Happy talking

Ensuring staff are happy by bringing variety into mundane
work situations is one way of relieving workplace stress. But how are call
centre operators going about it?  By DeeDee
Doke

To offshore, or not to offshore? For many UK businesses, whether or not to
send their call centres off to exotic locales is the most important question.
Measuring the health of their call centre workers’ health, however, is another
matter entirely.

Consider this statement posted recently on the internet forum for call
centre workers, HeadsetHell.com: "No matter how healthy you think you may
be," wrote a call centre worker, "after a few weeks of working in a
call centre, you will begin to notice recurring ailments that will eventually
plague you for the rest of your working life."

From stress-induced mouth ulcers to voice strain, and from depression to
hearing problems, call centre staff find that a variety of occupation-linked
hazards threaten their mental and physical health.

In a November 2003 study by the University of Sheffield, the Health and
Safety Laboratory and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and
Technology (UMIST) for the Health & Safety Executive, researchers reported
that working in a call centre was more generally stressful than working in
other jobs. Occupational health experts who regularly work with the UK’s call
centres agree that stress is a critical problem in this industry.

"The main reason I see people for sickness absence is actually
stress," says Joyce Innes, lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University and
an occupational health nurse at a call centre for more than two years. "It
seems to come from a combination of factors." (see stress box.)

Research shows that such problems are not confined to the UK. A 2003 Swedish
report on call centre health issues reported that most respondents were or had
suffered from physical ailments that often led to sleep difficulties. Stress
problems were also recorded in the survey of 1,200 Swedish call centre
operators at 28 companies. The Swedish survey involved the National Institute
for Working Life, the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at
Vasternorrland County Council, and the Karolinska Institute’s Institute for
Psychosocial Medicine.

The news from the call centre frontline is not all bleak, however. In recent
years, forward-thinking UK employers have acknowledged, and begun to act on
health issues facing their call centre workplaces – if not only for purely
humanitarian reasons, but also for the impact stress exerts on the bottom line.

Take Capital One. In 2002, despite being ranked one of the UK’s top
employers of choice, the financial services company found itself with higher
than benchmark voluntary attrition rates. To convince senior management that
the business could save hundreds of thousands of pounds if attrition could be
cut, high-level HR managers within the company built and ‘sold’ a business case
to conduct a ‘stress audit’. Part of the business case involved establishing
the cost of stress to the company in terms of productivity and attrition.

Stress diaries were kept for two weeks by 108 Capital One employees, of whom
55 per cent were frontline call handlers, 17 per cent were frontline managers
and 28 per cent were senior managers. The diary entries proved the point, and
the hypothesis that launched the survey – ‘Stress is one of the underlying
causes of attrition and employment dissatisfaction. Additionally, there is a
risk of manager burnout’ – was found to be credible.

As a result, Capital One developed a three-tiered approach to interventions
and impact. At the primary level, the company trialled ‘stress resilience
recruitment tests’ and aimed to diversify its workforce; among its other tools,
it also incorporated a stress awareness programme into employee orientation and
for its manager development, evaluated and redesigned its in-house courses to
include conflict resolution, effective delegation, team development and basic
counselling. Chill-out rooms were added.

The secondary level included anger management courses, relaxation sessions
and a stress resilience programme for managers. The final layer involved
manager referrals to an employee assistance programme provider and specific
‘return to work’ action plans for stress-related absences, among other
offerings.

Positive results were reported in the months after the stress audit, and
after the sharing of information with the company’s employees. Today, Capital
One says key managers involved with that survey have left the company, and will
not comment on issues such as current attrition rates or recruitment practices.
However, the company continues to see benefits from the project nearly two
years later, according to spokesman Ian Lockhart.

"We’ve done a lot of work around trying different workplace solutions,
and looking at the different ways people use their workspace," says
Lockhart. Flatscreen PCs have been installed at workstations, which emit less
heat than the larger monitors, and also free up space for workers to
personalise their environment. Even weekend-only workers who ‘hot-desk’ at
Capital One’s call centre have their own pedestal, or cart, to tote with them,
complete with personal belongings, so that they can experience a taste of home
on the job.

Other efforts to create what Lockhart calls a "comfortable, enticing
and fun" workplace and ease the stress include setting aside funds for
‘fun’ budgets that are intended for spending only on team/department days or
evenings out. Reward and recognition also have moved to centre stage, to
acknowledge the hard work occurring within the call centre. "I don’t think
that should be underestimated," Lockhart says.

Psychometric testing

Employees at Northampton’s Dataforce contact centre undergo psychometric
tests before they take on their roles. Team leaders, managers and ‘brand
advocates’ who are likely to deal with distressed callers will take the tests
as part of the company’s overall screening process.

"We wouldn’t use them exclusively," says Rebecca Taylor, head of
HR and development at Dataforce. "Personality tests are going to be
slightly more useful than ability tests so then at least you can look at
different dimensions of personality. We’d use them to support information we
got from an interview rather than as a kind of answer sheet.

