Call centres must prioritise Workers Wellbeing
There might be no heavy machinery, work at vertiginous heights nor toxic substances involved (unless you include the contents of the vending machine), but the health and safety issues presented by call centres are many and complex. And with around one million workers employed in this industry in the UK, they are issues which impact on a sizeable section of the population.
Squeeze on toilet breaks
In the recent past call centres have hit the headlines for working practices which would make Mike Ashley blush: a 2012 survey by Unison publicised the shocking finding that one in four call centre employees had toilet breaks restricted. Unscrupulous call centre bosses should have been shamed by these headlines. The industry must now become a leader in developing staff wellbeing to stabilise a workforce with a famously high turnover rate costing the industry more than £1bn per year. Penny-pinching compromises to health and safety should be replaced by a long term view which invests in a young workforce who might then be tempted to hang around.
Physical and Emotional Stress
Working in a call centre presents a unique combination of demands on individuals. The simultaneous use of keyboard, desk, mouse, screen and headset places very particular physical stresses which can result in Musculoskeletal Disorders and eye strain. Talking throughout the working day, at times struggling to make yourself heard, can lead to voice damage - a quarter of workers in a survey by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported voice problems, with new starters and female staff members at particular risk. These physical pressures are paired with the stress of dealing with members of the public who may be angry or aggressive.
Health and Safety bodies and unions have both been working over recent years to make proposals for a healthier future for call centre workers. The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends many changes from proper preparation to boost staff’s emotional resilience to problem calls to creating pleasant relaxation areas to encourage workers to take breaks away from their desks. The junk-food filled vending machine does indeed pose a threat to this very sedentary workforce, and employers need to take responsibility for giving access to healthier eating options.
But it can be argued that a deeper change in the approach to the work itself is needed to improve the overall health of call centre employees - not just the environment, toilet breaks and the snacks. Research going back to 2003 demonstrates that the biggest negative for staff in this situation is the lack of control over their work - having to stick slavishly to a script whatever the circumstances, the inability to use their judgment or initiative without clearance from a supervisor. One call centre employee explained in a blog how little regard the management had for their opinions about their work: “As for team meetings, never had one in over a year, and opinions, well I’ve been asked how I felt about my job once and even then I wasn’t given a chance to respond. It all adds up to more stress… and so it seems worse health.”
There is much scope for improvement if bosses have the vision and courage to change the culture.
McCormack Benson Health and Safety offer expert consultants in this field who are able to support call centres to create healthier working environments and safer practices.