Call centre workers slam ‘stressful’ industry

Call centres are the 'antithesis' of a good workplace, according to one Finsec worker who is leaving the industry due to stress.

Call centres are the “antithesis” of a good workplace, according to one Finsec worker who is leaving the industry due to stress.

The claim follows Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28, which financial sector union Finsec used to remember the stress-related suicide of one of its members last year, as well as reports that more call centres are to be established in New Zealand.

Finsec says bank call centre employee Mike Smith took his own life “after virtually being told to spin straw into gold”. They claim Smith’s sales targets were impossible to meet, and that when he told the bank he already worked 20 hours a day and didn’t know what else to do, the bank allegedly asked “What about the other four?”.

A Finsec delegate working as a customer service representative at a major New Zealand bank says he plans to leave the industry because of its stress-creating factors. “In my experience, call centres are the antithesis, the complete opposite, of a place where you enjoy your work,” says the worker, who declined to be named.

“Some weeks it is absolute drudgery. You sit there counting down the hours and the minutes until you can go.” Call centre workers in banks often deal with between 75 and 100 calls a day.

Finsec says 15% of its members leave the banking and call centre industry each year because of stress, including high employer pressure, rolling shifts and occupational overuse syndrome (OOS).

In addition to standard OOS symptoms, many British and Australian call centre operators have reported cases of “acoustic shock” resulting in severe tinnitus (ringing in the ears), with one worker across the Tasman reportedly suffering permanent hearing damage.

In New Zealand it is thought stress-related resignations are more common among non-union financial sector and tele-marketing workers, but there is little data about them as they are predominantly temporary staff sourced from agencies.

ACC’s OOS programme manager, ergonomics specialist Frank Darby, says there is an increasing need to look at the impact of working conditions — good or otherwise — upon people’s health.

“There is very solid evidence that people who have good work have better health,” he says.

“Some studies have shown that where work is good, the incidence of depression in the workforce is 9%, which is about background-level. But where work is bad, the incidence of depression is 41%. Stunning findings.”

Frank Darby points to the World Health Organisation’s studies on the social determinants of health, which refer to several workplace studies in Europe showing that health suffers when people have little opportunity to use their skills and minimal authority over decisions at work.

“Having little control over one’s work is particularly strongly related to an increased risk of low back pain, sickness absence and cardiovascular disease.

“These risks have been found to be independent of the psychological characteristics of the people studied. In short, they seem to be related to the work environment,” says the WHO.

“Studies have also examined the role of demands at work. Some show an interaction between demands and control. Jobs with both high demand and low control carry special risk.”

ACC’s Frank Darby says if workers had an unhappy workplace, it would be reasonable to expect their health to deteriorate.

“And it’s plausible to assume that where conditions for happy workplaces operate, people would be less likely to develop, for instance, OOS,” he says.

It was announced last month that multinational call centre firm Sitel will set up an 80-seat centre in Hamilton for state-owned electricity provider Genesis Power.

Sitel chief executive Russell Just, in a Computerworld interview in March, described his firm as a good employer, but notes that it is a difficult business as clients tend not to pay operators well.

In the same story, contact centre Salesforce head Michael Masterson described conditions at his centre as “almost palatial”, stressing the importance of happy workers. But he brands two rivals as having “sweatshops” of “human battery hens”.

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