The Call-Center Blues

People who work in call centers tend to be less healthy, suffer from more stress and take more medical leave than workers in other fields. But while the work can clearly take its toll on those answering the phones, HR leaders aren't without tools that can go a long way in minimizing the impact.

Thursday, November 20, 2014
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Michael Klachefsky vividly remembers the call center he visited not long ago: Large screens visible to everyone in the facility displayed the names of workers who were on the phone-when their time on the phone approached or exceeded a certain limit, their names began flashing. Employees who were away from their phones had their names displayed in different colors.

"The environment in these call centers is very demanding," says Klachefsky, an absence-management consultant at The Standard Insurance Co. in Portland, Ore. "They rigorously monitor everything."

For call-center workers, stress is part of the job. However, such stress-along with strict policies on time-and-attendance and job performance-may also be part of why call-center workers are significantly more likely to take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act than other employees. A recent study of about 20,000 call center customer-service representatives, or CSRs, by the Integrated Benefits Institute finds that one in three took FMLA leave during the study period-more than three times the average for all other exempt and non-exempt employees in other occupations. 

The study found that most CSRs are female and earn less than other employees. This is significant, according to the San Francisco-based IBI, because female employees are 77 percent more likely to take continuous FMLA leave and 146 percent more likely to have intermittent leave than male employees. However, CSRs were more likely than other employees to take FMLA leave for their own health reasons than to care for another family member, the study found. work environment at call centers and the demographic from which they're recruiting appear to be big factors, says Brian Gifford, the IBI's director of research and measurement. Due to the low pay and minimal skill requirements, call-center work tends to attract people with limited education, he says. This demographic tends to be less healthy than others, he adds.

"You start to get a picture of a workforce that is, perhaps, more predisposed to illness and to not have as much flexibility in their schedules to take time off, and between those two things it's not surprising that they're taking more FMLA leave," he says. "But even when we controlled for such factors, the differences in FMLA leave between this and other workforce segments is still pretty stark."

The rates of intermittent FMLA leave vary widely among different call-center locations. The study found that one company experienced a 76-percent difference in employees' leave rates across its call-center locations, while another company saw a difference of 43 percent.

Such variation may indicate that some locations are better at helping their CSRs manage their health and their schedules better than others, says Jackie Reinberg, a senior consultant at New York-based Towers Watson.

"One of the key elements for call-center workers to be comfortable is having supervisors who understand the importance of having engaged employees, who've been trained to work with employees on issues of flexibility and use recognition and rewards to help them feel better and perform better," she says.

Reinberg cites the study's finding that leave rates among employees at a financial-services firm declined by one-third after it implemented new practices designed to connect employees' efforts to the company's goals.

The management style of many call-center supervisors leaves much to be desired, says Philadelphia-based consultant Palmer Hartl, author of The Ten Commandments of Management

"My experience has been that a lot of the management style at these call centers is parent-to-child and not parent-to-adult," he says. "Grown-ups don't like being treated as if they're children. Unfortunately, the management talent attracted to these jobs tends not to be very sophisticated."

This, coupled with the stressful nature of CSR work, is a bad combination, says Hartl.

 "Admittedly, I've flown off the handle at least once while on the phone with these folks and felt badly for the person on the other end of the line afterward," he says. "That's why managers in these centers need to be sensitive to their employees' needs, so they can leave their job at the end of the day with their sense of 'OK-ness' intact."

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Although the nature of call-center work leaves less room for flexibility than other industries, HR leaders in the industry do have options, says Laura Thompson, a principal in the absence-management practice at New York-based Mercer.

"Analyze the data for each call center to determine what's causing these spikes in intermittent leave and what solutions are feasible," she says. In some cases, companies have found that spikes occur during January and June-coinciding with flu season and the end of the school year.

"Solutions for this might include offering free flu shots and providing on-site daycare or back-up childcare, as a number of call centers do," says Thompson.

In other cases, call centers may be located in regions with high rates of diabetes or asthma, she says. Companies in those areas can partner with local healthcare providers and disease-management firms to improve early detection and treatment, says Thompson. Some call centers even allow their employees to work from home, she says.

Klachefsky says the call center he visited was one of the two worst-performing facilities in terms of absenteeism among the parent company's nationwide network of call centers. The company decided to retain on-site vocational specialists to help employees who were having physical and psychological problems stay at work. They helped the centers identify accommodations for employees with back problems, arthritis, migraines, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and other ailments.

Nine months later, says Klachefsky, the facilities had gone from worst to best in terms of absenteeism rates.

One of the most important things call-center managers can do is promote a positive environment and listen carefully to their employees, says Reinberg.

"Having the right leadership in place is extremely important," she says.

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