I walked on the ground floor of the eight story building and watched banks of human beings wearing headsets, glued to their chairs, staring at computer screens, answering call after call.
“Good morning, you’re speaking to Adam. How can I help you?”
“Good morning, you’re speaking to Sarah. How can I help you?”
“Good morning, you’re speaking to Melissa. How can I help you?”
“Good morning, you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you?”
“Good morning, you’re speaking to Amy. How can I help you?”
The room was well lit but almost completely devoid of natural light. “The problem”, one of the managers told me, “is that they are taking calls from stressed, angry, upset, and often aggressive people all day long. We’re finding that after a while they become anxious, stressed, unhappy and then leave. Our turnover rate is just too high. We have good facilities, drinks and snack machines, kitchens on each floor, and a staff canteen, but it doesn’t make any difference. We need to increase their resilience, help them to become mentally stronger, and stop them from leaving. That’s where you come in.”
The staff at the contact centre worked shifts of between 8 to 10 hours long with one 30 minute break for lunch (unpaid) and two 15 minute breaks (paid) that were timed from the second they logged out. Conversation with the person sitting next to them was frowned upon and almost impossible to do. All calls were recorded, monitored, and randomly listened to by a manager to ensure guidelines and procedures were being followed at all times. They also had targets that included average call time, time between calls, and conformance to breaks and shift times. They had to be at their desks, headsets on, and logged onto their computers with all software and programmes set up and ready to run at the time their shift started. This took between 10–15 minutes for which they were not paid for.
Many of the staff were provided by an agency and paid the minimum wage, and those who were permanent were paid just a little over the minimum wage.
“I don’t think I can help you.” I said. The manager looked surprised. They were offering me good money and a long-term consultancy contract. My type of training is often in demand on corporate well-being programmes in an attempt to make up for bad business practices, lousy company structures, and poor treatment of the human beings they call staff. They get to tick the box marked ‘well-being’ and think a chat about mindfulness will solve all of their problems. It’s like using a water pistol to put out a towering inferno.
I may still do a one off training session with staff, with the understanding that it it will be universal in it’s approach and not focused on their day-to-day work with the company. In these sessions we predominately cover values, purpose, presence, awareness of automatic thinking, and managing energy. The sessions are often a wake up call that lead to a spike in staff leaving the company to pursue other work, education, goals, or pathways. Some companies still allow me to do these sessions as they see it as a way of pruning uncommitted staff.
If big (and small) businesses want to get serious about the well-being and mental health of their staff, they need to start treating them like human beings and get the basics right before trying to use a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. Pay people fairly, give them the time and tools to do their job properly, and treat them with dignity and respect. That will improve your business and their lives far better than any well-being programme from the latest mental health guru.
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