A campaign to keep BPO agents healthy

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Voice Your Care aims to create behavioral change that would encourage agents to seek treatment and opt for a healthier lifestyle by doling out information to agencies and putting together workshops and seminars for health care practitioners. Illustration by JL JAVIER.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are currently an estimated 1.15 million Business Process Outsourcing workers, and the BPO industry is set to keep growing over the next few years. Many working age Filipinos turn to the industry for the abundance of jobs that it offers, especially those whom their families depend on for financial support.

However, with the often unconventional schedules, long hours, and demands for productivity, many workers are at risk for various health conditions, resulting in an overall decline in health among BPO employees. For former Department of Health (DOH) secretary Dr. Paulyn Ubial, a big part of the problem is poor health literacy.

What is ‘health literacy’?

Health literacy is described as “the ability to obtain, access and understand health information, and use services to make appropriate health decisions.” At a health forum in 2014, Philippine College of Physicians president Dr. Anthony Leachon pointed out that health literacy also meant complying with doctors’ and health officials’ advice.

In a media roundtable discussion for Voice Your Care, an advocacy campaign by Johnson & Johnson (Philippines), in partnership with the DOH, that is centered on promoting health and wellness within the BPO sector of the Philippines, Ubial talks about the importance of health literacy, not just in the BPO industry, but in the country as a whole. She shares that, whereas the DOH’s focus in previous years was to provide health services and ensure health insurance for all, the DOH’s Philippine Health Agenda for 2016 - 2022, “All For Health Towards Health For All,” is to have a more preventive attitude, rather than a curative one.

Such is the essence of the Voice Your Care campaign, which consists of on-ground activities and workshops with healthcare practitioners with the aim of teaching doctors and nurses assigned to BPO’s on the best practices to address industry-specific ailments. The website is also being built to serve as a resource of information that agents can visit when they have health concerns.

Why the BPO industry in particular?

While working on his passion project, “Duty Calls,” in 2016, Voice Your Care project lead Karlo Patron found that voice attrition — one of the most common illnesses experienced by call center agents — was just the tip of the iceberg.

“When we [would] come to these BPO agents, we realized that because of the conditions they're in, because of the lifestyle that they're exposed to, they're also prone to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, psychosocial disorders, even depression,” says Patron. The “lifestyle” he refers to is a combination of stress, lack of proper sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet, and not actively maintaining or checking up on one’s health.

In a study entitled, ‘Business Process Outsourcing in the Philippines: Challenges for Decent Work,’ it is stated that night shifts are one of the biggest contributors to disruptions in work-life balance. This can affect a person’s physical and psychological health.

Ubial points out that most of these conditions are preventable, if not, manageable. Workers just need to be made aware of the risk factors and have better access to opportunities to prevent and manage them.

By doling out information to agencies and putting together workshops and seminars for health care practitioners working at BPO companies, the Voice Your Care team hopes that the project can create behavioral change that would encourage agents to seek treatment and opt for a healthier lifestyle.

“It's a push type of thing. You're pushing the information to them. Not waiting for them to ask the questions and then you give the answers,” says Ubial.

Another reason for the project’s focus on the BPO industry is its status as a relatively young, non-traditional sector, making it an underserved sector by the government when it comes to health efforts. Pursuing the project can lead not just to the care of 1.15 million Filipinos, but to more insight in public health service.

“That's the beauty of public health. If there is a strategy or an advocacy we documented ... we're saving lives, not just individuals but population groups at a time,” says Ubial. "If we did this in the BPO sector and saw that there was really an improvement in the health and reduction in the illnesses, then we can copy or make use of this model for other sector and other segments of Philippine society.”

Maintaining your health

At the roundtable discussion, Ubial stresses that everyone, not just BPO agents, must take on a more active role in taking care of their health. Avoiding risk factors is one way to do it.

“Our main message to the BPO industry and also industries surrounding the BPO industry, is the 4 H for health,” says Ubial. “Healthy diet, have proper sleep and regular exercise, heed rules — no smoking, moderate alcohol [consumption], wear your helmet when driving motorcycles, wear your seatbelt — and hygiene.”

Due to rapid industrialization and modernization, people are more at risk for certain illnesses today than they were years ago, says Ubial, thus the need for regular check ups as well.

“Patterns that we saw before are no longer true, so we really have to change the way we also do things. Like, before, we would recommend that when you're 40 years old or older to have annual check up, when you're below 40, [have a] check up every three or four years. But now the recommendation is really to have annual check up as early as possible. When you're 14 or 15, annual check up na. Because, really, there are a lot of diseases that are silent or asymptomatic. You don't know that you have them until you get examined.”

The former DOH secretary points out the government’s efforts towards universal health care — there are already policies in place that make annual check ups in government agencies mandatory.

“The policy with the Civil Service Commission, that all offices should have in their budget, it's a line item that all employees will have annual checkups … So we kind of standardized that and we mandated all agencies of government to put that in their budget. That's part of the Philippine Health Agenda, [that] all Filipinos should have an annual checkup,” she says.

Patron adds that private companies and BPOs have their own established health programs, and it’s just a matter of disseminating information. “Our goal [at Voice Your Care] is to really make sure that 1.3 million call center agents have access to this information. We don't want them to have to go to Google and search.”