Call Centres - the problems

Call centres - or contact centres - can be large or small, and involve numbers of workers being the first contact for companies and services. They can be in the public, private and privatised sector. Calls can be inbound or outbound. Staff often work through computer programs to answer the callers questions, take orders, record details such as payments for accounts, and so on. This can be either for a woker's own employer or for companies that have contracted the centre to do the work.

What are some of the problems?

As a call centre worker told her union organiser: "Many of the problems are because the processes are developed to fit the technology, not the workers and sometimes not even the customers."

Monitoring

It is common for call centre workers to be subjected to a variety of personal and group surveillance and monitoring mechanisms. Calls can be taped, key strokes recorded, quality of work monitored, what is said, how it is said. More information on monitoring is on this site.

Rate of Work

One of the biggest problems reported by call centre workers is the rate or intensity of work. Many companies require workers to meet targetted numbers of calls, sometimes with absolutely no time between each call. Some centres have a screen showing the rate of calls being processed; can identify slower workers to their colleagues/supervisors; and/or have computer programs which push for more work to be done by displaying messages on individual workers screens.

A forced pace of work can lead to stress, repetitive strain injuries, and other ill-health. The repetitive and monotonous nature of the work can also be a cause of stress.

Overuse Injuries

Because workers are sitting at computer workstations for long periods of time, they are at risk of developing overuse injuries, back problems and so on.

Sight disorders

Computer operators have reported such symptoms as soreness or dryness of the eyes, blurred vision, light sensitivity and headaches from working long hours in front of a computer screen (or VDU: visual display unit). This is sometimes called "computer vision syndrome".

Voice Loss

Call centre workers' voices are under great pressure because of the nature of their work. Conditions affecting the voice (dysphonia) can be short or long term, some can be permanent.

Angry Customers

Often people who are speaking to workers are often ringing with complaints about the company's systems - lack of service, faulty goods, errors with accounts, and so on. Call centre workers are the ones who bear the brunt of very agitated callers when things go wrong. Dealing with this constantly is another potential cause of stress for the worker, who after all is not responsible.

Rest and toilet breaks

Where workers who are required to sit in one position for long periods of time must be allowed breaks away from their workstation. Natural breaks like going to the toilet, refreshment or lunch breaks help but may not be enough. Some employers in this industry have resorted to bullying tactics over the length of time for toilet breaks, all with the aim of keeping up productivity. There is a range of ill-health conditions that can develop if people are not allowed to go to the toilet when they need to. There are also circulatory diseases which can arise through not being able to move and stretch your legs.

Headsets

Call centre workers wear headsets to operate a computer and listen and talk to the callers at the same time. There are many different types, and could be for both or just one ear, may sit outside the ear resting on the outer ear or plug into the actual ear hole itself. These present three main problems: suitability and comfort, noise levels and hygiene.

Suitable headsets: headsets must be comfortable to wear over a working day, light weight, adjustable to fit the different sized heads and ears of those at work, and must not restrain the movement of the worker.

Noisy headsets: some headsets may not have adjustable volume controls and are set at high volume levels. In some workplaces the general office background noise levels can be very high and the volume for the headsets will be adjusted louder still. This can be a problem as their continued use is likely to damage hearing over a period of time. Some standard headphones can and do breach the Noise regulations.

Acoustic Shock: this is where the wearer is exposed to short but very loud bursts of noise which can temporarily or permanently damage the wearer's hearing. It is also reported as being very painful to receive. There have been a number of compensation cases both in Victoria and around the world. In the UK, British Telecom paid out £93,000 to one worker. To read more on acoustic shock, check the informtion on the National Acoustics Laboratories website.

Unhygienic headsets: Some employers operate a pool of headsets where workers put them in a box at the end of the day and pick any one out of there when they return to work. This system creates a serious risk of ear infections being passed around a workplace. Some ear infections can lead to serious hearing disorders.

More information:

Last amended February 2015

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