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De-Stress Your Call Center: How to Manage In a Stressful Environment

According to Careercast.com's "Ten Most Stressful Jobs of 2010," firefighter tops the list, closely followed by corporate executive and taxi drivers. For those of use in the contact center industry, I believe we could "make the case" that any customer service position should also be high on that list!

The reality is that job-related stress has long been the nemesis of employees/employers around the globe. Stress has been linked in studies to everything from increased illness and related absenteeism, lower productivity to obesity. Not to paint too grim a picture, however given the current economic situation, the reality is that many are working harder for less money, and still wind up wondering (and hoping) they'll have a job at day's end. All of this combined with new technologies that make it easier than ever to work anytime, anywhere and you've got the "perfect storm" – high levels of on-the job stress. The truth is that no matter who you are and/or what job you have, how good or bad the economy is, etc. we will all experience some level of stress on-the-job. So the answer isn't waiting for the circumstances of your job and/or the economy to change. A better answer is to learn how to manage your stress before it manages you!

Let's start by answering a few questions about stress.

What is stress? Dr. Hans Seyle, one of the prominent psychologists of the twentieth century and one of the first to research, understand and define stress. According to Seyle, stress is the "single, nonspecific reaction of the body to a demand made upon it." Put another way, stress is the psychological and physiological reaction that takes place when you perceive an imbalance in the level of demand being placed on you and your ability to meet that demand. The key words in the latter definition are the words, "you perceive." Seyle said, "It's not the event but your perception of it that makes all the difference." So there isn't a single event that categorically leads to stress. Two people faced with the same event may perceive it differently. One may find it stressful; the other may not.

Is all stress bad? Most of us view and use the word stress in the negative. To most of us, it implies something bad. The truth is that there is also good stress. There is actually a term for good stress: "eustress." Eustress is what gets you up and running, what enables you to get to work, to get to the football game on time or to clean out the basement. Eustress is what provides us with stimulation and challenges and enables us to grow, develop and change.

What we typically associate with the word stress is, technically, distress. This is the kind of stress that makes us anxious, restless, irritable, exhausted, sad, etc. Distress is a reaction to some kind of external or internal self-imposed pressure, that illicit undesirable physical and psychological change.

Symptoms and Warning Signs of Excessive Stress (Distress)

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Problems sleeping (falling or staying asleep)
  • Loss of interest in work
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches, muscle aches
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, social activities
  • Stomach/digestive issues
  • Excessive use of drugs/alcohol to cope

The Manager's Role in Reducing Stress in the Contact Center

Contact center managers can look for signs and causes of stress. One of the first places to start is the chart below (Common Workplace Stressors). Use it to assess which stressors exist in your workplace (for you and your employees) and determine which ones you can impact/improve.

Common Workplace Stressors

Categories of workplace stressors Examples

Organization culture and/or structure

  • Communication processes
  • Management styles (participatory or non-participatory)

Interpersonal relationships at work with:

  • Managers
  • Co-workers
  • Peers
  • Direct reports

Career Path/development

  • Correct job fit
  • Job security
  • Career growth development opportunities
  • Overall job satisfaction

Role in the organization

  • Conflicting job demands, multiple managers)
  • Lack of clarity about job role, responsibilities, expectations.

Factors unique to the job itself

  • Workload (too much/not enough)
  • Pace, variety, meaningfulness of work
  • Autonomy (for example: the ability to make decisions)
  • Work hours (shift work, hours of work)
  • Physical environment (safety, noise, air quality, space etc.)
  • Isolation at the workplace (emotional or physically working alone)

(Adapted from: Murphy, L. R., Occupational Stress Management: Current Status and Future Direction. in Trends in Organizational Behavior, 1995, Vol. 2., p. 1-14)

Once you've identified the most common stressors in your contact center, you can start to help reduce it by doing the following:

  • Improve communication. For example:
    • Share as much information as you can with employees to assist in reducing uncertainty about their jobs and the future.
    • Be sure that you clearly define and communicate each employee's role, responsibilities and the expectations of the job.
  • Involve your employees. For example:
    • Consult with employees about scheduling and work rules.
    • Ensure that there is a right "job fit" for employees.
    • Give employees as many opportunities as possible to participate in decisions that impact their jobs.
  • Be sure that your organization's policies and procedures are fair, applicable to everyone and are enforced consistently.
    • Ensure that employees understand the importance of their role and contribution to the "bigger picture."
  • Reward and recognize the team and individuals.
    • Praise good work performance often and sincerely.
    • Provide opportunities for skill and career development

And remember, you are their leader. They take their cue from you, so being a positive role model for managing your own stress will go a long way to helping your team!

The following is a subset from ICMI's 90 Ideas for Revitalizing and Energizing Yourself: Suggested Activities to Help You Manage Stress. This list contains some creative changes others have found helpful in re-charging and re-energizing themselves. You may find value in some of these ideas as you create your own plan to relieve your distress and perhaps even turn the tables on distress and make it work for you rather than against you. Use this list as a starting place, and choose the ones that resonate with you (not everything will be for everyone) and that you feel would work for you. And then add your own thoughts and ideas to the list!

Remember, a lot of managing stress comes from understanding that you always have choices. We can choose to take the actions we can to manage our stress. So when faced with stress, it is not only deciding what you can do about stress. It is also about deciding what you will do about managing stress.

  1. Focus on one thing at a time
  2. Don't try to be perfect
  3. Define the purpose of the work
  4. Take time to exercise, eat lunch or some other activity that gives you a shift from the work at hand
  5. Build a support network
  6. Find time to smile, laugh and help others do the same
  7. Seek out good friends (build your support network)
  8. Share yourself with significant others
  9. Contact new people
  10. Do something for others
  11. Take charge of getting involved
  12. Give the other person a break
  13. Face painful questions directly
  14. Keep things in proper perspective
  15. Learn to let go
  16. Learn to play again
  17. Smile
  18. Laugh, Laugh, Laugh!!!!!!
  19. Learn to accept what you cannot change
  20. Reward yourself
  21. Don't be afraid of failure
  22. Develop the attitude of gratitude

In the end, remember, you can't escape stress. Some stress is normal. Whether an event causes good stress or bad stress depends on the individual and is primarily based on perception.

If you're in distress, these tips should help relieve the pressure. Of course, if you're experiencing eustress, smile and take advantage of it.

Rose Polchin is an ICMI Senior Consultant and Certified Trainer. [email protected]