Working conditions in some UK call centres should be compared to Victorian 'dark satanic mills' according to a damming study commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive.
The research, carried out by the Health and Safety Laboratory in Sheffield, found that employees at the worst call centres feet powerless and tied to their desks. Many complained that low wages, poor working conditions and repetitive tasks led to poor job satisfaction and high levels of depression.
Working as a call handler is more stressful than working in other jobs, the HSE found, although not all staff are affected equally, or by the same factors. But depression was highest, and job satisfaction lowest, among call handlers in IT and telecoms centres.
“The proportion of call handlers at risk of mental health problems is much higher than for all other benchmark occupations,” the HSE says.
Other factors contributing to poor psychological wellbeing included working in larger call centres (employing 50 or more staff), being on a permanent contract (those on non-permanent contracts are less depressed), having to follow strict scripts and having one’s performance measured.
As one call handler said, “‘I find it very stressful knowing that at some point my calls will be listened into, in addition a supervisor sits next to me on a monthly basis listening to calls and making performance notes which are rarely encouraging and seem to be based on a personal opinion of the person under review. You feel that you are made to conform to a set role which is not my personality.”
Union Unifi, which represents many call centre workers, said that automated systems that give workers only a couple of seconds between calls only add to feelings of powerlessness and frustration. Workers should be able to choose when they receive calls, the union said.
Call centres employ nearly 800,000 people in the UK. Yet on average, staff spend just two years working in the industry before moving on.
But Anne Marie Forsyth, chief executive of the Call Centre Association, rejected the comparison. “The comparison with satanic mills is very disappointing,” she said. “most of our members are trying to empower their workers and create career paths for them."
However she agreed that some employers could do better. “There are bad employers in all parts of UK industry," she said.