This morning I spoke to a cancer patient, a woman with kidney failure, and a young man who had just lost the mother of his children. Each of them thought I was trying to help them. I wasn’t really though, because helping them would take longer than 23 minutes.
Twenty three minutes is how long it should take me to help you make a benefit claim, according to my bosses. I work in a Department for Work and Pensions contact centre and take calls from people who are at their lowest point.
These are people who need my help to navigate the complex claims system so that they can get a meagre payout. They’re often vulnerable and desperate by the time they reach me. My job is to fill in a new claim form for employment and support allowance based on the information people give me and then send that form off to the benefit centre where the claim is processed.
But for me, the only thing that’s really important is how long each call takes. We are measured on our average handling time (known as AHT) and if this slips beyond 23 minutes per call we face performance management, which is code for “you’ll get in trouble”. This involves anything from stern words and increased micro-management from your line manager right up to written warnings and dismissal.
I have a script I read from, over and over again, the same for every customer. Some of the questions are opaque at best: “has your doctor told you that special rules apply to your condition?” is one which flummoxed the woman this morning who has cancer; the script specifies that I should not offer an explanation of the term unless I’m asked. She did ask, so I read the follow-up line “special rules means your doctor has told you that your condition has a life expectancy of less than six months.” No, she said, not yet, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief that I wouldn’t need to ask another series of questions about this, pushing the call-handling time up further.
In the DWP’s modern-day version of a sweatshop, we staff are singularly ill-equipped to actually offer any help or support. I have had absolutely no training in how sickness benefits work. I don’t know what happens when I send a claim to be processed, so I can’t answer any questions about what will happen next or when somebody will get a payment.
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