Working conditions and health in Swedish call centres
A 2003 study found that nine out of 10 call centre operators had suffered some type of physical ailment in the last month. High noise levels are a particular risk factor. In all, some 10% of their working time was lost on sick leave.
Although there are many definitions as to what a call centre actually is, it is clear that this relatively new sector is rapidly growing. In general, one can say that a call centre is a group of people providing service at a distance using information and communication technology. Approximately 1.5% of the working population in Sweden work in call centres, compared with about 5% of jobs in the US, 1.3% in Europe and 2% in the UK. According to the publicly owned Invest in Sweden Agency, the number will increase by 10% each year between 2002 and 2007 (Figure 1).
Call centres may be divided into two sub-categories: internal and independent. Internal call centres are located within a mother company, while independent centres function as companies in themselves, selling their services to other companies. The overall trend is that more and more call centres are located long distances from their customer base - even in other countries. It is estimated that, in South East Asia and India, the annual growth of call centres is 50%.
Most of the independent call centres in Sweden are small, having on average 46 workstations. However, many of the large publicly-owned businesses, such as the police force, postal service, Telia and Swedish Railways, use call centre services or have their own call centres. The aim is to create a 24-hour/seven day public service through which citizens can receive information or send questions or requests via information and communication technology. Their work organisation thus resembles that of dedicated call centres, i.e. some employees will be appointed to handle this communication on a full-time basis.
Personal, training and employment conditions
The average age of those working in call centres is relatively low - 30-40 years old - but can vary greatly. Call centre operators are predominately female and have, on average, worked in the company for four years. They have lower educational levels than average, although it has been suggested that call centre work is becoming more qualified and specialised.
Apart from the necessary product-based knowledge (highly skilled professionals such as nurses or stock brokers can also work in situations similar to call centres), there are few required qualifications for those seeking to become operators. Personal traits, such as good customer skills, are appreciated, but previous work experience is seldom a prerequisite. Training normally lasts two to six weeks, after which operators are encouraged to become self-sufficient. The average monthly gross pay for a call operator is around 16,500 SEK (approximately €1,830); sometimes, bonus systems based on individual or company performance are offered.
Lack of autonomy and repetitive work
On average, 65% of the call centre operators’ time is spent answering customer queries, while administration takes up between 10-30% and general activities 5-10%. Breaks contribute to just 5% of the working time. On average, operators respond to 100 calls a day, but this figure can go much higher.
Call centre work has sometimes been called ‘mental conveyer belt work’, illustrating its monotonous and repetitive nature. In addition, the work can be tightly controlled and monitored (both for the quantity and the quality of calls), which many employees in the sector find particularly difficult to deal with. Although legislation exists to set limits on what types of monitoring and control may be carried out, this can sometimes be ignored. The fact that operators do not know if and when they are monitored increases their feelings of nervousness, anxiety and stress. An additional psychological stress factor can be found in the emotional demands of the work, as operators can encounter verbally abusive, difficult or unreasonable clients.
Physical working conditions and health
It has been estimated that call centre operators spend an average of 1,300-1,400 hours a year sitting at the computer taking calls. Call centres are often structured in an open-space plan, and noise levels can be high. A 2003 study found that the average noise level was 61 deciBels(A), which is a level that clearly disturbs concentration and causes tiredness and headaches. The headphones used by operators are not designed to block out additional noise. In addition, suitable ergonomics for avoiding eye strain were found to be lacking. The study found that nine out of 10 operators had suffered some type of physical ailment in the past month (Figure 2). Some 10% of their entire working time was spent on sick leave, a figure which may be seen as indicative for the sector as a whole.
Toomingas, A., ‘Working conditions and health in call centres’, in Gustafsson R. and Lundberg, I. (ed), Worklife and health 2004 , Stockholm: National Institute for Working Life and Swedish Work Environment Authority, 2005.