Call centres are modern-day satanic mills

Jan 08 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

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.

Older Comments

I worked for Convergys (out sourcing for AT &T [good people] then Cingular [ugly SOBs]) for close to 4 years. During those years I went on anti-depressants and had personal counselling. We not only handled inbound cell phone inquiry calls (normal), but dealt with people that were in the New Orleans (USA) tragedy and many others that would have been classified as 911 calls. It kills part of your soul. We weren't given any special training to deal with this. Alot of us would cry during our shifts.

We were expected to handle a number of calls in a very short period of time in a very cold blooded, nasty way. We took alot of anger and abuse from customers. This company is definately in it for the money. We were monitered once, every hour or so all thru out our workday which was 8 hours. This lasted a week. We were told EVERY hour or so as well how our performance was according to their narrow standards. I went in ONE week receiving accolades for customer servicing (our customers would phone in and reccomend us) to having my day shift bumped down to night shift again because I didn't meet company standards. We would have all these so called supervisors scolding us and yet we would be busting our butts handling calls, being monitered, dealing with angry people and all these fat crack head managers would be sitting around joking, talking and making yet another trip down to Tim Hortons or leaving early.

I got out of there as soon as I could. I don't mind the call centre environment if it's good. However, due to the stress involved I wouldn't do it again. The high end call centers pay great, top - arond 30.00/hr, they have counsellers available and sometimes even gyms to work out. This can be a very professional career. This is usually with government call centers..wouldn't you know it! They are the people that SHOULD be monitering all call centers and regulating what goes on.

It can be very satisfying. I've worked in a few of them. But when it's bad it's hell. It's like being caught in a leg hold trap and trying to knaw your way out. It's like the old sweat mills around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Not alot is known about the damage it can do to a person mentally which in turn affects you physically. It's not right under your nose like using common sense and wearing steel toed boots. The damage is alot more subtle. Yes, ANY call centre, ANYWHERE can be a dark satanic mill and until there are people that care enough to regulate them it will be bad. That's sad because we are only seeing the beginning of call centres popularity.

Mary Edmonton, Alberta, Canada