Why call centre workers take the most sickies

There are a number of reports in the papers today about call centre employees taking more time off sick than any other group of workers. The ONS report doesn’t actually give specific data for call centre workers. It refers to customer service workers generally, in other words, any non-sales role with regular and direct contact with customers.

That people in these roles should have the highest sickness level comes as no surprise. Turnover rates, that other indicator of corporate malaise, are also high among customer service workers.

Why should this be? Because the public are horrible, of course.

Even before I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, I knew I didn’t want to deal with the public. It’s not that all members of the public are nasty; most are not. But at any given time, a number of usually calm and reasonable people will be having a bad day or have been messed about by whatever systems the organisation has put in place. Add them to the tiny minority of truly vicious and vindictive people and the chances of a customer service worker being verbally abused on the phone or in person are quite high.

A major source of stress in organisations is lack of control. When you have to handle a query or complaint from whoever phones or walks through the door, you have no control over whether you interact with that person or not. You have to face them, whoever they are. A few unpleasant encounters can quickly cancel out all the other experiences you have had during your shift. The public, in this sense, is as obnoxious as its lowest common denominator. It only takes one or two red-faced ranters to ruin your day, and you have no way of knowing when they will turn up.

It is interesting to note that the groups with the lowest levels of sickness are train drivers, air traffic controllers and pilots. These are people who rarely have to deal with the public at all. The drivers and pilots lock themselves in their cabins and have conductors and crew to handle the passengers for them. Air traffic controllers are safely behind very secure doors. Next in the low sickness table is the legal profession. They can pick and choose their customers and, unless they are desperate, which few lawyers are, if someone is rude, they can just refuse the case.

Those occupations where people have a degree of control not only over what they do but also who they interact with are lower down in sickness table. Those with less control over what they do and who they meet have high levels of stress which leads to high sickness and turnover.

Given that some members of the public will always be obnoxious, there will always be a level of stress in customer service work.

However there are some things an employer can do to help alleviate the workers’ stress levels. Firstly, they can make their systems more customer friendly so that they don’t piss as many people off. Even reasonable people become obstreperous after they have been transferred and cut off for the sixth time.

Secondly, they can invest in personal development that will help the workers to be more resilient in the face of angry or abusive customers. If employees are aware of, and can control, their own emotions, they will deal with the verbal assaults more easily.

That said, even if I were given excellent training and lots of money, I wouldn’t want to work in a call centre or any other customer service role.

I detest ‘the public’ because the very term means having no control over who you deal with. Among the public are some pretty horrible people. I’m glad someone is paid to deal with them but I’m also glad it’s not me.

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3 Responses to Why call centre workers take the most sickies

  1. HR Minion says:

    Awesome post! I have to staff for a call center and it does take a special type of person who can do the job long term and like it.

  2. Jo says:

    Are there call centres in Scandanavia and what rates do they have? I don’t read Norwegian but I understand that managers there are responsible for quality of working life.

    A quick way to reduce badly designed work and systems is to run a health/benefit tax on companies whose are externalizing their costs.

    As to the main them, yes control over work is central to good job design and fantastic games. As Jane McGonigal, games designer says: if we can design compelling games using the priniciples of work psychology . . . she calls her games ‘happiness engines’ – jobs should be happiness engines!

  3. jonathan says:

    Bottom line is customer service is not recognised as a skill in its own right in the UK.

    When I started my first job, it was pretty much “when the phone rings, just answer it”

    Most organisations put their most experienced staff away from the customer like it is a promotion to get away but there is a very successful council near me and they put the best, most experienced staff out in the customer area.(and pay them accordingly!)

    They are out there, in the customers “territory” helping signpost people where to go, not letting them wander around and act like they are doing them a favour when they actually get to the “help” desk.

    I was doing some work for a local authority a few years back. Customer comes in with cheque payable to deceased parent and says something like

    “this is a cheque payable to my dad, heres is his death certificate and here is a letter from the solicitor saying that I can have the cash, quick as you can please cos I am racking up costs with his funeral etc etc”

    OK says council. Takes cheque and copy of letter.

    Cheque goes into a work queue somewhere and customer rings up 2 weeks later “wheres my money?”

    I chased it up and got the answer “Oh we have to cancel it at the bank”

    “why” says I “It is in our possession and more importantly made payable to someone we know for a fact to be dead?”

    Answer “dunno – WE ALWAYS HAVE DONE it that way”

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