Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Prosperity and its perils in the outsourcing hotspot

Steel-and-glass office buildings and sprawling corporate campuses are taking shape to handle the flood of new businesses and employees. Major players like IBM, Oracle and Intel are here, as are promising start-ups. At Sony World and Bose, techies are landing lucrative service gigs. It may sound like yesterday's Silicon Valley, but it's very much the present—in the high-tech mecca of Bangalore.

Booming Bangalore represents the Indian economy in fast-forward, one that is growing at more than 8% annually, double the rate of the U.S.'s. Of course, India is still poor by comparison—average annual per capita income is a mere $480 nationally. But the outsourcing wave from the U.S. has provided an outlet for the thousands of technically astute, English-speaking graduates pouring out of India's √©lite universities. These kids are earning—and spending—as never before.

But an economic party like this one has its hangovers, such as BOSS, or burnout stress syndrome, another Valley-like feature now found in Bangalore. When Ranit Bhalla, 25, a software engineer, joined tech giant Wipro four years ago, the work was so intense he often found himself sleeping and even bathing at the office. "For most of us who pushed hard to get ahead, we lived, ate and breathed our jobs," he says. After six months of 16-hour workdays, 3 a.m. dinners and gastric problems, his exhausted body finally gave out. He spent 15 days in a hospital and then needed counseling. Three out of 14 of the workers in his unit similarly burned out. Doctors cite high levels of substance addiction and relationship breakdowns among IT workers. "If you look at the stress levels in that environment and the hours they keep, you begin to see why these things happen," says Dr. Achal Bhagat, a psychiatrist at New Delhi's Apollo Hospital.

It's no easier on workers at the call centers that handle U.S. customer-service complaints. In a recent survey by India's Dataquest magazine, 40% said they suffered from sleep disorders, and 34% complained of digestive problems. "It's a tough life," says Shruti Kaushik, 21, an IBM call-center employee. Kaushik took the job seven months ago "to make some easy money," about $160 a month. But the credit-collection work isn't easy. "Things get monotonous; there are rude customers," she says. Combine those factors with the 10- to 12-hour night shifts that Indian IT workers pull so they can stay in synch with U.S. daytime hours—India is 10 1/2 hours ahead of Eastern time—and "it reduces life to a vacuum," says Bhagat. "Where's the time to lead a normal existence?"

To help alleviate stress, Wipro and other IT firms have hired dietitians and yoga and meditation teachers. But the outsourcing industry has a 60% rate of employee turnover per year. "I work hard, but this is no life," says Kaushik. Her solution: "I'm going to quit soon." It's a luxury most Indians would never have dreamed of.

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