Bell's 'Let's Talk' campaign rings hollow for employees suffering panic attacks, vomiting and anxiety

Current and former Bell employees have written CBC’s Go Public to describe the toll that aggressive sales targets have had on their health at a company well known for its “Let’s Talk” campaign — a massive initiative to improve mental health.  

More than 600 people contacted the CBC after the investigation was published earlier this week. In email after email, current and former employees describe panic attacks in the workplace, stress-induced vomiting and diarrhea. Some reported crying before starting call-centre shifts and said taking stress leave is “common.”

And although many of the employees applaud Bell’s mental health program, they say it’s ironic that so many of the company’s employees are suffering physically and mentally from pressure “created by the top, down.” 

One employee even filed a human rights complaint this week, alleging Bell didn’t accommodate her disability. She says it eventually led to so much stress that she is on a medical leave.

Bell refutes all the allegations.

“I was on the verge of panic attacks. Just overwhelmed,” Jessica Belliveau, who worked for three years at a call centre in Moncton, N.B., said in an interview. The call centre was run by Nordia, a former Bell subsidiary that was recently sold to a Toronto investment firm.

Call centre in Saint John

Workers at the Nordia call centre in Saint John, New Brunswick. (CBC)

I was so stressed out that I’d be vomiting and having diarrhea at the same time. I ended up getting ulcers,” she said.

Belliveau says sales were based on the number of workdays in a month, but if she had the flu and had to miss work, her targets wouldn’t be adjusted. She quit two weeks ago, despite fears of unemployment.

“It makes you nervous, because here in the Maritimes…it’s rough,” Belliveau says. “Things are very expensive. The economy is not that great here.”

‘I was throwing up blood’ 

A Bell Mobility sales manager who is on stress leave says the pressure to meet sales targets was so intense that he lost 40 pounds in a few months. CBC is not identifying him — or several others — because they fear speaking out will affect their employment.

‘[My manager] would call me at 3 in the morning to ask why I was off my sales targets.’– Bell Mobility sales manager

“I had sales targets that kept going up,” the sales manager says. “But I had no idea where they came from. It was so stressful, I was throwing up blood.”

“My manager sent emails at 2 a.m. comparing my sales stats to the rest of the company,” he says. “Or he would call me at 3 in the morning to ask why I was off my sales targets. It was relentless.

It upsets me that Bell makes such a big deal about mental health awareness and takes a lot of credit for bringing that awareness to the general public,” he says.

‘Bell doesn’t walk the talk’

Dan Breffitt, a former employee who managed projects for Ottawa’s Bell Business Markets team, says the stress of dealing with an ever-growing workload contributed to an anxiety attack that sent him to hospital last fall.

“I had severe anxiety and depression,” he says. “There wasn’t an hour in the day where I wasn’t worrying about how I was going to meet all the expectations at work.”

He says he raised the stresses of the job with upper management after he returned to work last spring, but nothing happened. 

“They have the ‘Let’s Talk’ initiative,” he says. “But Bell doesn’t walk the talk.”

Breffitt quit earlier this month after having to take another stress leave in August.

Bell response 

Go Public asked Bell to respond to numerous allegations from employees that the company is doing a poor job of ensuring good mental health, by allowing a culture based on extreme pressures to meet what employees call aggressive targets.

“None of the allegations you make is true,” wrote spokesperson Mark Langton.

“Bell has taken a leadership position in workplace mental health,” he added. “It’s part of the way we work at every level. That’s been recognized by our team, the healthcare community, federal and other levels of government, other corporations across Canada and internationally.”

He said two per cent of the Bell workforce is on a mental health disability leave.

‘Let’s Talk’ campaign              

Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign is the largest corporate initiative in the country dedicated to mental health.

Each year, the company chooses one day to dedicate 5 cents per customer call, text, tweet, Facebook video view, Snapchat geofilter or Instagram post.

Since its inception seven years ago, the campaign has raised more than $ 86 million and supported more than 400 community organizations dedicated to helping people living with mental illness.

The company’s website says the program was launched after recognizing that mental illness was a national health concern with “a lingering stigma.”

Stressed-out Bell employees say “Let’s Talk” campaign ads like these are “infuriating.” 

‘The Bell Effect’

Despite Bell’s public commitment to improving mental health, past and present Bell employees describe toxic workplace environments to Go Public.

A former sales rep from a Montreal call centre writes, “The second I told my doctor that I worked at Bell after she heard the symptoms, she did not hesitate to prescribe a leave. Doctors everywhere are apparently well aware of what I call ‘The Bell Effect.'”

A manager at an S&P Data call centre — contracted by Bell — in Hamilton says customer service reps regularly broke down crying at work.

‘You better hope you don’t get sick. If you don’t meet your numbers, we’re going to show you the door.’– Former manager, Bell’s S&P Data call centre

“I was the bad guy telling them to sell or they’re out,” he told Go Public in an interview. “Because if they don’t hit their numbers, my manager comes down on me and I’m not going to have a job.”

The call centre manager says Bell’s head office seemed to genuinely care about people’s mental health but claims that message was not translated to his managers — and is the reason he says he eventually quit.

Discrimination complaint against Bell

This week, Bell call centre employee Andrea Rizzo filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) claiming discrimination because of a disability.

Rizzo was featured in an earlier Go Public story as the first Bell employee to speak out about aggressive sales targets.

Several years ago, she noticed her right wrist becoming more and more painful. She was eventually diagnosed with a painful repetitive strain injury — carpal tunnel syndrome.

In her complaint to the CHRC, Rizzo says that despite two doctors recommending reduced targets, which were temporarily lowered, they went back up again in December 2016.

Andrea Rizzo

Andrea Rizzo developed carpal tunnel syndrome working inside a Bell call centre, and says the company didn’t lower her sales targets when she returned to work with a disability (CBC/Tina Mackenzie)

“I was still experiencing significant pain because of my disability,” writes Rizzo. “I did not hit my target — I was simply unable to.”  

Bell has put her on a “performance improvement plan,” which could lead to her termination. Rizzo says the stress caused her to go on a medical leave.

Toronto human rights lawyer Wade Poziomka, Rizzo’s lawyer, says Bell is discriminating against a disabled employee.

“It’s holding a disabled employee to the same standard as all other employees, and not taking into consideration the fact that they do have a disability,” he says.

Poziomka also takes issue with Bell expecting people to hit their targets even when they miss time from work, due to sickness.

“If somebody’s off because of a cold or a flu, the right thing to do — from an employer who cares about their employees — is to take that into consideration and reduce their targets,” says Poziomka. “That’s what is morally and ethically fair.”

In New Brunswick,  Belliveau is wondering how she’ll pay bills, now that she has quit the call centre.  

But that’s a stress she says she can cope with. 

My morals are more important than my paycheque.”

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