According to industry analysts ContactBabel in their HR & Operational Benchmarking report, the mean average attrition rate for 2014 is 19%, based on a study involving 215 UK call centres. To put that figure into a comparative context, XpertHR reported that the average UK ‘voluntary resignation rate’ in 2011 was 7.9%.
As those results show, it cannot be denied that contact centres have high rates of attrition. There are many contributing factors to this sad result, and one is the quality of health management in your centre. The work the agents are doing can be detrimental to their continued physical health if they are not properly supported. This constant or even degenerating state of ill health can result in agents leaving even if all other aspects of their centre are outstanding.
Here we’ll briefly cover two of the types of health issues that agents may suffer from and how these can be improved. We’ll also hear from someone who used to work in a call centre and found she developed problems as a result of it, and what she thinks would have helped her.
Being an agent means talking. A lot. The rise of social media for companies may be slightly decreasing this for some centres, but the majority of agents are still on the phones all day, every day. ContactBabel noted that agents are answering calls 27% faster than in their previous report.
This amount of constant vocal effort often leads to voice problems. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) studied employees from 14 centres and found 11% had been diagnosed with a voice disorder, and another 10% admitted their vocal performance was negatively impacting their work.
Voice problems are much more varied than just a sore throat. Unite’s Health and safety in call centres report mentions the following as a non-exhaustive list:
- Irritating cough
- Change in pitch
- Sore throat
- Poor or no vocal power
E, who previously worked in a call centre for two and a half years, reported “multiple sore throats and chest infections (at a level not experienced before or since)”. She feels that vocal problems are made worse in this industry because your voice is necessary to do your job, so people in her department would further damage their throats by coming in ill because they could not afford to take the time off sick or for what E called “attendance management” reasons. While E was there she received no help from her manager and no training in how to avoid throat pain. Years after she left, she “noted that this year [the management] had passed out antibacterial gel and desk wipes to the staff, which presumably would have helped with the rate of colds/etc.”
Of course, this method could be useful even if all your staff’s voices are perfect – less staff off with colds in the winter is always good! But it was a start. Presumably in the intervening years, the management had become more attuned to the needs of their agents.
A vital way to minimise vocal damage is to minimise the strain. Make sure that agents are taking/making calls in the quietest area possible, as otherwise they will strain to make themselves heard over background noise. 60% of the agents studied by the IOSH found this happening to them, and 41% failed to make themselves heard during calls.
Remind your agents to drink whenever they have the opportunity, to keep their throats lubricated.
Unite recommends that managers increase the humidity in rooms. This is noted as an aid for dry eyes, but will also be beneficial to abused throats. If actively increasing a room’s humidity is impossible, then simply being careful how you turn up the thermostat in winter should help, since indoor heating tends to be very dry.
Best of all, of course, is to provide official vocal management advice in staff training. The IOSH report found that vocal training greatly reduces the risk of vocal problems.
The flip side to speaking, of course, is hearing. This can also be an area in which agents suffer. General difficulty in hearing can be helped by the same solutions which help speech: lowering the amount of background noise as much as possible.
Unite said that in loud environments many agents will cope by turning up the volume on their headphones. As anyone with a teenage child knows, and has probably told them, this is not good for your ears! Tinnitus is a very common effect of this kind of behaviour, and this condition can cause sufferers great distress if it becomes chronic.
Unite advises that employees’ headphones should kept in good working order, with old or faulty headphones replaced. They also advise that all headphones should have protection against sudden volume spikes. The Health and Safety Executive site explains that many major headphone manufactures incorporate a limiter into their products in order to prevent this. Though these may be more expensive than products without them, you should consider it a worthwhile investment into the safety of your employees. Here E discusses her experience with what is described as “auditory ‘burst’ of sound”, otherwise known as an acoustic shock:
“When I explained about the ‘burst’ of sound that left my ears ringing and my head in a great deal of pain, I was treated as though I’d made it up, with no help offered and no attempts to find out what had happened. This would have been on the recording but, as far as I know, no one ever checked it to find I was telling the truth.”
This experience highlights the fact that no matter how good or bad your health policies may be, it is vital that your employees feel as if they are valued and believed when they report problems.
With thanks to Mharie West