Why science says working in a call-centre is bad for your health.


Many people try to live by the philosophy that work is work; something necessary to pay the bills and let us get on with the rest of our lives beyond the 9-5. According to this way of thinking we should be able to shed  the hassles and pressures of the office as we put on our coats on and walk out the door. But, is it that easy, or does the job we do exert a reach far beyond the office door, or factory gate to exert an effect on our health and wellbeing?

I’ve recently been reading a book called ‘The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone’ The books central theme is that people are healthier in societies with greater equality. One piece of evidence they put forward for this claim is the Whitehall II study of civil servants carried out in the mid 1980s. The study found that poor health was related to low status at work. A good summary of the findings is presented here, but undoubtadely the big revelation of the study was on the link between stress and lower levels of autonomy at work:

Conventional wisdom has it
that a stressful job is one characterised by a high degree of
pressure and responsibility. New research, to which Whitehall II
has contributed, notably shows that that is incorrect.
A way of thinking about stress at work that more closely accords
with people’s experience is that it results from an imbalance
between the psychological demands of work on the one hand
and the degree of control over work on the other. Many jobs
involve high demands. It is not demands themselves that are the
major cause of illness although high demands are independently
associated with ill health. It is the combination of high demand
and low control.

This reminded me of a discussion in the call-centre earlier in the week. The conversation was about which clients calls we prefer taking. There is one client where the calls can be particularly demanding, but for which we have a high level of autonomy; In fact we’re virtually given carte blanche to do whatever actions we feel are necessary to resolve the issue at hand, even writing off fairly reasonable amounts of money. These actions are rarely scrutinised and virtually never questioned by our management or the firm we act for. So despite the calls being demanding, as one colleague simply put it “we have power”, so most people express a preference for taking these calls over those of other clients which are generally less demanding, but for which most actions beyond the mundane must be approved by a supervisor, or even in some cases proceed down a long chain to head-office. On the phone all we can do is tell the customer that we’re very sorry, but we are unable to offer anymore than an apology then subtly shift the headset away from the ear as the inevitable tirade comes in. 

It seems that intuitively we have a preference for the client where we have the most autonomy. Sadly however, autonomy is a rare luxury for most call-centre workers. In an illuminating piece of research by two UMIST based academics, Lynn Holdsworth and Susan Cartwright, appearing in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal,  a study of call-centre workers in the UK reached similar conclusions to to the Whitehall II study, namely that poor health is related to low levels of autonomy. They also find that working in a call-centre favours less comparably to what they refer to as a ‘traditional’ office environment. In their conclusion they state:

The evidence from this research indicates that working as a CSA is more stressful, less satisfying and a less psychological and physiological healthy occupation than that performed by the general working population. Furthermore CSAs perceive themselves to be less empowered than other workers in an office environment. The empowerment dimensions seem to be differential predictors of job satisfaction and may have an indirect influence on mental and physical health.

Although meaning and impact contribute to the overall feeling of job satisfaction the most significant relationship is with self-determination. Self-determination, or the belief that one has autonomy or control over how one works, is not part of the role of the CSA. The organisational structure, climate, culture and processes seem to limit perceptions of self-determination. The use of performance monitoring, reliance on quantitative statistics and the ensuing negative questioning combine to dictate management practices. Although an indirect relationship was found, previous research suggests that these factors tend to have a major influence on mental and physical health.

Though you can’t see me I was nodding along as I was typing the above particularly the final few lines. I am continually frustrated by my managers continual use of call times as their sole measure of how good we are at our jobs. Monthly a list is produced, circulated for peer-review and then pinned to the wall in two locations in the office. Despite many people insisting thay care little for this and a widespread acknowledgement of the problems with which the statistics are compiled (a simple aggregated average which discriminates against people who take more calls for clients where more information is required for an order to be placed) most people feel that that the table indicates their position in the office pecking order and that high average call times will result in lower job security. As for team meetings, never had one in over a year, and opinions, well I’ve been asked how I felt about my job once and even then I wasn’t given a chance to respond.

It all adds up to more stress… and so it seems worse health.

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5 thoughts on “Why science says working in a call-centre is bad for your health.

  1. I’ve worked in various jobs in the past including everything from burger flipper in McDonalds, shop assistant in a petrol station, soldier in the british army and most recently I started working as a CSA in a call centre and I can honestly and whole heartedly agree the monotony and worthlessness and lack of satisfaction in this particular line of work was something I was never prepared for. Every 5 minutes it’s… “Hello thank you for calling the …. My name is …. How can I help you today?” Only to find that there is nothing you can do for the person who proceeds to blame you for company policy and then be monitored every day with daily stats being emailed to everyone about the entire team’s individual performances that day on Average handling time and other equally irrelevant targets.

  2. Pingback: Hey Banks, Train Your Call Staff! - Angry Retail Banker

  3. Just read the blog while sitting at my desk in a call centre coincidently LOL, very insightful and interesting. I can relate to this blog as I am a call centre agent, makes me re-evaluate my job!

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