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.
All around you people are murmuring 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.
In the early 1990s, jobs in the call centre industry were held out as the lifeline 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 in Bendigo ensured little local tax revenue and widespread empty business real estate.
The City of Greater Bendigo 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 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.
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 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 suggests that 10 per cent of the working population are employed by call centres, compared with 3 per cent Australia wide. These workers are gainfully 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 for individual concerns, but rather by the move toward a culture defined by therapeutics. 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 that alleviated some of the stress. But at the same time, she had adopted the highly individualised approach to her circumstances that runs through much therapy culture. Her comment, 'I only do this because I want to' is emblematic 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 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 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. But the tendency to individualise 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 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 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 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 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, team names and charity fundraisers. Such activities are a distraction from the ever-present problems workers report in their workplace, breaking the otherwise unchanging 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 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 frustrated 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 noted that 'to survive the day is triumph enough'. But in a milieu where jobs are expected to give personal meaning, the difficult and uninspiring 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, 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 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, 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 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 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, alienation, 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 call centre workers in Bendigo in the School of Population Health Centre for Health and Society at Melbourne