Published: September 28, 2020 | Comments
Every year on October 10th, we take time to educate, build awareness and advocate for mental health on World Mental Health Day. But, conversations around this topic span far beyond just one day, especially having taken center stage in a year full of turmoil and stress. The ongoing pandemic and social unrest have altered our collective way of life for the better part of 2020, forcing us through long periods of emotional and physical isolation.
For the remote call center workforce, this is hitting especially hard as stress levels have reached extreme heights. According to Cogito data, businesses had anywhere between a quarter to a third of call center staff working remotely before the pandemic; now, that number sits much close to 100 percent. These workers, like many of us, continue to adapt to the remote work lifestyle, battling the call fatigue that comes with the territory of handling an average of 30 customer interactions per day and the pressure to meet performance thresholds – all while conversing with more anxious customers. With everything going on in the world, customer service agents and supervisors should dedicate time to recognize the symptoms of increasing stress and the leading indicators of burnout and identify how best to prioritize mental wellbeing. Let’s take a closer look at some of these causes of stress and how to address them:
Cognitive overload occurs when an employee consumes too much information at once, causing stress and lowering their overall decision-making abilities. It can manifest in physiological reactions, such as headaches, an upset stomach, sweating, and increased heart rate.
Normally, employees can take in sensory information and encode it into their memories, where they can retrieve it when necessary. However, if an employee is thrust into a situation where they are exposed to too much information, his or her brain cannot go through the encoding process, and portions of information cannot be retrieved or processed. For example, imagine a situation where a contact center agent is on the phone with a frustrated customer and is scrambling to navigate multiple screens and remember the appropriate policy, all while trying to capture information in a system, resolve an issue and maintain an emotional connection. The scramble of dealing with multiple processes and sources of information at once will prevent the agent from internalizing key information, damage their communication with the customer, and result in increased stress.
To help, provide agents contextual guidance to help reduce the mental burden of sorting through too much information from too many disparate sources.
Compassion fatigue comes into play when a contact center worker suffers mental exhaustion from taking on the burden of resolving issues for frustrated and anxious customers throughout a shift. The mirror neurons in the human brain can miraculously mimic the emotions of those around us and allow us to, in a sense, feel their pain. Empathy, or sensing others’ emotional distress and imagining their points of view, is a great quality for frontline agents, but being continuously compassionate can also build up stress and lead to a decrease in performance. As a result, the agent is unable to empathize with customers, and the resulting stress further erodes motivation.
Educating employees on the causes and risks of compassion fatigue is a powerful first step in combating it. An employee that can recognize overstimulation as it creeps up is more likely to successfully give themselves a break from depleting their “empathy bank.” Awareness, paired with stress-reduction like breathing exercises, stretching, and the breaking down of big issues into smaller ones, can help stop compassion fatigue in its tracks.
Employee burnout, formally recognized by the WHO as an official mental health syndrome in May of 2019, is characterized by low energy and heightened negativity or cynicism about one’s job, resulting in quelled performance. Burnout manifests as a result of long-term, untreated stress (such as compassion fatigue or compassion overload) and is most often recognized when employees display sudden negativity and ineffectiveness. Facing a seemingly never-ending stream of information and emotionally draining interactions, call center workers can fall into a sense of hopelessness. The amygdala, which is located in your brain and helps process emotions, suffers a lapse in ability when this happens. In certain instances, burnout can lead to a long-lasting or permanent inability to control and express their emotions.
Recognizing signs of burnout is the first step in battling it. Next, employers must provide agents with autonomy; giving them a sense of control over their performance and any necessary changes can ease their stress. Time to de-stress cannot be understated - everyone needs time to maintain their personal lives outside of work. Leverage technology to gain an early window into the signs of burnout, and work to provide objective and supportive feedback that shows employees just how valuable they and their work are.
It’s important to remember that there are steps companies can take to help mitigate the cognitive overload, compassion fatigue, and burnout among call center agents. Challenge your organization to openly communicate about mental health to raise awareness of the telltale signs of these issues and develop best practices to reduce them. Without a doubt, this serves to ensure wellbeing in the workplace and elevate employee and customer experiences alike.