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Telemarketers Have Vocal Hang-Ups

Study finds them more prone to voice problems

MONDAY, May 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Some might call it poetic justice, but telemarketers appear more likely than the rest of us to suffer strained vocal cords.

In fact, Nebraska researchers found telemarketers were twice as likely to complain of hoarseness and lost voice than were community college students who didn't wag their tongues for a living. Almost a third said those symptoms affected their work, frequently causing them to repeat themselves or speak more forcefully.

"It's repetitive motion of the vocal cords," says study author Katherine Jones, a researcher at the University of Nebraska in Omaha -- a place she calls the "telemarketing capital" of the world.

"You can't lift boxes eight hours a day, and not expect to be at risk for back injuries. And you can't type at a computer for eight hours a day, and not expect to be at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome," she explains.

Similarly, there's no reason to think that talking all day long would be any less stressful, Jones says.

The study appears in the current issue of the Archives of Otolaryngology -- Head & Neck Surgery, though the findings were first reported at a meeting last September.

An earlier study found that while telemarketers made up less than 0.8 percent of the workforce in 1994, they accounted for 2.3 percent of the patient load in voice clinics -- suggesting those in the trade are three times as likely as the rest of the population to suffer ailing vocal cords.

In the new work, Jones and her colleagues surveyed 304 telemarketers at six companies, and used another 187 college students as a comparison group.

All the volunteers were asked about their history of voice problems, including 14 questions concerning symptoms of vocal attrition -- a fancy name for wear-and-tear on the larynx.

More than two-thirds of the telemarketers (68 percent) and almost half (48 percent) of the students reported at least one sign of vocal attrition, the researchers found.

Smoking can erode a solid voice, and many telemarketers were smokers. However, after accounting for this and other variables, the researchers found the phone workers were twice as likely as the college students to report at least one sign of vocal attrition.

"If you would take two people of the same age, the same gender, the same smoking status and the same education, if one was a telemarketer they would be twice as likely to have a voice problem," Jones says.

Thirty-one percent of all phone workers said their voice problem had hurt their productivity on the job. Often the condition muted their enthusiasm for selling whatever product they were pitching.

Female telemarketers were more likely than their male counterparts to report voice trouble, as were those who took decongestants, antidepressants and other drugs that dry out the throat.

The good news, the researchers say, was the vocal troubles didn't seem serious enough to disrupt telemarketers' relationships.

"That's a pretty severe problem when you don't want to talk to your family and friends," Jones says.

Dr. Rebecca Gaughan, a throat specialist familiar with the research, calls the results surprising.

"Most people think that if you just talk in a regular voice but use your voice more, you won't have vocal problems," Gaughan says.

Telemarketers "usually aren't screaming at people" the way coaches and teachers, who are notoriously prone to voice box woes, are apt to do, she explains.

Although vocal attrition is generally reversible, prolonged damage to the larynx can leave callous-like nodules that never go away, along with permanent hoarseness.

Yet problems can be prevented, she adds. Drinking plenty of water each day -- at least 32 ounces before noon -- will amply hydrate the vocal cords. Giving up smoking and exercising regularly will also help.

Jones also suggests eschewing coffee and other caffeinated drinks for plain water.

Kathryn Barber, a board member of the American Teleservices Association -- which represents the telemarketing industry -- says her group was "very intrigued" by the new findings.

"A study like this is interesting to look at and understand if there aren't ways to mitigate" the problem, if one exists, Barber says.

Roughly a quarter of working Americans have jobs for which their voice is critical, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

What To Do: For more on voice problems and what to do about them, try the University of Pittsburgh or the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

SOURCES: Katherine Jones, M.S., doctoral student, department of preventive and societal medicine, University of Nebraska, Omaha; Rebecca Gaughan, M.D., Olathe, Kan.; Kathryn Barber, Barber Communications, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.; May 2002 Archives of Otolaryngology -- Head & Neck Surgery
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