Headlines: June 19th, 2001

Call centers can provide a rewarding working environment, but a survey by UNISON, the largest public sector trade union, found that they can also create stress. Staff can feel less like human beings and more like an extension of technology. The survey included local councils, the health helpline NHS Direct, as well as other call centres. As call centers develop into contact centers and become a primary route of access to public services, the survey findings will have an increasing influence on design of new services.Call center stress results mainly from the computer taking control and driving the operation. Data is collected automatically minute by minute and in most centres an overhead LED display shows the number of calls waiting and the longest time waited. When a call is completed the computer automatically puts the next caller through and there is no choice, nor time to make a note or pause for any other reason. In some centres the equipment detects longer than average calls and a flashing light warns that the conversation should be ‘wrapped-up.

NHS Direct emerges as the call center exemplar. The call center in Wakefield, for example, has a spacious office environment with natural light, low noise levels and pleasant ambience. The priority in NHS Direct is for nurses to answer the calls to the caller’s and the nurse’s satisfaction, whether this takes five minutes or an hour.

‘Holding the Line’ is available from UNISON, 1 Mabledon Place London WC1H 9AJ