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Machines take control of Humans, say UNISON

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“Call monitoring systems have increased pressure on call centre staff making them feel less like human beings and more like an extension of technology” is the main finding of a new UNISON report.

The stresses facing staff in call centres is examined in the report ‘Holding the Line’ which highlights the dramatic increase in the use of modern information technology in transforming the way people work. Although sophisticated technology can take much of the monotony out of work, in call centres it often appears that it has done the opposite . Instead of freeing workers up to enable them to take on more creative tasks, it is often being used to chain them more firmly to their workstations.

Sol Mead, UNISON Senior National Officer, who produced the report, said: “Being watched is very stressful, perhaps more so when it’s a machine doing the watching. A computer collects data minute by minute and an almost ubiquitous feature of most call centres is an overhead LED display showing the number of calls waiting and the longest time waited. When a worker finishes a call the computer automatically puts the next caller through, there is no choice, no time to make a note or have some breathing space. “Some employers aim for their call handlers to be on the telephone for as much as 80% of their shift – this practice will inevitably take its toll on worker’s health. And in some centres, a light automatically flashes up telling them to “wrap-up” if the equipment detects a longer than average call.”

“We have produced this guide, because UNISON does not want to dwell on negative issues but is determined to see remedies put into place to bring all centres up to ‘workplace of excellence’ standards. The study suggests positive steps to making call centres a safe and rewarding work environment. Creating such an environment is in the best interests of staff and management as many centres experience high rates of staff turnover.”

The guide looks at the growth of call centres in areas such as local government where they are used as a contact point for the community in a variety of different ways. Experiences are contrasted with that of NHS Direct where nurses are not required to answer simple queries or read from a script (although they do have a support IT software programme). It is their skills, knowledge and experience that are needed to fulfil their role. Their pay is based on their nursing grade and has nothing in common with pay scales of other call centres outside the NHS.

“It is possible for call centres to be pleasant places to work” said Sol Mead “and we want to encourage experience of best practice. In the NHS Direct call centre in Wakefield for example there is a spacious office environment with natural light, low noise levels and pleasant ambience. It has a canteen and a nursery/crèche on the premises and attractive rest areas separated from the workstations. The priority in the call centres is for nurses to answer the calls to the caller’s and the nurse’s satisfaction, whether this takes five minutes or an hour. There is no doubt that under those circumstances the caller will be happy with the service and the nurse will feel a great deal more work satisfaction.”

The guide deals with the main area of concern in call centres including:

  • high standards of health and safety
  • a good working environment based on sound ergonomics
  • decent pay
  • arrangements which are flexible for staff
  • monitoring systems that are not oppressive
  • proper training and development
  • strong ‘fairness at work’ policies
  • a management that listens to their call centre trade union’s representatives.

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