Outsourcing stress and strife: Where are India’s EAPs?

I’m a big fan of the Chicago Public Radio’s This America Life hosted by Ira Glass. A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast titled The Competition.

The podcast included a segment about a company in Oklahoma that hired skilled, experienced welders in India and brought them to the United States in order to compete with foreign companies by establishing an overseas factory with cheap labor in this very country. Unfortunately the company took their passports, barely fed them, and only paid them half the minimum wage. And when the men protested, the company insisted they were helping them, saving them from their peasant lives in India (which wasn’t their lives at all).

Good God, I thought. How can this crap happen here in the U.S.? Yes, I know – I’m not that naïve; we hear about the exploitation of cheap labor every day, especially with Mexican immigrant workers. I grew up in California’s Central Valley, where Caesar Chavez’s legacy still fights for the rights of these workers. (Please note this post isn’t about the pros or cons of unionizing a workforce, regardless of where you grew up or what your ethnicity is. Nor is this about illegal immigration.)

Most of us may give the plight of these workers a cursory empathetic nod, but the reality is these folks don’t have the same benefits and support resources that many of us do.

Take EAPs for instance. Employee Assistance Programs originally began to address occupational alcohol prevention problems in the 1950s and 1960s; as they expanded to tackle a variety of employee issues, they evolved into the role of counselors. Managers referred EAPs to handle all manner of personal problems, providing early identification and intervention. That early growth led to the addition of a wider range of problem-solving programs to further expand EAPs’ effectiveness.

But unless you’re a “legitimate employee” working for an organization that offers EAP benefits, you have very limited counseling and support resources.

So what about over in India? According to a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News titled India's outsourcing industry faces growing health problems, “Call centers and other outsourced businesses such as software writing, medical transcription and back-office work employ more than 1.6 million young men and women in India, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who make much more than their contemporaries in most other professions.”

But, because of the sedentary lifestyle combined with often very stressful working conditions for these employees in India, “They are facing sleep disorders, heart disease, depression and family discord, according to doctors and several industry surveys.”

This is disturbing. We don’t think much of the human toll outsourcing takes. The article goes on to talk about how heart disease, strokes and diabetes cost India an estimated $9 billion in lost productivity in 2005. And sadly the losses could grow to a staggering $200 billion over the next 10 years if corrective action is not taken quickly, said a study by New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. It also warned that the outsourcing industry would be hardest hit.

Compare this to 2006 report from the Partnership for Workplace Health titled, "A Mentally Healthy Workforce – It’s Good for Business" that revealed mental illness and substance abuse annually cost employers in indirect costs an estimated $80 to $100 billion, while individuals who are depressed but not receiving care for their condition consume two to four times the healthcare resources of other enrollees; workers with depression cost employers $44 billion annually in lost productive time.

We sadly continue to win the unhealthy workforce trophy, but many U.S. companies, including HR suppliers, outsource some type of labor to India to save money – software development, data entry, call center, and other back-office work. The future impact to productivity and bottom lines is obvious.

But there is hope. A counseling company was set up in India six years ago called 1to1help and counsels 60-70 people a day. Companies like Infosys Technologies Ltd. have also set up 24-hour help lines for counseling by psychologists.

I wonder if some of the U.S. players in the work life/EAP space are looking to expand into foreign markets like India.

They should. God knows they need the help because the global economy ain’t getting any smaller and neither is the workload.

Posted by Kevin Grossman

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