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Good Breathing Connection: One Link to Attendance Rates for Call Center Agents

Absentism and job turn-over among agents are two of the biggest challenges contact centers face today. While there are many contributing factors, one that’s often overlooked is, surprisingly, the voice.  Persons in careers where the voice is used continuously, such as classroom teachers, speakers and webinar presenters all report a higher rate of vocal fatigue and voice loss, as well as higher rates of absenteeism due to vocal issues.  And contact center agents can be placed in this category, too,  as their  position is dependent on the voice.

While many voice users have turned to mints, warm water and other coping techniques, it is critical to take a comprehensive view using research-backed tools to create lasting changes.  Of the many factors that help to create a reliable and healthy voice, the most notable one is effective breathing. 

As you read this article you are breathing normally using a muscle called the diaphragm that activates the breathing process.  But for many, this natural process gets off track when the element of speech is added. Breathing that was natural, becomes forceful or insufficient creating a host of problems including vocal strain and worse, an unreliable voice.  Whatever the outcome, this can be a problem for agents who rely on their voices to support customer requests on the phone. Developing very good breathing habits is a great investment and the key to supporting a good voice and reducing rates of absenteeism due to vocal fatigue. 

Understanding the role of the diaphragm in speech breathing is a critical first step.   As the diaphragm lowers, the lungs have more room to enlarge.  This easy movement creates a slight rise and fall or in and out  motion of the stomach when we’re relaxed, sleeping or just sitting still and breathing normally.  The opera singer is perhaps the most skilled in expanding this movement for maximum projection and sustaining sound.  When the diaphragm is under-used one starts to engage in negative behaviors like lifting or heaving the shoulders when inhaling for speech, and using upper chest versus stomach muscles to breathe.   Clearing the throat, or h, holding the breath while talking may become bad habits.  Understandably, stress can affect this process, causing the muscles to tighten and making it even more difficult to talk.  It’s no wonder speakers experience fatigue.  They are essentially fighting to talk!

Creating a reliable and healthy voice, is dependent on effective breathing

So what is another factor in developing good speech breathing habits? Health is a primary factor in ensuring what is referred to as good airway management. The airway system is like a curvy road beginning with the lungs then moving up to the windpipe (trachea) then going into the voice box or larynx before moving out the nose and mouth.  Any blockage from allergies or a physical issue ( like a deviated septum) will block or interfere with the path the breath must travel.  Allergies should be taken seriously and treated aggressively. Many of my clients are referred to allergists and/or ear, nose and throat doctors (otolaryngologists) to determine the source of these problems.  Care must be taken using medications that may have a drying effect on the vocal cords. 

Talking with the physician about your career is important as well as drinking adequate amounts of water every day.
Snoring and sleep issues maybe other signs that breathing is compromised.   Night time difficulties will impact our daytime stamina and overall energy for deep breathing and voicing, so it may be worth a  referral to a sleep specialist.  Another specialist is the myofunctional therapist whose work strengthening the oral-facial muscles, may have a secondary benefit of improving breathing as well as better chewing, swallowing and articulation.

Developing very good breathing habits is a great investment and the key reducing absences due to the voice

There are many techniques that can be used to develop diaphragmatic breathing.  Hath yoga is an excellent activity that also works on stretching the muscles.  (Yoga break room in the call center, anyone?) Good instruction with a singing teacher or speech-language pathologist can also prove helpful.  Enlisting the help of a buddy or peer to practice proper breathing can be very useful., and understanding the geography or specific environment is essential for understanding the voice.  Humid versus dry environments have different effects on the voice and require different strategies. Whatever steps you take, it is critical to use coping  techniques within the context of a broader comprehensive voice plan with measurable goals.

Think about jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald or opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti, both who performed well into their 70’s with vocal clarity and strength.  Unlike them, many others during their singing or acting careers damaged their voices and essentially shortened their career.  Age does not have to limit the effectiveness of the call center agent.  If proper patterns, especially speech breathing patterns, are established and maintained now, agents can preserve their voices and comfortably perform their job duties.  Understanding the vocal mechanism and implementing a series of procedures for better voice usage and to protect the voice, will benefit the entire contact center,  reduce voice related absences and perhaps even increase agent tenure in vocally-demanding positions. 

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