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Your call is important to us: in the early 1990s, call centres were hailed as a saviour for communities hit hard by the re-structuring of the manufacturing sector throughout the 1980s. Nicky Welch talks to workers in Bendigo's call centres about the reality.

Imagine you are working as an in-bound call centre representative for a large telecommunications company See telecom company. . Your workplace was once a supermarket and has been converted into a 300-seat call centre. You are in a space of one metre square, in a pod pod, in botany
pod or legume, dehiscent fruit of a member of the family Leguminosae (pulse family). At maturity the pod splits along its two seams and releases the enclosed seeds.
 of 12 co-workers, turned away 90 degrees from your mate next to you. You can feel the headset Headphones combined with a microphone. Used in call centers and by people in telephone-intensive jobs, headsets provide the equivalent functionality of a telephone handset with hands-free operation. Many people use headsets at the computer so they can converse and type comfortably.  digging in above your ear. The noise buzzes around you, in each corner of the office the television is on and a radio station is piped through speakers above your head. The fluorescent lights give the office a glow.

All around you people are murmuring mur·mur  
1. A low, indistinct, continuous sound: spoke in a murmur; the murmur of the waves.

2. An indistinct, whispered, or confidential complaint; a mutter.

 into their headsets, speaking to customers, taking one of up to 80 calls for the day, assisting people with their phone bills and selling them new landline and internet packages. A flashing red LED display tells you how many callers are on hold and how many minutes they have been waiting for. Your computer logs every single call and you can get an update every half hour to see if you've kept your calls under the required six minutes and made enough sales to be on target for a monthly bonus.

You need to be in the zone today, last week you got an email from your team leader saying she'd had a call from head office to ask why you were spending so long on calls. They've been talking a lot lately about outsourcing some of the work to India, and low performers will be the first to lose their jobs if that happens, so you need to concentrate.

You just wish callers would learn to behave better, they have such high expectations of gold star service and they often abuse you for not being able to help, or for keeping them waiting too long. They don't understand that privacy legislation means you cannot, under any circumstances, help them if they are not named on the bill, even if it is in their partner's name and have been paying the bill for years. You are sick of being sworn at when you try to sell them something, but, as management keeps telling you, unless you sell you are out of a job.

A call drops into your headset, it is the fifty-first for today. No time for dreaming, it is straight into 'Welcome to Telco, how may we help?'

Welcome to world of the call centre representative.

Bendigo Calling

In the early 1990s, jobs in the call centre industry were held out as the lifeline life·line  
a. An anchored line thrown as a support to someone falling or drowning.

b. A line shot to a ship in distress.

c. A line used to raise and lower deep-sea divers.

 for workers made redundant from the restructuring of the manufacturing sector in the 1980s, especially in regional Australian cities. Bendigo's experience was typical. As manufacturing businesses closed in the late 1980s Bendigo was hit with very high rates of unemployment throughout the 1990s, peaking at 14.2 per cent. In addition to job losses, declining industry Declining Industry

An industry where growth is either negative or is not growing at the broader rate of economic growth. There are many reasons for a declining industry: consumer demand may be steadily evaporating, the depletion of a natural resource may be occurring, or there may
 in Bendigo ensured little local tax revenue and widespread empty business real estate.

The City of Greater Bendigo The City of Greater Bendigo is a Local Government Area in Victoria. It is located in the north-western part of the state. It has an area of 3,048 square kilometres. In 2001 it had a population of 87,000.  was anxious to secure the capital investment of companies to create jobs and utilise real estate. An obvious target was the telephone call centre industry. Call-centre work tends to be stressful and offers few opportunities for career advancement, producing a combination of low productivity amongst workers and a high turnover rate. One way to address this is for companies to relocate call centres to an area with a high rate of unemployment thereby ensuring a more stable workforce.

