu Daily News by Apple Ta-as CORRESPONDENT


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