What's it's really like to work in a call centre


When the call centre person makes your blood boil, count to 10 before you let them have it. They could be one of the 20% of call centre staff who aren't coping with one of the world's more stressful jobs. .

Up to a fifth of call centre staff become over-sensitised to the environment, says Annemarie Lombard, CEO of Sensory Intelligence Consulting, who did her doctoral research study on South African call centres.

“Call centre workers are exposed to high amounts of sensory bombardment from the office environment – lighted call-boards showing queued calls, ringing phones and computer screens. Their DNA and brain circuits have an over-intake of sensory information,” she explains.

According to Lombard, some find their tolerance levels wear out within a short period of time. The result? "Reckless absenteeism" and excessive use of sick leave.

Lombard says that agents may only realise that they can't handle the environment when they have already been recruited, trained and placed in the job. And after thousands of rands and hours of training have been expended, it's hard to say: ‘I hate my job! ‘

Sleep disruption

Part of the problem is shift-work and the consequent disruption of sleep patterns. "Sleep is essential for living; it has a lot to do with repair and recuperation," says Dr Kevin Rosman, Health24’s sleep expert. "If this is denied, the body and, more importantly, the brain stop functioning. Mood is especially affected, as is memory. Our ability then to cope with stress is severely reduced, to such an extent that we rapidly reach the stage where we are functioning in about the same way as if we were drunk.” In call centres, productivity depends on quick and accurate problem solving, and ensuring that problems are properly resolved to prevent call-backs. So sleep deprivation means many agents simply aren't very good at their jobs.

Studies have found that 30% of shift workers will be boarded out for ill-health within 3 years of starting the job, Rosman adds, largely due to the sleep disruption.

The stress factor

The stress of the job is compounded by the responsibility to give proper customer service, and by the fact that call centre staff are responsible for maintaining the company's image - often, without working anywhere in the company besides the call centre itself. Research finds that high stress levels result in an increased or decreased desire for food, increase in caffeine intake, increase smoking and/or alcohol use, procrastination, quickness to argue and changes in relationships.

A report from Uni Global Union, an organisation that represents 900 trade unions and 20 million workers worldwide, confirms high levels of stress and fatigue, with many agents complaining of constant tension headaches, shortness of breath, muscle aches (usually in the shoulder and neck), mood swings, depression and frequent illness, with staff being susceptible to colds and flu.

It also shows that highly sensitive agents spend longer time in outbound-call and after-call work mode, and their customer-hold times are extremely long – which means that they end up with lower quality assurance ratings.

A tough training ground

On the other hand, call centres are great training grounds, says Health24’s stress reduction expert and former call centre agent, Dr Justin Kennedy. Those who survive, tend to go on to thrive in corporate management roles.”

“The main reason such candidates thrive in a toxic work context is because they've learned to be resilient to the hectic demands placed upon them. Some have this innate ability and others just fail.”

"Clients do not stay loyal if they get poor service and if the agent is stressed they cannot offer top shelf service and the clients runs away”, Kennedy continues.
The industry is known for high training and operational costs, with agent attrition and absenteeism the most common problems. While this affects morale, it also depletes corporate wellness for the agent. “Part of the problem is that most employers do not give their employees any help with coping with shift work,” says Dr Rosman. Lombard agrees. “In order to ensure workforce optimisation,” she says, “call centres should try to provide a properly set up environment with enough space, proper air conditioning, massage therapy and nurses on duty.”

It's not only the call centre agents who would be grateful.

(Zaakirah Rossier, Health24, October 2010)

Sources: Annemarie Lombard. (2008). The effect of sensory processing on the work performance of South African call centre agents, Doctorate research study; Kennedy, J., & Pretorius, M. (2008). Integrating a portable biofeedback device into call centre environments to reduce employee stress: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 23, 295–307; Alison M Dean & Al Rainnie,Monash University, Business and Economics: Absenteeism from the frontline: Explaining employee stress and withdrawal in a call centre. December 2004 (Department of management working paper series –ISSN 1327 - 5216); uniglobalunion.org/ Stress – stop the boss – global union. Work-related stress is a health and safety issue (Study on Call centre work) -National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), USA; Health & Safety Executive, UK; Linköping University, Sweden; uniglobalunion.org/ Dimitra Makri, President of the Union of Cosmote Employees. Stress in call centres.

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