The City of Greater Bendigo offered a number of advantages over other regional places vying vy·ing  
Present participle of vie.

vying vie
 for call centre business. Firstly, being the site of a major telecommunications node, Bendigo was poised to offer quality telecommunication access. Secondly, the very high rate of unemployment promised lower employee turnover rate. Thirdly, the City of Greater Bendigo offered $20,000 for companies to do comparison studies to assess Bendigo's suitability and assisted them to access State Government 'start-up' money of up to $3000 per employee. Finally and significantly, Bendigo was and still is, one of the state of Victoria's most politically marginal seats marginal seat n (POL) → circunscripción f políticamente no definida .

Positioning itself in the market as a 'call centre centre', the City developed the 'Bendigo Calling' initiative: to create 'an attractive and sustainable competitive cost environment'. The initiative resulted in a number of businesses; both private and government, setting up call centres in Bendigo. Commentators likened it to another gold rush. The metaphor of a gold rush is an apt one: the Bendigo goldfields n. 1. A small slender woolly annual (Lasthenia chrysostoma) with very narrow opposite leaves and branches bearing solitary golden-yellow flower heads; it grows from Southwestern Oregon to Baja California and Arizona; - it is often cultivated.  of the 1800s created spectacular wealth, but alongside it, misery.

Five years after the initiative's conception the creation of service industry jobs in Bendigo has more or less ceased. Anecdotal evidence anecdotal evidence,
n information obtained from personal accounts, examples, and observations. Usually not considered scientifically valid but may indicate areas for further investigation and research.
 suggests that 10 per cent of the working population are employed by call centres, compared with 3 per cent Australia wide Australia Wide is a rural-focused half-hour soft news programme produced by the ABC in Sydney. The programme was, up until mid-2007, produced by the Corporation's New Media and Digital Services division in Brisbane. It is shown weekdays on the digital-only channel ABC2 at 4.00pm, 7. . These workers are gainfully gain·ful  
Providing a gain; profitable: gainful employment.

gainful·ly adv.
 employed in a town where previous employment alternatives were limited. The work provides opportunities: an income, new friends and an associated worker identity. Without the creation of call centre jobs many of these workers would have moved from Bendigo, or would have struggled amongst the unemployed.

The New World of Work and its Consequences

Alongside the opportunities the work has provided, though, there are limitations. One of the call centre workers I spoke to, Patrick, says:

I really detest de·test  
tr.v. de·test·ed, de·test·ing, de·tests
To dislike intensely; abhor.

[French détester, from Latin d
 the job. It makes me really miserable--I think most call centre workers can only work there for about a year. That is as much as any normal person can bear. Which is fine if you are in a big city 'cause there are other jobs to go to, but in Bendigo? I'm really grateful that the company came to Bendigo, 'cause I probably wouldn't have got a job otherwise. I'm not qualified to do much at all, so I'm happy in that respect. But--there's nothing else [to do] so it is a bit depressing. I spend eight hours there every day and I just feel like it is a waste of eight hours of every day of my life. I might be dead tomorrow and what am I doing answering pointless questions?

The boredom Boredom
See also Futility.

Aldegonde, Lord St.

bored nobleman, empty of pursuits. [Br. Lit.: Lothair]

Baudelaire, Charles

(1821–1867) French poet whose dissipated lifestyle led to inner despair. [Fr. Lit.
 that Patrick feels, answering pointless questions, the lack of meaning he experiences in his call centre work and the mild depression he suffers after long stretches of work are common themes in the stories call centre workers tell. The changing nature of work, such as call centre work, has created new vulnerabilities. In particular, the regional working class is highly vulnerable in the face of increased new forms of electronically mediated me·di·ate  
v. me·di·at·ed, me·di·at·ing, me·di·ates
1. To resolve or settle (differences) by working with all the conflicting parties:
 service work.

Customer service representatives aim to answer up to 70 calls a day and complete the transaction within six minutes. This translates into 420 minutes, or seven hours per day talking. Longer talk times--say, seven minutes instead of six--ensure fewer customers can be serviced in any one seven-hour shift. This is work that is done worldwide, but in Bendigo it is done long term.

