More than just a number

If you have been frustrated in your dealings with call centres, spare a
thought for those who work there. These modern-day sweat shops could do much to
improve working conditions and make their staff feel less like slave labour

More than 400,000 people work in call centres which now employ more people
than the steel, coal and car industries put together. And it is estimated that
call-centre workers will outnumber teachers and farmers by 2001. They are
staffed mainly by women in the 20 to 30 age group.

According to Datamonitor, by 2001, one to three per cent of Europe’s working
population will be employed as call centre agents.

Call centres are one of the fastest growing industrial sectors in the UK and
have been hailed as the saviour of British jobs. However, working practices and
conditions vary and rates of 50 per cent staff turnover per annum are common.
Some call centres have churn rates of 80 per cent and rates of 100 per cent or
more are not unknown. They are frequently described as sweat shops employing
slave labour.

Over the past few years, the attitude towards occupational stress in call
centres has been changing. Under the UK Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
(HASAWA) employers have an obligation to provide both a safe place of work and,
as far as reasonably practicable, a safe system of work.

The most common threat to employee safety these days is not from accidents
or physical violence but from what is now known as psychological violence – in
other words, stress.

Call centre stressors

There is constant pressure on call centre employees to meet tough call
handling targets. This is accompanied by marketing pressure as many call
centres are now in the forefront of "selling the product" which
includes cold calling. This should be seen against a background of aggressive
performance monitoring and call handling standards.

Additionally, the business is conducted via the telephone while using screen
display equipment, which is a high risk combination for musculoskeletal
problems. Being seated for most of the working day involves risk to the back
and upper limbs if workstations are not designed to suit individual workers.

Call centre workers, when interviewed by the union MSF, had many complaints.

– They feel intimidated by managers and imposed targets

– They have decreased enthusiasm

– They feel nervous about calls being monitored, "everything we say or
do can be watched and listened to and they find weak points to pick us up on –
the real thing that got me was the management’s ability to control and monitor
our every move"

– There is constant heavy-handed pressure to increase productivity – like
being in a race to do better than colleagues with statistics displayed on a
board for all to see

– Staff never have any positive feedback

– There is pressure to produce, based on the fear of conformity

– No breaks are allowed between calls. There is sometimes a facility to be
‘not ready’ which gives an employee time to write up call notes, but this is
monitored too. There is a board on the wall flashing how many calls are waiting
and how long they have been waiting. Conversely, at one call centre in South
Wales employees can take up to 30 minutes between calls – although they are not
allowed to leave their desk or read a magazine or book

– Toilet breaks are strictly monitored and staff have to explain why they
are going so often

– Staff have to come in early to ‘log on’ and be ready for the start of the
shift without extra pay, as well as having to stay and finish a call after the
end of a shift without extra pay. However, if staff are one minute late they
can have 15 minutes docked from their pay.

A report published by the Industrial Society, which was unveiled at the last
Labour Party Conference, suggested call centres could be bad for the mental
health of employees. The report, called New work, new stress, said the current
trend for creating jobs intended to improve productivity and efficiency, give
employees little job control which was not conducive to their mental health.

In fact, because of this pressure on productivity, call centres tend to
disregard customer value. Customers are channelled into straitjacket
conversations often after having been ‘processed’ by a voice response system
and possibly having listened to irritating music for 10 minutes or more. Most
companies seem oblivious to the poor customer experience they are delivering.
There is little or no relationship between the customer and the company and it
becomes easy for the customer to get upset with the operator and apply pressure
through complaints, insults, requests to speak to the supervisor and so on.

But, are all call centres the same? The case study indicates that they
certainly tend to create the same pressures.

In most centres, three-quarters of telephonists are women and many are aged
under 30. Based in industrialised regions where unemployment is particularly
high, call centres are a godsend for thousands of workers back on the job
market. From the perspective of the employer, the main incentives are low
wages, economies of scale and the simplicity of set-up and installation.


The need to share desks, together with a lack of personal space, leaves
workers with little or no sense of identity. Workstations and chairs cater for
everyone but suit no-one. It is important that individuals are able to walk
around and take time out from their work positions to avoid musculoskeletal

Furniture manufacturers are under pressure to meet the demands from call
centres for designs that are functionally acceptable and aesthetically

The first signs of occupational health problems have already started to

Constant use of computers is leading to repetitive strain injury. Employees
may work up to five hours without a break and unsuitable seating leads to back
pain and other postural problems. Forward-thinking call centres are already
investing in prevention and remedial support such as chair massage and
reflexology in order to redress the balance, but stronger action needs to be

Occupational health

Employees may go to their OH adviser for help with the symptoms caused by
the pressures, with complaints ranging from aching muscles, loss of appetite
and restless sleep to a sense of exhaustion. Such employees often leave it too
late and become bad-tempered and irritable which in turn causes problems at
home or with colleagues.

Action to be taken

If call centres are serious about tackling stress and musculoskeletal
problems, they need to address the following issues:

– Ensure close communication between supervisors and staff

– Provide sufficient information for operators to be able to efficiently
handle all customer queries

– Provide adequate training to deal with abusive customers

– Set realistic work schedules and targets

– Be cognisant of the physical working environment

– Provide sufficient employee facilities (toilets, washrooms, rest areas and
tea facilities, for example)

– Ensure adequate work breaks

– Design adequate space between colleagues and workstations

– Install temperature, air conditioning and noise level controls

– Reduce radiation from computer screens

Stress management training, whether it be relaxation training, anger-control
techniques or assertiveness skills are highly effective in helping workers cope
with pressure. More forward-thinking employers and managers are going beyond
simple training that helps people cope with the symptoms. They are now taking a
deeper look at the causes of stress and are actively changing working
practices, processes and/or aspects of the environment that give rise to work-
related illness. Since these actions also protect market share and
profitability, there are compelling business reasons for getting it right.

The real potential for increased productivity lies with the people who actually
talk to the customers. In order to motivate employees, it is vital to give them
a reason to do better in order to gain job satisfaction. If employees decide
the job is fun, interesting and fulfilling, instead of working at 20 per cent
of their capacity they may bring 40 per cent of their potential. This is equal
to a 100 per cent productivity increase and costs nothing in terms of monetary


MSF Website 18.12.98

National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (USA)

UNISON – Holding the Line, Guide to Making Call Centres a Better Place to

TUC Website

UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line

BBC News Website 20.2.01

Carole Spiers is an occupational stress consultant with Carole Spiers
Associates International Occupational Stress Consultancy, tel: 020-8854 1593.
Fax: 020-8907 9290 E-mail:

Case study

Anna and Bob met up a few months
after Anna left the call centre where they had been working together.  

Bob told Anna: "You got out just in time. Since the
reorganisation nobody feels safe. It used to be that as long as you did your
work you had a job. They expect the same production rates even though two guys
are now doing the work of three. We’re so backed up I’m working 12-hour shifts,
six days a week. I swear I hear those machines ringing in my sleep. Guys are
calling sick just to get a break."

But Anna was no happier in her new job: "I’m afraid I
jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In my new job the computer routes the
calls and they never stop. I even have to schedule my bathroom breaks. All I
hear the whole day are complaints from unhappy customers. I try to be helpful
and sympathetic but I can’t promise anything without getting my boss’ approval.
Most of the time I’m caught between what the customer wants and company policy.
I’m not sure who I’m supposed to keep happy. A lot of the time we end up lying
to the customers just to get them off the line 
– we are under pressure to answer the next call. My colleagues are so
uptight and tense they don’t even talk to one another."

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