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Cognitive Overload in the Contact Center is Costing You More Than You Think

We’ve all been told that the human brain is basically a supercomputer. 

Using its 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, it can multitask like a miraculous machine, simultaneously interpreting emotions, solving problems and thinking creatively. But all is not as advertised. The human brain is much more fragile than we’ve been led to believe. Asking it to do too much is asking for trouble. Walking and chewing gum is easy. Talking and typing? No problem. But before hopping on a unicycle to juggle chainsaws while giving a TED Talk (aka working as a contact center agent), you should understand the serious consequences of cognitive overload. 


What is Cognitive Overload?

Today’s contact center agents are working with some of the most advanced technology in history. It’s easy to be impressed with the speed and power of cutting-edge computers connected to the cloud. The magic of AI. The ease of automation. But as much as our hardware gets faster and better every year, every agent is still working with the same brains humans have had since the Stone Age. And it turns out that it doesn’t take much to crash them like an old PC running Windows 8.

Cognitive overload happens when the demands on an individual's working memory exceed their capacity to process information efficiently. Human working memory has a limited capacity, typically capable of holding about 7 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information at a time. Exceed that limit and cognitive overload kicks in, making it difficult to process and retain information effectively. You can see how relevant this is in environments where individuals are required to handle multiple tasks simultaneously or process a high volume of complex information. While people can still function in a state of cognitive overload, it will, obviously, lead to poor performance and more mistakes.

Much like a car with a flat tire will still move forward, driving on it will eventually cost you your ride.


Debunking the Myth of Multitasking

There is no such thing as multitasking. The truth is that the human brain is not designed to handle multiple high-focus tasks at the same time. It can switch between tasks rapidly, but even this switching comes at a steep cognitive cost. When switching from one task to another, the brain has to reorient to the new task. That reorientation and adjustment uses effort and energy, which can reduce overall efficiency and add time to every task. You can FEEL more productive, but the science begs to differ.

Researchers at Stanford University found that heavy multitaskers are actually worse at filtering out irrelevant information, organizing their thoughts, and switching between tasks compared to those who focus on one task at a time. And another study from the University of London found that multitasking can actually lower IQ scores. Participants who were multitasking during cognitive tests experienced a significant drop in their IQ scores, similar to what one might experience after losing a night’s sleep.


The Benefits of Slowing Down 

We live in an accelerated world. And at work, agents are expected to move faster and do more than ever before. And the forecast for the future shows no signs of slowing down.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of calls marked as "difficult" by contact center agents has increased by around 50%. This complexity contributes significantly to cognitive overload, as agents handle more challenging queries than ever before (CX Today).

There has been a 68% increase in issues being escalated up the chain of command, indicating that agents are struggling to resolve problems on the first call due to cognitive overload and insufficient training (Omnicus). Most of us have learned how to function with certain levels of cognitive overload. We chalk it up to the “modern pace of work.”

But as contact center managers and leaders, you have a basic responsibility to keep it at bay. Because while cognitive overload can result in reduced productivity and beat up your bottom line, the real damage comes to those on the front line.

Cognitive overload leads to higher levels of stress and fatigue among employees and long-term exposure can negatively impact mental health and job satisfaction. Not only do you miss your metrics, you end up forcing much more turnover.


How to Reduce Cognitive Overload for Agents

Implementing tools and systems that support cognitive processing, such as automated workflows, can help reduce overload by streamlining tasks and reducing the cognitive burden.

Training programs that focus on improving efficient information processing can also be beneficial. But the most powerful one-two punch might be leveraging AI and self-service. On average, contact center agents handle 41 conversations per day. Those high volumes of interactions can involve simple, repetitive tasks that contribute to cognitive overload. Eliminating more of that mundane work is an easy way to reduce the noise and protect agents from suffering “death by 1000 cuts.”

Dispatching AI chatbots and integrating smarter, automated processes relieves the pressure and frees them to focus on the most urgent matters. And it works, too. According to a study from Fit Small Business, approximately 60% of contact center agents report that AI helps them save time by automating repetitive tasks like routing calls and processing inquiries.

Adding self-service options can remove tasks from an agent’s plate altogether. More than half of consumers prefer self-service options, and even if the DIY options don’t get your customer all the way to a solution, you’ve lightened the load for your most valuable assets. While the rapid rise of technology in contact centers has turned customer service into a high-stakes game of mental gymnastics, it's important to remember that our agents aren't superheroes—they're human. 

By embracing AI, automating workflows, and offering top-notch training, we can help our agents avoid burnout and boost productivity. Not only will this lead to fewer mistakes and happier customers, but it will also mean less stress and a more sustainable work environment.