Are your agents about to sue you for mental abuse?


What can be done to improve call centre absenteeism? This is the burning question that call centre management raises at every available opportunity.

It’s hardly surprising as the sector is plagued by absenteeism. The problem is particularly prevalent with outbound call centre work; where according to a ContactBabel report, absence rates are a staggering two and a half times the industry average.

Battling high levels of absenteeism has long been a challenge in call centres, which have struggled to overcome a history of low pay, high stress and lack of appreciation for the work.

Over the years, the sector has made great strides to increase their visibility and value within organisations, yet high absenteeism remains a major management problem for most contact centres.

When absenteeism is a symptom of something far more worrying.

More often than not, absenteeism is viewed solely as a problem that affects operational effectiveness. What the sector fails to acknowledge is its role as symptom of mental health issues.

In a recent article, Linda Craven, the Manchester representative of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), cited increasing pressures on call centre employees for the rise in mental health issues.

“When absence becomes a problem we obviously prep with our members, and more and more are stress-related,” She attributed a number of factors for this rise, in particular the application of more stringent targets.

“Mental health has become more of an issue for older call centre employees. It is easier to leave when you are younger, but for older agents it’s not so easy. One older agent was struggling with the pressure so much, that it was making her ill. When she was advised to do something about it, she replied, ‘I’m 60 years old, where can I go?’”

When metrics are the path to mental illness.

The problem isn’t confined to these shores, it’s a worldwide issue.

In Australia, an ABC News article led with the shocking headline that call centre staff face insecurity and mental health issues secondary to abuse.

Scott McNamara, a manager with the United Services Union which represents over 1,000 Australian call centre workers, claims that the high level of monitoring allows for potential issues to be exacerbated. “We all have bad days, but when your job is highly monitored, that bad day is more apparent.”

Stress relating to key performance indicators is without doubt on the rise. One call centre manager who wishes to remain anonymous reported,

“I saw what happened when colleagues began to suffer in the loop of stress and increasing call times. It looks like exhaustion but it’s also depression. They become withdrawn, they have no energy. Then their key performance indicators (KPIs) suffer and their call times suffer, so they become even more stressed. They don’t last long.”

When do an agent’s mental health issues become the concern of the call centre.

This raises the question: How far does a call centre’s duty of care extend to the mental well-being of its agents?

According to the Health and Safety Executive it is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees, and they must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this.

Many managers will likely brush off the idea of ever being sued for wilful neglect. But in an increasingly litigious society, it won’t be long before someone, somewhere takes a call centre to court over poor working practices. All you need is a couple of high-profile court cases and suddenly everyone will be panicking.

But why wait? Shouldn’t any call centre that truly cares about the well-being of its agents, take pre-emptive steps to protect their mental health.

Take Workforce Engagement Management, once a day, all day long.

For the last decade, in the drive to continually improve call centre productivity, the sector has fixated on Workforce Optimisation and efficiency metrics.

While Workforce Optimisation can help to ensure that there are enough agents with the necessary skills to answer customers’ enquiries, it fails to appreciate or even acknowledge the level of engagement or ‘job satisfaction’ of employees.

The result? A miserable, unmotivated and stressed-out workforce.

One potential cure, is to shift from Workforce Optimisation to Workforce Engagement Management; a trend which is supported by Gartner.

Gartner predicts that traditional operational management techniques will increasingly fail, and what is needed is a shift of focus to employee engagement in order to nurture happier, more motivated agents.

Not only will Workforce Engagement Management help with an agent’s well-being, there is a proven correlation between an employee’s’ level of engagement and the impact it has on both the customer experience and overall corporate performance.

Where Gamification can help.

Through the introduction of user-friendly dashboards, game mechanics, social interaction and material rewards, Gamification injects an element of fun into every single working day.

Gamification provides agents with countless opportunities to display their resourcefulness and initiative, while their resultant hard work is immediately acknowledged, both through material rewards and the acclaim of their peers.

The result is a more engaged, more motivated and ultimately happier agent.

We aren’t implying that Gamification is a cure-all, but it might just help to reduce the number of call centre sick days, and perhaps more importantly go some way to improving the well-being of agents.

By Tom Palmer
Tom is EvaluAgent’s Head of Digital and takes the lead on developing and implementing our digital and content management strategies which results in creating a compelling, digital-first customer marketing experience.

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