I don’t know what happens when I send a claim off, so I can’t answer questions about what happens next. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
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.
The headset beeps and I launch into my scripted greeting. The caller wants to tell me about her recent cancer diagnosis, what type it is, what the treatment will be, the reasons her employer has given for not offering sick pay. But I don’t have time to listen to her story. “I’m afraid we need to stick to yes or no answers” I say, and I feel horrible because this poor woman wants to tell someone about this huge awful thing that’s happening to her, she wants a friendly listener to make her feel reassured that she will at least get financial help.
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.
Quality checking is done but it’s about whether we are reading every word of the script, there is no measure of how good a service we provide or whether or not people are able to make a successful claim with our help.
The woman with cancer has answered all of my scripted questions and I am reading her a list of instructions about what to do next. I doubt she is taking it all in; at this point she’s been listening to me for 45 minutes. I’ve already failed to hit the AHT target; she has children and it takes a long time to input all their names and dates of birth, plus she took ages to find her tax credits award notice to read me the figures. I decide I will take an extra couple of minutes to explain to her the importance of sending in fit notes signed by her doctor on a regular basis.
This isn’t in my script despite being absolutely key information and a major stumbling block for many new claimants. If the call is listened to by my line manager this will be flagged up as an area where I’m missing time targets, as will the three minutes earlier in the call where I let her cry quietly down the phone because her life is imploding and she’s frightened of what the future will bring and this is all too much for her. A more motivated call-handler would have got her back on track quickly, today I am not that person.
I feel like crying too after this call, because I know I have failed this woman in so many ways. No time for me to cry though, there is no break between calls, the headset beeps again immediately and this time it’s a woman with kidney failure. I’m failing her too, and afterwards I will fail the bereaved young father, and this afternoon there will be more and more people I fail to help And this will continue presumably until the government finally finds a way to do away with benefits entirely, at which point our sick and disabled people will be left with nothing, not even my hurried 23 minutes of script.
This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact firstname.lastname@example.org