On the Clock: Stress and the Cyborg Job

Emily Guendelsberger

Emily Guendelsberger

I was listening to Intercepted, a podcast from The Intercept news outlet, on Wednesday and heard an interview with Emily Guendelsberger, a Philadelphia-based journalist who has written a book called  On the Clock, What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane. The interviewer, Jeremy Scahill, explained that Guendelsberger had worked three low-wage jobs and then written a book about her experiences. Her employers, he said, were Amazon, McDonald’s and Convergys.

I was doing dishes as I listened and I literally froze at the mention of Convergys — the call center operator, taken over in 2018 by the Synnex Corporation’s Concentrix Division, that operates right here in Glace Bay.

I’ve been thinking about call centers a lot since last December when ServiCom went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Iowa businessman Anthony Marlowe stepped in to re-open the local center to adulation from the press and with significant financial assistance from government (a $500,000 loan from ACOA and a $2.5 million payroll rebate from the province). I noted at the time that pouring public money into call centers is a proud, post-industrial Nova Scotia tradition that sees “highly paid bureaucrats securing stressful, non-unionized, low-paying jobs for their fellow Atlantic Canadians.”

I understand the relief the ServiCom workers must have felt at getting their jobs back but something about the notion that these workers — whom everyone kept saying were the company’s “best asset” — should have to be grateful for $12-an-hour jobs rankled. I worked in a call center and it was stressful, non-unionized, low-paying — and also, boring. But that was 25 years ago, and I have been deeply curious about what life is like in a call center in 2019 (especially after hearing some rumblings from inside the Sydney Call Centre that suggest the “Christmas miracle” is starting to seem somewhat less miraculous).

It had actually occurred to me that the only way to really get a handle on the situation would be to work in a call center, but I couldn’t see how I could do that and publish the Spectator. (That’s a little too much multi-tasking.) So when I heard that this woman had penetrated the inner sanctum of a Convergys, it made me snap to attention. I bought the book on Wednesday and devoured it over the weekend and it’s kind of the only thing I’ve been talking about ever since.


In the weeds

Guendelsberger did a phenomenal amount of research for On the Clock, which doesn’t just tell the story of her own crappy jobs (although it does that, and does it so well I found myself getting anxious just reading about her trying to get to work and return from breaks and complete tasks as the clock ticked) but also explores the history of the modern workplace, the science behind the human fight-or-flight response (and how it comes into play in stressful work situations), the myriad effects of precarious employment, the impacts (on work and humans) of technology and automation, and more.

She makes clear from the outset that although she names the particular companies for which she worked, the book is not meant as “an exposé of Amazon, Convergys, McDonald’s, or AT&T”:

The point isn’t that these companies are uniquely horrible. It’s that these technologies and practices are present in most other low-wage jobs, too. I chose these companies because of how well they’ve adapted to this system, but the system [emphasis hers] is the problem, not them.

Modern workplaces, she explains, use technology to ensure workers are never “out of the weeds” — food and retail outlets, for example, are carefully understaffed (with work schedules drawn up by computer algorithms rather than human supervisors) so that workers never have any downtime, but lines for service are not so long that customers give up and go elsewhere (or ballistic).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as Guendelsberger explains:

We’re at a strange point in the history of work. Automation of most jobs is only a decade or two away, and human workers increasingly have to compete with computers, algorithms, and robots that never get tired, or sick, or depressed, or need a day off.

Still, in industries that rely on skills that robots still aren’t great at—fine motor control, speech and pattern recognition, empathy—the cheapest option is still low-wage human workers. And so many employers demand a workforce that can think, talk, feel, and pick stuff up like humans—but with as few needs outside of work as robots. They insist their workers amputate the messy human bits of themselves—family, hunger, thirst, emotions, the need to make rent, sickness, fatigue, boredom, depression, traffic—or at least keep them completely at bay.

I call these cyborg jobs —I have to have something to use as shorthand—and they make up an increasing slice of the American labor market, including most of the postrecession job growth.


Weird workaholics

To explain how we got here, Guendelsberger takes us back to the 19th century and introduces us to two “deeply, deeply weird workaholics,” Henry Ford (who actually needs no introduction) and Frederick Winslow Taylor (who does, because he is “probably the most influential American whom not many people remember”).