Unsurprisingly, the work takes a toll on the health of the workers. Customer service representatives report frequent troubles with their voices, throat infections and hearing problems from the daily use and overuse overuse Health care The common use of a particular intervention even when the benefits of the intervention don't justify the potential harm or cost–eg, prescribing antibiotics for a probable viral URI. Cf Misuse, Underuse.  of their voices and hearing. They suffer headaches and high blood pressure that they attribute to the work. Many have difficulty sleeping and report suffering anxiety and depression. Weight gains of 10-15 kg per person in first year of owkring in a call centre is not uncommon.

Art, a call centre manager summed up the situation:

I think it is detrimental. I think it affects their social life, it affects their marriages, [their] feeling of wellbeing. It really affects their health, and their mental health. I really see a deterioration de·te·ri·o·ra·tion
The process or condition of becoming worse.
 in their attitude and their behaviour.

Getting by in the job, or 'coping' appeared to be influenced by three themes: firstly, the discourses that customer service representatives draw upon to understand their role at work, secondly, the workplace organisation and methods of control that were used in the various call centres and, finally, the workforce characteristics.

Therapy Culture and the De-politicisation of the Workplace

Customer service representatives draw upon particular understandings to make sense of and legitimise Verb 1. legitimise - make legal; "Marijuana should be legalized"
decriminalise, decriminalize, legalise, legalize, legitimate, legitimatise, legitimatize, legitimize
 their jobs. Many of these draw on therapeutic ideas, expressed through the use of psychological labels in media and popular culture. Frank Furedi's book Therapy Culture describes the phenomenon as one that uses human emotions and the language of emotionalism to understand the world. Frequently this is a passive stance that highlights human vulnerability and favours individualistic in·di·vid·u·al·ist  
1. One that asserts individuality by independence of thought and action.

2. An advocate of individualism.

 explanations that tend to result in a de-politicisation of events and experience.

This is characterised by an acceptance, at a cultural level, of understandings of the self in terms of categories of sickness, even though the individual concerned does not feel themselves to be personally sick. Therapy culture, in Furedi's terms, is characterised not by individuals seeking counselling or psychotherapy psychotherapy, treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods. Psychotherapy, thus, does not include physiological interventions, such as drug therapy or electroconvulsive therapy, although it may be used in combination with such methods.  for individual concerns, but rather by the move toward a culture defined by therapeutics therapeutics

Treatment and care to combat disease or alleviate pain or injury. Its tools include drugs, surgery, radiation therapy, mechanical devices, diet, and psychiatry.
. For example, Sheryl had worked in a call centre for two years and struggled with the job:

I have had times working there where I have actually had to have counselling, because I can't deal with the pressure. I am feeling like that again now. I'm dealing with it okay because I can recognise the symptoms now, like starting to get depressed etc. and I have to keep remembering that I don't have to do it. I only do this because I want to.

Sheryl's employer organised counselling for her and other stressed employees. She had learnt a range of coping strategies The German Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined four so-called coping strategies to define interpersonal relations, one describing psychologically healthy individuals, the others describing neurotic states.  that alleviated some of the stress. But at the same time, she had adopted the highly individualised Adj. 1. individualised - made for or directed or adjusted to a particular individual; "personalized luggage"; "personalized advice"
individualized, personalised, personalized
 approach to her circumstances that runs through much therapy culture. Her comment, 'I only do this because I want to' is emblematic em·blem·at·ic   or em·blem·at·i·cal
Of, relating to, or serving as an emblem; symbolic.

[French emblématique, from Medieval Latin embl
 of a therapeutic understanding that encourages personal acceptance of the situation.

Therapeutic understandings of their workplace situation offers a means to cope. Being stressed confers a kind of identity to customer service representatives, allowing them a rare degree of personal control over their working lives in the form of 'sickies'. At the time of the research there was up to 25 per cent absenteeism ab·sen·tee·ism  
1. Habitual failure to appear, especially for work or other regular duty.

2. The rate of occurrence of habitual absence from work or duty.
 in some call centres on any one day. Utilising the language and concepts drawn from therapeutic discourses enabled workers some degree of control over their working lives--and some much needed time off work.

