Call centres count cost of stress

A study into the call centre industry has produced disturbing evidence of huge stress to employees and a subsequent cost of millions of dollars to the industry. The report found that call centres in Australia lose $A90 million a year because of staff turnover. Recruiting, training and initial low productivity contribute to a $A10,000 per seat turnover cost and stress-related absenteeism costs $A150 per agent a year ($A7.5 million a year).

A study into the call centre industry has produced disturbing evidence of huge stress to employees and a subsequent cost of millions of dollars to the industry.

Deloitte & Touche Consulting and ACA Research surveyed 126 organisations across every major industry in Australia about the causes and effects of stress.

The study says call centres are becoming the most important communication channel between businesses and their customers, with organisations now conducting two-thirds of all commercial transactions over the phone. Every year the industry grows 40% worldwide. The report found that call centres in Australia lose $A90 million a year because of staff turnover. Recruiting, training and initial low productivity contribute to a $A10,000 per seat turnover cost and stress-related absenteeism costs $A150 per agent a year ($A7.5 million a year).

The report authors says the phenomenon is not confined to Australia and has been identified as an issue to be addressed by management in all countries where explosive call centre growth is occurring.

ACA Research managing director Martin Conboy says the study’s research is relevant globally because its major findings were independent of location and industry.

Susan Williams, of recruitment company Manpower which recruits for the call centre industry, says it has tremendous growth in Australasia.

Manpower did a global survey (which included New Zealand) last year surveying call centre staff in management, supervisory and operator roles to find out the right competencies and attitudes needed for the work.

“We’ve looked at the statistics in the centres we’ve recruited into in both Australia and New Zealand and our attribution rates are very low in comparison to the industry. They are under 12%, which is quite dramatic compared to an industry norm of 20% to 25%.”

Williams says until now the call centre industry has been extremely reactive to growth and demand. “Everybody in the call centre industry has experimented with the different types of people who may be suited to the environment.”

She says the industry is now starting to look at things like managing stress levels and Williams is being called on more often by call centres to help them set up to cope more effectively with stress.

Larry Hill, director of New Zealand call centre business Infolink, says the stress level in New Zealand call centres would be the similar to Australia. He says one reason for the stress is that frequently people who call into call centres are angry. The work environment is important, with good lighting and space and an element of privacy needed.

“There also needs to be some sort of review process where you can go to somebody and say ‘I just got ripped to shreds’, and get it off your chest.”

He says often agents finish one difficult call and then have another one immediately, instead of getting a break to collect their thoughts.

“They get very frustrated with the next caller, which causes more stress.”

Hill says variance is important. Infolink, which runs a call centre that is technically inclined, tries to ensure call centre staff get a variety of work. “They might get two or three days on the call centre and then maybe go out and do some implementation and installation work.”

The calls don’t even have to be stressful in themselves — repetitive work makes people go “slightly loopy” and can cause stress. “Employers have got to go out of their way to make what can be a boring job reasonably interesting, otherwise good people get burned out and they’re forever changing and recruiting and training, so it becomes a costly exercise.”

While it’s hard to estimate the costs of call centre stress in New Zealand, Hill says he is unsurprised by the $A90 million estimated for Australia, because of the costs associated with replacing staff.

Among the causes of stress identified in the study were things like slow, inadequate computer systems or IVR systems which show how many calls there are in a queue.

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