The mental health cost of call centre work
In increasingly bitter tensions between the unions and DHS over proposed outsourcing, the United Services Union paints a view of the mental health cost of working in a call centre that is less than favourable.
It has not been a great month for call centre workers in Australia, with talk of the Department of Human Services (DHS), Medicare and Qantas all making changes to their current call centres.
Reports that Telstra will partner with DHS call centres to deal with calls to Medicare and Centrelink have concerned the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), who represent around 7,000 public servants spread across 28 call centres across Australia.
They fear the deal will result in job cuts and open the door for offshoring call centre roles to countries throughout Asia, just as the Telstra-owned Sensis did with 800 jobs in February this year and Qantas did with 50 jobs to New Zealand.
But Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen told 666 ABC Canberra the proposal will not reduce the department’s permanent staff numbers and instead will focus on high volume transactions, such as card replacement.
“James”, who did not wish to be identified, spent five years working in a call centre in a variety of roles.
He is troubled by more than just jobs going offshore.
He is concerned about the working conditions for workers, which he says are “dehumanising” and are prone to burning employees out.
“You get abused multiple times, every shift. People really unload,” he said.
“There’s no time for a toilet break, it’s like a slave workshop.”
“You’re helpless, you’re trapped. The company put you in front of them [callers] and you just have to take it like a punching bag.
“It’s wrong to be dealing with stress while being immobilised. You’re being screamed at and abused while sitting still.”
They are all terms for the metrics by which call centre employees are measured.
And everything is measured.
Mental health issues are a constant challenge
“You experience your time in second-by-second blocks,” he said.
“It stresses people out. The instant one call ends, another one comes in. There’s no time for a toilet break, it’s like a slave workshop. It is human discourse for robots.”
Scott McNamara is a manager with United Services Union, and represents over 1,000 Australian call centre workers.
He said mental health and creating a healthy workplace is a constant challenge for call centres.
“The evidence I can see in the organisations I’ve looked after is in higher levels of absentee and sick leave,” he said.
“An average is around six or seven days leave for an employee. Contact centres are around 10 to 15.”
The technology that distributes calls also provides data for managers and team leaders.
The data provided on employees is right down to seconds spent with a customer, how long the paperwork takes to fill in, how long is spent away from the phone and the quality of the answers provided.
Management tracks the information to ensure staff meet their targets. If they do not, more pressure is placed on the employee.
Mr McNamara says that the high level of monitoring under which workers operate allows for potential issues to be exacerbated.
“We all have bad days, but when your job is highly monitored, that bad day is more apparent when there are measures to measure your productivity,” he said.
“It’s a fish bowl effect. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best method to make sure people have good mental health.”
Mental Health/Stress related to Key Performance Indicators
In his years working in call centres “James” saw what happened when colleagues began to suffer in the loop of stress and increasing call times.
“It looks like exhaustion but it’s also depression,” he said.
“They become withdrawn, they have no energy.
Then their key performance indicators (KPIs) suffer and their call times suffer, so they become even more stressed.
“Then they just fall by the wayside. They don’t last long.”
Once the metrics are tighter, they’ll wonder if they’re going to crack.
“James”, an ex-employee of a call centre
While the collaboration between Telstra and DHS is still in its infancy, “James” is blunt about how current employees are likely to feel about their jobs given the most recent National Commission of Audit recommends ‘outsourcing, competitive tendering and procurement’.
“If I were them, I’d be worried about the new metrics they’ll be measured by,” he said.
“To live under them takes on a whole new meaning. You actually feel them; you feel the time pressure.
“Once the metrics are tighter, they’ll wonder if they’re going to crack.”
Stress and depression have been linked with the demands placed on call centre employees and “James” admits he himself was burned out by the time he left the industry.
“Nothing makes you feel good. There’s a lack of strong emotional desire, your enthusiasm for hobbies is diminished, you don’t want to see your mates,” he said.
“After months, I stopped thinking about my call handling time, but it was still coming up in my thoughts.”
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