"I wouldn’t say that it would be a foolproof method as to whether
someone is likely to be prone to stress," Taylor continues. "But it
helps to give you an additional piece of information with a synopsis of their
personality."

Widely recognised as a ‘high-quality, high-value’ facility, the Northampton
contact centre has several advantages when seeking new recruits for its
workforce. To instil agents or brand advocates with an understanding and
knowledge of the products or services of clients such as Smart Car, the Royal
Navy and the Science Museum, team members assigned to each client get to
experience unusually in-depth training.

For instance, Smart Car team members can drive one of the little vehicles
regularly and spend time at Smart Car’s UK headquarters as well as at area
dealerships. Those assigned to the Royal Navy team spend time doing basic
training on a ship. And Science Museum agents get to play with the toys they’re
selling over the phone.

Does it make a difference to psychological and even physical well-being when
workers have the opportunity to work with a fun product, and to experience
immersion training? "I think it’s inevitable that it helps,"
acknowledges Taylor. "If people are enjoying what they do, finding that
it’s meaningful and challenging, and they’re having to think about what they
do, are clear about what’s expected and they’re getting the support to do what
they need to do – it’s inevitable that you’re going to get happier, and less
ill, people."

Swedish OH expert Dr Allen Toomingas reinforces Taylor’s views but takes
them a step further. The very repetitiveness and restrictiveness of much call
centre work takes its toll on agents’ mental and physical states, he argues.

"How to organise work properly is the most serious issue, in my
opinion," says Toomingas, one of the experts involved in the Swedish
study. "It could be important if you provide variety by introducing more
tasks of different complexity, and divide call centre work with other kinds of
work. Seated work, year after year, is not good for your body, and working from
scripts is too restrictive."

A plan being debated in Sweden would split call centre workers’ time in
half: part of the time would be spent at the call centre, and the other segment
as a carer for the elderly. "There is serious discussion here about
looking into that," Toomingas says. "I think it’s a very favourable
combination."

The call centre industry has the advantage of being relatively new,
Toomingas points out, "and could adapt to new organisational models while
it’s still new. It should look not only at new furniture, but new models of
work."

Multiple revolutions

At BT Retail’s 31 contact centres throughout the UK, several different
revolutions are underway. The largest involves the company’s anticipated
completion of its ‘Next Generation’ contact centres by the end of 2004. The
three-year programme embraced six factors in its blueprint for improvements and
development: health and safety, welfare, branding, environment, equipment and
furniture, and management. Within those categories fall such specifics as
humidity, temperature control, ergonomics and noise.

And with regard to noise, one recent development has potentially dramatic
significance: a new noise filter developed by BT’s research and development
arm, BT Exact, that is intended to reduce the effect of noise interference,
sometimes referred to as acoustic shock. Known as the ‘defender’, it will be
situated between the ‘turret’ of each work station computer and a call
handler’s headset. Plastic-cased, "it looks a little bit like a large
computer mouse", explains Mike Wagland, who oversees health and safety at
BT Retail.

Now being installed throughout BT Retail’s contact centres, the device will
detect any sudden increase in noise level, and suppress the peaks of noise to a
maximum of 95 decibels. "It’s virtually undetectable to the user. You may
hear a small click, but it’s unlikely you’ll hear anything at all," says
Wagland.

In addition, the Defender will record on a chip within each unit all incidents
of activation and measure the call handler’s exposure to the level of noise
over an eight-hour period.

BT Retail is also launching a large-scale offensive against stress, which
was trialled in its call centres but is being expanded to the entire BT group.
Known as ‘Stream’, or Stress Assessment and Management, the 40-question online
tool is accessible through BT’s intranet.

Developed with help from a King’s College psychiatrist, the programme is
based on an established set of questions that assesses a person’s stress level
and BT-specific questions, to identify stressors within the workplace. Once a
person has completed the questionnaire, the system will put together a tailored
report, and send back via e-mail ‘a fairly straightforward report’ with a red,
amber or green rating to symbolise the level of stress.

Recipients of amber or red ratings will receive advice on managing the top
four stressors identified for them. The report will be e-mailed to the person’s
line manager, and in the case of an amber or red rating, a one-to-one meeting
between line manager and employee will be required to develop an action plan to
resolve the stress issues.

"We are very keen on getting as many people through this as possible.
It will help us draw up a profile across the company of stress in terms of the
quantity and also the type of stress," says Wagland. He emphasises,
however, that "there is no element of compulsion in this at all – people
do not have to do it".

The HSE, he points out, defines six management standards on stress –
"things such as demands, controls, relationships, change management, and
we’ve structured Stream around those six areas so that we can define across BT
levels of stress within each of those. It helps us identify whether there are
any organisational ‘hot spots’ that we might need to look at".

Through such innovation, the health of the UK call centre industry could be
looking up – for workers, as well as employers.

www.hse.gov.uk

www.cca.org.uk – Call Centre
Association

www.cwu.org.uk – Communications Workers
Union

www.arbetslivsinstitutet.se/en
– Sweden’s National Institute for Working Life

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