Taylor, born in 1856 in Philadelphia, was an early work management consultant who used the cutting edge technology of his time — the stopwatch — to “measure and analyze previously subjective tasks.” You have to read the book to get the full measure (no pun intended) of the man, but the short version is that he believed workers were inherently lazy and stupid and that, given free rein, they would naturally resort to what he called “soldiering” — that is, agreeing on a pace at which everyone would work rather than pushing themselves individually to work as hard as they could at all times.

"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos” Highland Park, Michigan (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Taylor’s answer was to monitor workers as constantly as 19th century technology would allow and to disassemble skilled jobs “into multiple smaller unskilled jobs,” removing the job security of skilled workers (who used to exercise great control over the pace of work) and thereby “further shifting the balance of power toward factory owners.”

Ford, of course, is famous for dividing the work of building a car into “multiple smaller unskilled jobs” on his assembly lines. Ford is also, generally, lauded for paying his workers enough to be able to afford his cars, but Guendelsberger says that’s what’s less known about Ford is that he had to raise pay because workers hated working in his factories and turnover during the first year of his assembly line was 378%.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and modern technology “allows for the kinds of individual, minute levels of supervision and control Taylor could only dream of.”

The digital ghosts of his stopwatches…have infiltrated previously hard-to-quantify sectors of the US workforce, digitally deskilling and speeding up work. Techno-Taylorism has gotten the most attention as it starts making inroads into high-wage jobs such as law, medicine, and journalism, but it’s already a way of life in the low-wage sector—fast food, call centers, nursing, elder care, etc. It’s very difficult for modern unskilled workers to avoid working in a techno-Taylorized environment defined by mistrust and contempt.


As more and more skill is stripped out of a job, the cost of turnover falls; eventually, training an ever-churning influx of new unskilled workers becomes less expensive than incentivizing people to stay by improving the experience of work or paying more.

This last point really resonated with me, because I’ve long wondered why the local call centers always seem to be hiring and now I know: because it’s cheaper to hire and train than to pay more or improve “the experience of work.”


Fight or flight

Guendelsberger spent “most of the summer of 2016” working at a Convergys in western North Carolina. She explains that she decided she wanted to work in a call center because the industry is growing — one of the few that continued to expand during the recession — because it employs one out of 25 Americans and because the comments she’d been reading from call center employees on online forums suggested the job was difficult in precisely the way “cyborg jobs” are:

Reps talked about constant monitoring and micromanagement, having as little job control as assembly-line workers, and metric-obsessed bosses counting not just how many seconds you spend on every stage of a call but also how many you spend in the bathroom.

At this point, Guendelsberger notes the “huge body of research” linking:

…repetitive, low-control, high-stress work with increased risk of mental-health issues—particularly depression and anxiety. Many of these studies were actually conducted in call centers because they’re such a perfect model of a low-control, high-stress workplace.

Guendelsberger was trained to work on the AT&T account (an account, according to press reports, that is also handled by the Sydney Call Centre). Training included learning to handle customers’ problems while at the same time selling to them (the only exception being people calling to cancel the accounts of deceased loved ones — they alone didn’t have to be pitched a DirecTV subscription).

What struck me as particularly interesting, though, is that the technology the Convergys reps worked with was not particularly good:

Convergys’s computer system is actually about eight separate systems kludged together like Frankenstein’s monster. Each system has its own log-in, password, and set of uses and rules, and they don’t play particularly well together…

Slowly we learn how to use combinations of systems to handle the most common customer problems—the big two seem to be setting up payment arrangements for customers too broke to pay their bill right this second and explaining data-overage charges to customers who just received a huge bill out of nowhere. It’s not intuitive, so we memorize which systems to use for what.

The clunky technology comes back to haunt her on one of her first days answering real calls — she takes so long getting the systems up and running that a woman begins screaming at her:

An electric jolt runs through my body. My heart starts racing, my face gets hot, my muscles tense, my throat chokes up, and I’m suddenly flooded with unpleasant, jittery, violent energy. It’s way, way too much; it feels like I’m going to burst. Time seems to slow down, which might be helpful if I could focus. But I can’t even seem to think.

