Guest post by Daniel Morrow
[CONTENT WARNING: discussions of suicide]
As part of the recent Mental Health Awareness Week, Virgin Media – which employs approximately 14,000 call centre staff – announced that they would be adding their signature to the Time to Change initiative, an alleged way of showing that the company are willing to overhaul their mental health policy in the workplace.
Following the announcement, the telecommunications giant said: “Here at Virgin Media, we want to have a culture where people can talk freely about mental health without the fear of being stigmatised.”
Time to Change has signatures from over 700 firms that have committed to the employer pledge. 95% of these organisations have reported positive impacts on their business as a result.
The charities behind the pledge have claimed that this move makes “business sense”, which is a term that has been echoed in Virgin’s justification behind their recent announcement to cut 500 call centre jobs, in addition to the several hundred people that are being shifted from their call centre in Swansea to as far as Bellshill, over 400 miles away.
Call centre work itself has come under the microscope on several occasions for its poor work conditions. A study conducted by the Unison trade union in 2012 showed 8 in 10 call centre workers in the UK had suffered as a result of work-related stress; almost a quarter have expressed concerns that ill mental health caused by the stress has become a blight on their personal lives.
These statistics are reflected in the job reviews written by users of employment websites Glassdoor and Indeed. One user described a Sky call centre as a “prison camp”, while an employee at a Kura call centre stated that they had to leave the role as it had pushed them to a “mental breakdown”. Furthermore, a former worker at a Santander call centre claimed that the banking firm has “little to no understanding” of mental health.
One of the appeals of call centre work is the promise of a steady income, in addition to guaranteed working hours and the potential to work your way up the hierarchy of the company – not to mention the number of jobs which are available. A Thousand Flowers spoke to former and present employees in call centres, with each suggesting that these were main factors taken into serious consideration when sending off their applications for their roles.
“The telecommunications company I worked for were offering a 40 hour contract with much better pay, compared to my previous work in bars and restaurants”, claimed John*. “I feel like the initial job description was written very well. Even now, the advertisements you see are very enticing with the amount of money they offer, but they exaggerate these high pay brackets to get you in the door.”
John spent 18 months working there before recently resigning. He said that the work grew increasingly problematic for his mental wellbeing.
A study conducted by the University of Manchester in 2017 found that people employed in highly stressful jobs may be better off in unemployment for the benefit of their mental health. The study had spoken to over 1000 participants who were unemployed between 2009 and 2010, following up with them over the next few years with regards to their health and levels of stress ‘indicated by hormones and other biomarkers related to stress’. It found that previously unemployed people who moved into ‘poor quality jobs’ had increased their risk of health problems, compared to those who remained unemployed.
John said that he spent a long period off work due to work-related stress. When he returned, he claimed that the company were less than helpful in offering support, which set him back to square one.
“When I came back, there were very high targets on selling a product that was not in place before I went on sick leave”, he said. “Due to a lack of training and understanding of the product, I was made to sign a disciplinary document which they could take further if targets were not met. I understood the need for targets, but this was taken to a level where it was almost unmanageable.”
Unison’s call centre charter says that sharp changes in targets, given the dynamics of the industries that often use call centres, can be both “demotivating and stressful for some call handlers”.
Another significant stressor they have cited in the charter is the gross use of surveillance and monitoring in the workplace. Alison* works in a complaints department for one of the UK’s top mobile phone providers. She said that managers would spend full shifts investigating employees activity on their computers and calls as a means to catching out staff that were falling short of targets in productivity.
“You can see the management staring at tracking applications, watching what code you have been in”, she said. “It genuinely makes me panic when I am dealing with a difficult case and you know you have been in after call activity for X amount of minutes. My friend once got a log of her activity pulled up for ‘making too many short outbound calls’ so it looked like call avoiding; when really you can go straight to voicemail for a customer and it would legitimately be a three second call. But, they don’t care; it’s just how it looks on a paper then you are instantly reprimanded.”
Prior to working in the role, Alison has said that she has suffered badly with ill mental health brought on by her education at university and has been on medication for anxiety and depression for the last two years.
“The job has been a kind of stop gap job since finishing university until I find something to do with my degree. But the job has been so stressful to the point that I have sometimes hid in the toilet and ended up in tears”, she said. “There has been little to not support or anything there. If you get upset or stressed, you are just told to just forget about it and move on to the next customer, so you don’t ‘impact the customer’s experience’”.
The turnover in staff is something that has been documented in these places of work due to the high intensity of the role. Each person we spoke to stated that their places of work had a constant flow of new starts taking part in training the whole year round.
But some have went on to make a career out of it; Gillian* is an example of this. She has been working within call centre work on and off for the past twenty years. She took on her first call centre role when she was 19, working in a home insurance department for one of the UK’s major banks. She claimed that the role was one of the worst she has done in those twenty years, and she was prescribed anti-depressants for the first time.
“My manager was awful and treated everyone badly”, she expressed. “You were singled out if you did anything wrong, she even had a hat that you were forced to wear if you did not hit targets. She was also equipped with a sign over your desk to say that you were crap at your job. There was no help if you didn’t understand or weren’t doing well, just bullying. I dreaded going in, it made me sick to my stomach.”
Gillian said that the money was one of the main reasons she took on the role, but she also needed a ‘sit down job’ due to a disability, if she was to continue working full time.
“When I got signed off due to work-related stress, my manager turned up unannounced at my door to make sure I was ill”, she claimed.
In May last year, the GMB union demonstrated outside of a Parseq call centre in Sunderland after they found that 88% of workers they had spoken to said that the company was “not a good place to work”. The leader of GMB said that the call centre workers were the “human equivalent of battery hens”, stating that their calls were timed and staff were “scrutinised for what they are saying” on the phone.
Thus far, there have been no studies in the UK on the association between the stressful nature of call centre work and staff members taking their own lives.
However, in France, following the privatisation of France Telecom to Orange S.A. in 2004, trade unions in the country have reported two waves of workers committing suicide that they believe to be attributed to the conditions of the workplace. Between 2008 and 2009, 35 France Telecom staff were reported to have taken their own lives. In 2014, it was reported that a further 10 employees had killed themselves, placing the company on serious alert following the second wave of deaths.
The firm were accused of adopting bullying tactics as a way to encourage “unwanted workers” to leave the company. Orange S.A. claimed publicly that these facts and figures had been exaggerated by trade unions in France.
Jean-Paul Rouannet, a worker at France Telecom then Orange S.A., threw himself from a motorway bridge in 2009. In his suicide note that he had left for his wife and two children stated that the “condition at work” had left him no option but to take his own life. A colleague at the company said that “he could not cope with the stress of having to meet targets.”
The Time to Change pledge has been signed by other companies who make the use of call centres, such as BT, who committed to the pledge in 2010. They have claimed that the change in approach has led to a 24% fall in anxiety and sick leave.
4% of the UKs workforce is now made up of call centre workers, and that figure appears to be growing, with the trend of shifting call centre work overseas seemingly in reverse.
Signing a pledge such as Time to Change is certainly a step in the right direction, but companies shouldn’t be able to use it to spin their way to positive PR at the same time that they’re cutting jobs and putting their workers under undue pressure. There are over one million call centre workers in the UK and it’s vital that these large companies make radical changes to the work environment to protect the mental health of their employees beyond Mental Health Awareness Week. Such protection not only makes “business sense”, but it could save lives.
*All names have been changed