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Making Call Center Jobs Better: The Relationship between Management Practices and Worker Stress

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The work of a call center agent has been described as one of the ten most stressful jobs in the global economy (Holdsworth and Cartwright 2003). Call centers are known for their heavy use of electronic monitoring, tightly controlled schedules and break times, and intense performance pressure. Past research has shown that these practices contribute to high levels of employee stress, anxiety, and burnout (Holman and Fernie 2000; Deery et al. 2002; Holman 2002). Worker stress also creates problems for companies and their customers. Managers are affected by staffing challenges associated with employee turnover and absenteeism. Customers are routinely routed between employees who have been narrowly trained to answer specialized questions. This report summarizes research findings from a survey administered to 2100 call center workers represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), with the aim of investigating the causes and consequences of well-being and stress in these workplaces. We ask the following questions: • What kinds of stress are experienced by call center workers, and how high are stress rates across different measures? • What management practices and workplace factors are associated with lower rates of worker stress? • How does worker stress relate to job satisfaction, absenteeism, and turnover intentions? • What explains differences in the practices and outcomes associated with high rates of worker stress across call centers? The call center workers we surveyed report high levels of stress across a range of measures, including emotional strain, sleep difficulties, use of anxiety medication, and repetitive stress injuries. Workers experiencing higher stress were also more likely to be absent, were less satisfied with their jobs, and more likely to want to quit. However, call centers do not have to be stressful workplaces that damage workers’ health. Good management practices that invest in skills, give workers more control over how they talk with customers, and use monitoring information to develop rather than discipline workers all can improve the workplace climate and reduce stress and burnout. Experience with outsourcing and fears of future outsourcing were also correlated with stress: suggesting that commitments to job security and in-sourcing work may also contribute to improved worker well-being.

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call centers; worker stress; Communication Workers of America; CWA


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Required Publisher Statement: Copyright held by the authors. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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