Telemarketers Talk Too Much

Telemarketers working, on texture, partial graphic, 1-23-02
Telemarketers are losing their voices, new research suggests.

That could mean fewer interrupting phone calls at dinnertime, but the news isn't good for people whose paychecks depend on their voices.

In a survey by University of Nebraska scientists, telemarketers were twice as likely to report vocal problems as non-telemarketers. About a third reported their work was hampered by an average of five symptoms, including loss of voice, hoarseness, voice-cracking and dry throat.

It's a problem serious enough to cause many to make fewer phone calls, the researchers said, comparing the damage to risks faced by singers, teachers and others who use their voices professionally.

"Whether or not we're all happy that telemarketers are suffering a little bit for calling us at odd hours," the study "is really about voice" and could be applied to other people whose jobs depend on their voices, said Dr. Jason Sigmon, an ear, nose and throat specialist and study co-author.

The findings, based on a survey of 304 telemarketing employees, are published in May's Archives of Otolaryngology.

Results were compared with surveys of 187 college students similar in age and education status who didn't work as telemarketers.

In both groups, vocal problems were more common among smokers and women. Smoking irritates the vocal cords and women's throat anatomy, including smaller voice boxes makes them more prone to vocal problems than men, Sigmon said.

Sigmon said a common problem among telemarketers is speaking too loud, which strains their larynx muscles.

Portland, Ore., speech pathologist Barbie Scott, who was not involved in the study, said telemarketers also tend to artificially lower the pitch of their voices "so that presumably they will sound more authoritative."

That also causes vocal strain.

"You can't expect to have a vital voice very long...and commit these bad vocal sins," Scott said.

Sigmon said most telemarketing vocal problems are preventable and reversible.

Drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding smoking and giving the voice a rest can help restore the vocal cords.

"Overusing something definitely contributes to the risk of damage," said Dr. Ken Altman, director of the Center for Voice at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, whose patients have included telemarketers.

He said the study "is important because it puts a number on a problem that we all know and recognize. It helps quantify the severity of the problem."

By Lindsey Tanner