Over the past seven years, 25-year-old Samantha Devine has worked at four call centres, starting at the first immediately after graduating high school. She is now unemployed, taking anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants and has been through several rounds of therapy.
“They didn’t really care what happened to you,” says Devine. The mother of two worked for the now-closed Atelka call centre in Saint John, NB for five months before she quit. “They just had ridiculous expectations; they expected you to never miss time and I was pregnant. I would get yelled at for little things—it made it extremely difficult.”
The Maritimes has been a mecca for third-party call centres for over 20 years. In New Brunswick alone, roughly 18,000 people work in over 100 call centres. There are more than 13,000 employees in 40 centres in Nova Scotia. The job can be attractive to young adults in need of a decent wage with no experience, but job insecurity and poor work environments can lead to stress, anxiety and depression.
“We probably lost half [our call centres] in the past five or six years in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,” says David Campbell, a Moncton-based economic development consultant. “But the small ones that have started in the region have closed down because of their inability to find workers who can work in that type of environment.”
Like many young people with only a high school diploma, working at a call centre was Devine’s best option. She says she experienced sexual harassment while at her first job and things didn’t get much better from there.
“They would make comments about what I was wearing, how I was looking—one supervisor actually told me in return for services he would help me with my statistics,” she alleges. “So that’s your call times, basically sleeping with someone to get up the ladder.”
She switched employers in 2008 and stayed for six months. It took almost a year before she was able to find another call centre placement.
“I had such bad experiences I had virtually nothing to put on a resume that wouldn’t look bad on me,” she says. “I got the next job through a friend.”
The stress of working in call centres often goes unnoticed, says Campbell. The environment is fast-paced, training is limited and the tasks are repetitive.
“Stress injuries are prominent because of the growth of that type of work in Atlantic Canada,” Campbell says. Call centres “tend to be monotonous, dealing with customers and handling the same challenges day in and day out.”
While small call centres will continue to be easy jobs for young people to find, the work environment won’t always be what employees are expecting. Brett Loughery began his first job at a call centre in Fredericton in 2012. He says the job influenced his drinking habits and the stress was often too much due to lack of training and increased expectations for its employees.
“I would buy Faxe [beer]—10 percent—shotgun it and go back in to work. I got suspended for three days because of it. I wouldn’t handle that situation now in the same way, but it worked at the time,” says Loughery. “I dreaded going in to work. You’re stressed out on the phone and you’re in a dank, smelly old room and it’s hot in there.”
Admiral Insurance, a call centre in Halifax, employs 414 people and pride themselves on how they handle the mental wellbeing of their employees.
“We know this is an important job and a very challenging job. We let off some steam with some fun and lightheartedness,” says Nick Beynon, senior human resources manager for Admiral.
The company has its own “ministry of fun” whose job is to inject levity into the eight-hour workday.
“They took a bunch of different office material,” he says, “and turned the back-end of the office into a large six- or seven-hole mini-putt course.”
Beynon says the company even offers acupuncture massage, in-office yoga and free fruit for its employees. “We really take care of the mental and physical well-being of our employees. Since the existence of Admiral here in Halifax, every year it gets better and better.”
Brett Loughery says a lot of the stress and depressed feelings he had working at call centres were linked to poor training and organization.
“There’d be a 30-second hold time max for phone calls, and your system isn’t working and your team leader or manager is being asked other questions by other employees,” he says. “You have these people on hold for more than that time and you get bitched at for not having the right hold times.”
The impact call centres have on a young person’s mental health isn’t always something they consider when in search for a quick paycheck. Loughery says he would have continued to drink if he had stayed, and knows now the job isn’t for everyone.
“If you are going in there and thinking it’s an easy paycheque, it’s not,” he says. “If you’re not prepared to deal with the stress and angry people then it’s going to impact your mental health.”