This, Guendelsberger explains, is the fight-or-flight mechanism kicking in. There follows a very entertaining passage in which she invokes the personage of “Wanda,” a distant human ancestor, to show “how bad stress is for you…what the stress response does, why it exists, and how it helped our ancestors survive.”

Vertebrates usually exist in one of two modes, which I’ll call chill (homeostasis) and overdrive (fight or flight). You spend almost all your time chilling, with your body prioritizing dull, long-term projects—keeping your temperature stable, digesting food, storing extra calories as fat, breathing, pumping enough blood to your muscles to move around, patrolling for foreign bacteria, growing, making the stuff you need to reproduce.

When Wanda, our ancestor, was startled, her nervous system responded before she’d fully registered what she’d seen (or thought she’d seen). She tensed up, her hands shook, her mouth went dry, her heart raced — if you’ve ever been scared, you’ll recognize the symptoms.

But there are two important points to be made about the fight-or-flight instinct (as well as a lot of less important but really fascinating points, like you stop growing until you feel safe again): first, it’s not a healthy state to be in long-term (for reasons Guendelsberger itemizes in detail). Second, Wanda’s stress response went off only occasionally because Wanda’s life, in Guendelsberger’s account, was actually not that stressful. She was a hunter-gatherer who, for the most part, could hunt and gather what she needed for the day in about five hours — Wanda had a lot of leisure time.

But after that first “screamer” on the phone at Convergsys, Guendelsberger says, every subsequent phone call became a potential screamer, so her body responded by tensing up whenever she heard the beep in her headset telling her a new call was coming in (and a new call was always coming in).

Guendelsberger explores this issue in depth and comes to the amazing conclusion — after speaking with an addictions expert — that the stress and despair experienced by low-wage workers might have a stronger link to the opioid crisis than any physical injury or pain they might experience. (Which is not to downplay the physical pain many workers experience, particularly those at Amazon. You’ll need to read Guendelsberger’s book to even begin to appreciate it but I will give you a hint: painkiller vending machines.) The addictions expert, though, says feeling you lack control over your life is linked to “all sorts of health problems” including cancer, depression and obesity and lack of control is a hallmark of the low-wage jobs Guendelsberger held down for her book.


Nickel and Dimed

I mentioned at the outset that I had worked at a call center 25 years ago, but what I didn’t mention is that, like Guendelsberger, I also wrote about it.

Living in Toronto and Montreal in the ’90s, I did some freelance reporting but always needed an anchor job to pay the rent, so I worked in both a Toronto call center (serving the CIBC) and a Montreal fast food outlet (a Harvey’s, as it happens). I lasted only a few months in either place and when I quit, I wrote about my experiences for Our Times, a labor magazine edited at the time by Lorraine Endicott (who is now in charge of outreach and engagement and based here in Nova Scotia).

In my head, I had come to believe I’d been inspired to do this by Barbara Ehreinreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a book Guendelsberger also cites as an influence, but Nickel and Dimed came out in 2001 and when I looked at my Our Times clippings, I found I’d done my participatory journalism experiment in 1994-95.

This means I can compare and contrast working in a call center and a fast food outlet in 2015-17 (as recounted by Guendelsberger) with doing so 25 years ago.

I re-read my pieces this weekend (I’ll attach them here for your reading pleasure) and the first thing that struck me, as I thought back on those crazy jobs, was that, as with Guendelsberger, the best thing about them was the other people. I have good memories (although no lasting friendships) from both places.

But I hated the work. And a big part of what I hated was being monitored and mistrusted. But here’s where the difference between 1994 and 2019 comes into play: I was monitored in a very analog way. At Harvey’s, where I was a cashier, there were cameras all over the store (including one trained specifically on me) and a bank of monitors in the manager’s basement office but I worked night shift and the manager was (almost) never there. Her only way of knowing what any of us was up to was to send her creepy old uncle in to pretend to be nice to everyone while spying on us.

