Due to the invaluable contribution of the Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) employees to the country’s economy, the Department of Health (DOH) today enters into partnership with Johnson and Johnson (J&J) in addressing the health challenges of call center agents, estimated to have reached a nationwide total of 1.3 million in 2016. Additionally, the BPO industry is said to be among the fastest growing sectors in the Philippines.

“These BPO employees represent a significant portion of our country’s workforce today, thus it is imperative that we address every health risk that they face in their work including lack of sleep, job-related stress which they try to counteract with unhealthy lifestyles, among others” says Health Secretary Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubial. “These are all risk factors that can lead to serious health conditions, such as respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mental health diseases,” she further added.

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. The study referred to a study by a certain Amante in 2010 that found “high levels of stress common in the BPO sector, particularly in contact centres.” 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 had to respond to at least 91 per cent of these calls within 22 seconds, and then were given 5–6 minutes to address clients’ requests,” the paper said.

Health problems that were often encountered by employees included 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 pointed as the prime cause of stress by BPO employees.

The same paper said that 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 (UPPI), that showed “Philippine workers in contact centres, compared to workers in other sectors, faced a higher probability of exposure to HIV/AIDS; the stress they experienced in the workplace, among other factors, could encourage risky sexual behaviour.”

Another study cited was an ILO-funded study by the Department of Psychology, Ateneo de Manila University validated the prevalence of risky behaviours among contact centre 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.

Thus, the DOH and Johnson & Johnson forged a partnership to address the Filipino BPO agents’ health and wellness through the establishment of the BPO Healthcare Program. The program aims to provide quality healthcare information to every agent so that they can make better health choices. One strategy to achieve this is through the training of healthcare 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 importantly, 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 Mr. Jeffrey Go stated.

The BPO Healthcare Program will be implemented starting the last quarter of this year and will comprise different activities aimed at ensuring that every BPO agent has access to quality healthcare 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.