Rahul Rajan, a 21-year-old associate with a Bangalore-based call centre that services only US-based clients, has been on a 9-hour night shift—between 8.30pm and 5.30am—continuously for the past 10 weeks. Every night, he logs on to his system to find out the predetermined break time set for him. “We have two 15-minute breaks and one half-hour break in a full shift. That means, if I eat a meal at midnight one day, the next day it can be scheduled only at 4am. How can I possibly maintain good eating habits in such a situation?” asks Rajan.
When he leaves home at 6.45pm, it is too early to catch dinner at home and “when I reach at 6am, it is unreasonable to expect my parents to have a meal waiting for me,” he says. Rajan gets no time to exercise—during the day, he is trying to catch some sleep in between keeping up with friends. “This is not a sector I see myself building a career in,” says the youngster.
It is a story familiar to legions of workers in the booming outsourcing industry, estimated to employ around 1.6 million Indians. Young professionals in sectors such as law, accounting and business management are either working 10-14 hours in a day or are on shifts where the circadian rhythms of sleep and food are constantly being altered. “As they earn more and have less time, young Indians are eating more calorie-dense food with little or no physical activity. Improper eating habits are the reason for many health issues,” says Swarupa Kakani, chief nutritionist at Bangalore’s Sagar Apollo Hospital.
Adds Sheela Krishnaswamy, managing partner and founder of Niche, a Bangalore-based nutrition consulting firm that has counselled more than 6,000 employees in the business process outsourcing and information technology sectors, “Weight management, which includes both underweight and overweight problems, are the most common cases we come across.”
Kakani says the common problems she encounters are expanding waistlines, abdominal obesity, indigestion and belching, among others. She says, “Twenty-three-year-olds weighing over 90kg, suffering from hypertension, are common in these sectors.”
Nutritionists say disciplined focus on what you eat, backed by a steady exercise regimen, is the only way to deal with work schedules that stretch across time zones. For an adult woman with a sedentary lifestyle, Krishnaswamy recommends a daily calorie intake of 1,600-1,800, and between 1,800 calories and 2,000 calories for men. “A nutritionally well-balanced meal must have 60-65% of calories from complex carbohydrates, 20% from fat and 15% from proteins,” she says. Kakani adds that eating disorders normally start when more than 35-40% of total calorie intake comes from fatty foods.
Many nutritionists say that when working on a night shift, you must treat night as day and eat three meals as you would during a normal working day: That means breakfast by 8pm, before you go to office, lunch at midnight, and then a light meal in the early hours just before the end of the shift. “You must treat night as day and ensure that you sleep for 7-8 hours during the day,” says Krishnaswamy.
Facilities manager in a Bangalore-based retail and facilities consulting firm
This Bangalore-based hotel and catering management graduate is nursing a sty in her eye these days: it is an infection that recurs at the end of every cycle of night shifts at work. Posted at client sites by her employer, for the past 18 months her workplace has been a large multinational business process outsourcing firm where she works on a cycle of four different shifts in a month.
The constant work pressure has led to steady weight loss, thinning hair and a spate of allergies that break out on her hands and face. “It isn’t the lack of good food, but with sleep and work cycles changing every week, I just do not have the appetite to sit down and eat a proper meal,” says Manogna.
This slightly built youngster starts work at four different time slots in a month—starting from 6am in the first week to 9am in the second, 2pm in the third and, finally, 10pm in the fourth week (on which shift she will sign off at 6am until the cycle begins all over again).
“There are days when I just can’t eat the standard fare in the office and end up walking across to a Darshini (Indian-style fast food served at stand-and-eat restaurants) to eat oily vadas and dosas that do me no good,” says Manogna, who is now looking for a regular day job.
NEENA DINESH, 25
Bangalore-based corporate lawyer
Twenty-five-year-old Neena Dinesh’s job profile required her to interact with US-based clients, providing legal counsel and support to set up operations in India. Her normal work day extended to 14 hours, and after signing off from work at 11pm, she would log on to her laptop at home to draft reports or answer emails late into the night. At work, she snacked on high-calorie biscuits and cakes between client calls, eating out at nearby restaurants between meetings. “Unnatural weight gain and expanding waistlines was a common feature at work and we lobbied to have a private catering service bring in home-cooked lunch for the office to improve our meal profiles,” says Dinesh.
Despite these efforts, she continued to gain weight and earlier in the year, had to take a four-week break following a stress-induced illness. Finally, in December, Dinesh quit her high-paying job and is now in search of a position that will help her balance personal health and fitness issues with a satisfying career.
On the health front too, Dinesh is sure about taking a number of corrective measures. She says: “I didn’t pay much attention to my health for the two and a half years that I was working. I kept telling myself that I should take home food to office, but that never happened. Now I am more serious about my health. To begin with, now I walk for an hour every day without fail.”
PAVAN JACOB PAUL, 23
Quality control coach at a Gurgaon-based BPO
In less than eight months on the job, Pavan Jacob Paul moved up the ladder from just taking calls to being responsible for the overall quality process. “It takes two years for a fresher to move up to a senior position such as this,” says Paul, who brings the same attention to detail that he shows at work to managing his personal fitness.
Employed by a BPO firm in Gurgaon, where he works on a process for UK-based clients, Paul is fortunate to work on just two shifts: morning or afternoon. His firm allows a full day off between shifts to let employees acclimatize to changed work schedules. And while on a night shift, Paul is particular that he eats three meals, just as he would during a normal working day: He has a light snack before his shift begins at 9pm (that works as breakfast); eats a full meal at midnight (which is lunch on a working day), and finally ends the shift at dawn with a light meal before he nods for 8 hours of undisturbed sleep.
“I am particular about what I eat and how much I sleep on the five days a week that I am at work,” says Paul, who exercises for a minimum of 1 hour every weekday, regardless of what shift he is placed on. He adds: “The responsibility lies with the employers. They should ensure that the office cafeteria is well-managed so that employees don’t feel the need to binge on junk food.”
(Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint)
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