But it is a limited form of control. While Sheryl tells herself that she does not have to do this job she denies the fact that she and her husband could not pay a mortgage on one income. Sheryl had not finished high school and alternative employment would have required a significant pay cut if, in fact, she could get alternative work. While the therapeutic sensibility sensibility /sen·si·bil·i·ty/ (sen?si-bil´i-te) susceptibility of feeling; ability to feel or perceive.

deep sensibility
 that suggests she does the work because she wants to, by labelling it a choice Sheryl downplays the structural constraints, further individualising the difficulties she faces and potentially making her decision harder to live with.

Furthermore, while Sheryl was working to accept her personal situation, the chance may pass to change the workplace causes of her distress. The call centre workers I spoke to said that there were few forums for staff to make suggestions and it may not have been feasible for Sheryl to challenge the status quo [Latin, The existing state of things at any given date.] Status quo ante bellum means the state of things before the war. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status which preceded the pending controversy. . But the tendency to individualise v. t. 1. Same as individualize.

Verb 1. individualise - make or mark or treat as individual; "The sounds were individualized by sharpness and tone"
 experience means that opportunities for broader workplace changes that challenge the structure and enact workplace change were likely to be missed.

The resort to therapeutic interpretations highlighted personal vulnerability rather than the trying workplace conditions. Customer service representatives saw work as a threat to which they had no control over. Despite the overwhelmingly structural causes, workplace unhappiness was individualised.

Another call centre worker, Samantha, noted: 'I guess it is a personal thing about how suited you are to a position and maybe I wasn't suited to that'. Many other customer service representatives like Samantha would say that they hated their job, that they often struggled with coping with the demands of the job, but it was clearly due to individual characteristics--that they personally could not cope. The consequence of this individualisation Noun 1. individualisation - discriminating the individual from the generic group or species
individualization, individuation

discrimination, secernment - the cognitive process whereby two or more stimuli are distinguished
 is that those with the least resources are left to deal with a collective problem on their own. Rather than address problems in the workplace, individuals were sent to counseling.

'Collective Movement' and 'Mandatory Fun': New Forms of Workplace Control

The methods of control employed by employers in different call centres also affected the wellbeing of customer service representatives. Two obvious forms of control in the call centres: 'shared control' and 'hierarchical control'.

Shared control is characterised by a climate of trust and the empowerment of workers. The locus of control locus of control
A theoretical construct designed to assess a person's perceived control over his or her own behavior. The classification internal locus indicates that the person feels in control of events; external locus
 is shared between managers and the workers in a meaningful way. The measurement of work processes focuses on quality rather than quantity, a rare thing in call centres. In addition, power relations are symbolised by an adult/adult relationship that encourages workers to be a partner in the subtle governing of workplace behaviour. Managers use the language of respect and pastoral care

A good example of shared control is what was termed, ironically enough, the 'SHIT' workshop, or 'Stress Has Its Toll'. The purpose of the seminar was to draw common themes from the problematic calls and devise methods to manage the impact, thereby avoiding stress. The designer of the workshop, Dawn, described it thus:

We might try to look at the preventative model and say 'let's talk about that'. And get it out there, normalise Verb 1. normalise - become normal or return to its normal state; "Let us hope that relations with this country will normalize soon"

change - undergo a change; become different in essence; losing one's or its original nature; "She changed completely
 it and look at some strategies. Collective movement. So it doesn't manifest in other ways, like illness or workplace injuries, or anything like that.

The links between the 'SHIT' workshop and the techniques of therapeutic culture are plainly apparent. The 'SHIT' workshop aimed to voice feelings, normalise emotional states and collectively develop strategies to improve the workplace environment.

As such, it represented a significant shift in addressing stress in the workplace in three ways. Firstly, the 'SHIT' workshop acknowledged the role of feelings in the work, something other managers left implicit. Secondly, the workshop was based on the assumption of a causal link between the correct expression of emotions and illness. Thirdly, Dawn encouraged the heightened rationalisation Noun 1. rationalisation - (psychiatry) a defense mechanism by which your true motivation is concealed by explaining your actions and feelings in a way that is not threatening
 of feelings. The 'SHIT' workshop can be understood as a workplace technique to shape worker subjectivity. This occurred in a noncoercive manner by allowing discussion of and the modelling and reinforcing of appropriate forms of behaviour.