But I think the most striking contrast between 1994 and 2019 is this: at Harvey’s, a co-worker told me about working day shift and, during a break in the flow of customers, leaning against the counter for a moment to catch his breath. The phone rang immediately: it was the manager, calling from the basement to tell him not to be “lazy piece of shit.”

In the San Francisco McDonald’s where Guendelsberger worked in September and October of 2017, there would be no break in the flow of customers because the algorithm doing the scheduling would have found that under-staffing sweet spot where workers never stopped working but customers weren’t driven completely mad by the wait. (Which is not to say they weren’t driven somewhat mad. See: the thrown condiments incident.)

And my call center was a kinder, gentler place (although it was neither kind nor gentle) simply because I was not expected to sell anything — just handle inbound calls — and the only service I was dealing with was online banking, so I wasn’t expected to multi-task. Mind you, the online banking system wasn’t working and most people I talked to were upset about unpaid bills and NSF charges, but they weren’t that upset — I wasn’t getting screamed at on a regular basis the way reps in Guendelsberger’s call center are.

And yet, as I said, I hated those jobs and lasted only a few months at them in ’94. I don’t think I’d last a shift today.



“I get to leave”

Guendelsberger had a card up her sleeve, of course, her “I get to leave,” card, but she was very conscious of having it and of how it limited her understanding of what it meant to be truly trapped in a cyborg job.

I remember having the same card (sort of) back in the day: I knew quitting would mean a struggle until I found another job, but having only myself to support relieved a lot of the pressure. Best of all, it allowed me to remain outraged at the way I was treated, as it did Guendelsberger, who said she never lost the voice inside her that kept saying the world could — and should — be better:

I’d be a better employee without this little voice. If I hadn’t graduated from a good college, or had been born below the middle class, or had children very young, I’d probably have spent the last decade and a half struggling to sandpaper this troublemaking part of myself down to nothing.

And while many people simply quit these jobs (Guendelsberger’s class of Convergys trainees goes from 20 to 12 after one week on the phones), those who stay do so because they don’t have better options, as a conversation between Guendelsberger and two of her Amazon colleagues (she worked at a warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky) makes clear:

I ask Melody what the best of her many jobs was. “Honestly? This one,” she says. At previous jobs, she kept getting roped into doing managerial work for entry-level pay. “I’ve been told that I’m too damn nice. Whenever they ask me to go places at Amazon, I’m, like, ‘Why do I have to go?’ and they’re, like, ‘Cause you’re nice. And you won’t tell me no.’”

But [Amazon] is easy compared to farmwork, and it’s the best-paying job Melody’s ever had—or sees herself getting anytime soon. “I’m from a small town, so pretty much the only jobs you’re gonna get are cashier, teller, manual labor—there’s just not a whole lot of work opportunities,” she says. “I have to drive an hour to get to Amazon, but my paycheck makes it worth it.”

And yet, at least two of her three colleagues (all model employees) could see problems with the whole picture — big problems. One, Hailey, who was worried she might lose her job for taking too much unpaid time off (for a number of very human reasons), says she understands why Amazon needs strict rules to ensure no one abuses the system, then adds:

“But I’m of the mindset, myself—why should we have to work like this just to prove that we’re worth shelter and food? So. So, like, the whole system is frustrating to me.” She sighs. “You hear older people say stuff all the time—like, I’m a company man, you work for the company, and the company provides for you. But the company doesn’t do that anymore, because it’s not a company, it’s a corporation.”

Guendelsberger’s conclusion is that we got here because “we spent the past half century outsourcing the running of society to technology, data, and free markets—even though none of those things can tell if everyone’s miserable.” But our situation is neither “inevitable” nor “natural” and as further change looms — in the form of automation, which she predicts will “upend everything we think we know about work in the next 10 to 20 years” — the question is “who gets to decide what the new world will look like and what it will value.”

The first step, she says, is to allow yourself to imagine another way:

Try it. Be corny. Imagine a better world, one you’d like to live in. Imagine a world that’s kinder and less stressful than this one, a world built on human rather than shark values. Don’t think about politics, or policy, or feasibility—there’s experts for that. Don’t handcuff yourself with pragmatism right now. Just imagine, in as much detail as you can, a world that’s better.