Hierarchical control, in contrast to shared control, is characterised by external control by managers. The emphasis is on measures of work quantity rather than quality, the language more closely related to productivity: goals, targets and parameters. Productivity is imposed, timed and beyond customer service representative's control. Power relationships resemble those between a parent and child. Workplace culture is tightly structured and monitored. Agency of workers is discouraged or limited.

One example of hierarchical control is the policy of 'mandatory fun'. As Ruth, a manager, explained: 'One of our main priorities is having fun. It is mandatory; you have got to have some fun'. Mandatory fun took the form of dress up days, raffles Raffles

leading Victorian criminal-hero. [Br. Lit.: Herman, 19–20]

See : Thievery
, team names and charity fundraisers. Such activities are a distraction from the ever-present problems workers report in their workplace, breaking the otherwise unchanging un·chang·ing  
Remaining the same; showing or undergoing no change: unchanging weather patterns; unchanging friendliness.
 routine while keeping staff happy and ensuring high levels of productivity. The mandatory nature of the fun suggests it must be 'created'.

While the workers were often proud of their teams and the amounts of money raised for charities though events at work, after a number of years many tired of the deliberate and calculated nature of the fun. Popular forms of workplace fun were wacky and left little room for more subtle forms of humour. The fun was overly directed by management, allowing sparse sparse - A sparse matrix (or vector, or array) is one in which most of the elements are zero. If storage space is more important than access speed, it may be preferable to store a sparse matrix as a list of (index, value) pairs or use some kind of hash scheme or associative memory.  opportunities for customer service representatives to contribute to the nature of the fun. Mandatory fun risked infantilising workers in an environment where they were already treated like children. Unsurprisingly, the outcome was a worker who behaved like a naughty naugh·ty  
adj. naugh·ti·er, naugh·ti·est
1. Behaving disobediently or mischievously: a naughty child.

2. Indecent; improper: a naughty wink.
 frustrated frus·trate  
tr.v. frus·trat·ed, frus·trat·ing, frus·trates
a. To prevent from accomplishing a purpose or fulfilling a desire; thwart:
 child who was often absent from work.

The need for fun to motivate workers reflects contemporary expectations that work will be personally meaningful. Such expectations have not always been a feature of work. In his 1960 book Working, Studs Terkel Louis "Studs" Terkel (born May 16, 1912) is an American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster. Early life and career
Terkel was born in New York, NY, but at the age of two, he moved with his parents to Chicago, Illinois, where he has spent most of his life.
 noted that 'to survive the day is triumph enough'. But in a milieu mi·lieu
n. pl. mi·lieus or mi·lieux
1. The totality of one's surroundings; an environment.

2. The social setting of a mental patient.


[Fr.] surroundings, environment.
 where jobs are expected to give personal meaning, the difficult and uninspiring uninspiring

not likely to make people interested or excited

Adj. 1. uninspiring - depressing to the spirit; "a villa of uninspiring design"
inspiring - stimulating or exalting to the spirit
 nature of call centre work has been made over to also be 'fun'.

It is important to note that the style of control more closely associated with therapeutic techniques, 'shared management', produced significantly better outcomes for individual workers. However, that is not to suggest that this form of control was entirely benign. Both styles had the propensity for problematic outcomes at a cultural level.

In particular, the shared management style of control was not easily or universally integrated into the customer service representatives' life experience. Specifically, some customer service representatives experience a degree of dissonance between their roles at work and their lives outside of work. The experience of dissonance was exemplified by Amber who had since left the call centre. She noted:

Often my husband makes that judgment that I am a bit cold, and a bit, well he doesn't say heartless heart·less  
1. Devoid of compassion or feeling; pitiless.

2. Archaic Devoid of courage or enthusiasm; spiritless.

, but I distance myself, I don't get involved. And I say 'well, that is how I cope', and I feel that a call centre job instilled a bit of that in me.

Amber noted that one of her key coping mechanisms coping mechanism Psychiatry Any conscious or unconscious mechanism of adjusting to environmental stress without altering personal goals or purposes  in the call centre was to distance herself emotionally. All customer service representatives learn to act warmly and involved, to not take callers' abuse personally and to regulate sincerity. Amber's misjudged attempts, however, to reshape herself into ideal call centre worker were carried over into her home life, affecting her relationship with her children. Since she had left the call centre, Amber said, 'The kids constantly remind me, don't ever go back there Mum, because you weren't yourself'.

The requirement that she not be 'herself' clearly expressed a changed subjectivity required by the call centre. The call centre had demanded a set of skills that was inappropriate to both home and other environments. The resulting dissonance between the requirements of the job, Amber's attempts at an appropriate customer service representative identity and her home and other life seemed jarringly obvious.

'City People Have a Different Mentality'

Call centre work relies upon a work identity that is borne of cosmopolitan cos·mo·pol·i·tan
Growing or occurring in many parts of the world; widely distributed.

A cosmopolitan organism.
, middle-class experience. Ideally workers have had access to education, cultural variety and exposure to regular change. In Bendigo, however, call centres are staffed by employees whose identities developed out of rural working-class experience. Their lack of access to resources, lower education, comparatively limited cultural variety and higher community cohesiveness all ensure that customer service representatives struggle to maintain the emotional distance required by the job. While some customer service representative were able to learn, practice and deliver the inter-personal skills necessary to both cope and excel in the job, many could not.

These customer service representatives suffered from a form of 'double discontent'. Firstly, customer service representatives were alienated al·ien·ate  
tr.v. al·ien·at·ed, al·ien·at·ing, al·ien·ates
1. To cause to become unfriendly or hostile; estrange: alienate a friend; alienate potential supporters by taking extreme positions.
 in their own environment. The work demanded an interaction with unimaginable 'other', a faceless, placeless person at the end of the phone. They become 'others' in their work and have to manage the complex self-management of removing themselves from their own habitus habitus /hab·i·tus/ (hab´i-tus) [L.]
1. attitude (2).

2. physique.

n. pl.
 each day at work. This was reinforced, secondly, by managers. Call centre managers were often flown in from Sydney or Melbourne. These managers tended to impose their own norms onto customer service representatives.

'It is as though they are sheltered', said Olivia, a manager who had moved to Bendigo.

And maybe in a way they're better off than all of us. They have very simple needs. But I just don't think that they are inherently happy. I would prefer if you had a call centre in Bendigo and you paid more money and got people from Melbourne. Because city people have a different mentality.

While patronising, Olivia was adamant: Bendigo people were the wrong people for the job. Like many other mangers, she deemed the local workforce 'different' on their own turf. Call centre work, on this view, demands a particular 'identity', that of the educated, urban middle classes. This reinforced the notion of 'otherness', promoting a dual identity that encouraged customer service representatives to leave their locally informed identities at the door as they clock in each day. The call centre industry demanded a particular 'self' that contrasted with local values.

Commentators, political and civic leaders claim that the sustainability and viability of regional towns and economies relies on initiatives to address the effects of globalisation. Frequently these are bound up with the growth of the 'post-industrial' service work. Certainly, call centres in regional locales do create job opportunities and decent incomes--even if the pay is less than city-based call centres.

However, these changed forms of work create new emerging sites of vulnerability. In particular, the regional working class is highly vulnerable in the face of increased new forms of electronically mediated service work that require particular communication skills and identities. The price is paid in terms of disenfranchisement dis·en·fran·chise  
tr.v. dis·en·fran·chised, dis·en·fran·chis·ing, dis·en·fran·chis·es
To disfranchise.

, alienation alienation, in property laws: see tenure.

In the social sciences context, the state of feeling estranged or separated from one's milieu, work, products of work, or self.
, ill health and unhappiness.

Thanks to Dr Deborah Warr for her patient supervision and to VicHealth for supporting the research on which this article is based.

Nicky Welch is currently completing a PhD on the health and wellbeing of inbound in·bound 1  
Bound inward; incoming: inbound commuter traffic.

Adj. 1. inbound
 call centre workers in Bendigo in the School of Population Health Centre for Health and Society at Melbourne
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Author:Welch, Nicky
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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