Featured Image for the blog: Take the Edge off Your Agents, Improve Employee Morale, and Combat Contact Center Stress

The World Health Organization now officially recognizes burnout as a cause of chronic stress and the host of health problems that follow.

Work-related stress is a growing problem, especially in contact centers with a constant influx of lamenting customers. The typical workday of contact center agents can be incredibly harmful to mental, emotional, and occupational health.

A study published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine found that your agents’ stress stems from the need to suppress emotions. Your agents are expected to enter every customer interaction with positivity, no matter what they’re really feeling in the moment. It takes tons of emotional labor to force positivity when your mood doesn’t match the facade, leading to suppressed anger, resentment and frustration.

Download Now: Build a less stressful environment for your team and improve employee morale by coaching often with these 7 methods.

Researchers found that many contact center employees struggle with poor eating habits and smoking as quick fixes to their stress. They can even feel socially alienated from family and friends because they carry stress from work into everyday life. Other studies show that 58% of contact center workers were significantly more stressed, 63% more depressed, and 34% percent more anxious than people in other professions.

Contact center stress affects every organization’s bottom line. Every day, your contact center agents act as brand ambassadors during their hundreds, if not thousands, of customer interactions. Given the high demands of today’s customers, if agents fail to meet service expectations, customers quickly take their business elsewhere. How discouraging is that? When agents are anxious and stressed, it lowers productivity, affects call quality and increases employee turnover.

Not only does it negatively impact the agent experience, but also has a detrimental impact on customer service. In fact, 92% of consumers say an agent’s perceived happiness affects their personal customer experience.

To deliver excellent customer service, it’s essential to understand the source of agent stress, be able to spot it in your employees and work toward improving it.

Check out what we have to say about the impact agent experience can have on your entire business, here.

When stress is a problem

Stress looks different in every individual. One person stress eats and snacks all day, while someone else skips meals. Some people become incredibly avoidant when they’re stressed. Or, they get riled up and verbally process everything. This variety of response makes stress a tough thing to notice. What’s more, it has levels of severity. Acute, short-term stress actually motivates us to stay focused and alert in high-demand situations. Sometimes a dose of stress pumps us up for challenges at work and keeps us driven to succeed.

But, if stress becomes constant, it turns chronic. It leads to lasting negative effects on your emotional, mental and even physical health. This drains your agents and pushes them towards unhealthy habits, and eventually, out your door.

Your agents live in constant, acutely stressful situations. They jump from one task to the next, many of them handling a frustrated or even abusive customer with a problem. Some days, your employees get hit with negativity constantly. Yet, they’re still expected to keep a happy face, to hit their metrics, and to pick up the next phone call. These short-term stressful situations with customers can build. The job can get burdensome. And, that’s when stress turns chronic. That’s when stress can take a toll on your agents… and your whole operation.

Learn three types of angry customers your agents might encounter, and how you can help them navigate each tough conversation.

Why contact center agents are stressed

It’s not always the customers who make a contact center role stressful. Tons of other factors that come with the job description can be equally draining. I’ll just name a few…

Role Conflict

Contact center agents experience conflicting demands in their role. Between pressure to improve operational efficiency, maximize customer satisfaction and collect crucial customer information, the role of an agent can feel contradictory. How can you be speedy while resolving issues but also keep the customer feeling individually valued? How can you lower the queue of customers on hold while also documenting every interaction you have to keep a tidy customer history? Competing priorities add to the stress of your agents’ roles.

High Performance Expectations

In lots of customer service orgs, call recordings and transcriptions give managers the ability to peer into (and critique) every potential interaction agents have with customers. Often, these metrics and evaluations don’t take personal circumstance or emotion into account. They boil down the work of your agents into numbers. That places a lot of pressure on your employees. 

Your agents need to be quick and efficient. They need customers to leave them positive reviews. And they need to defend your company and advocate for it even if the organization failed the customer. Oh, and all their metrics need to hold steady each day, too. Eventually, all that pressure becomes too much and it’s already too late to improve employee morale.

Lessen the burden of metrics on your agents and focus on outcomes, instead. Here’s how.

Mundane and Repetitive Tasks

The work itself might not always be incredibly fulfilling in your contact center. Answering phones, emails, and chats can be repetitive. Often, when a contact center is attempting to keep things consistent and reduce costs, tasks get oversimplified. Standardized procedures and scripts can ultimately reduce mental stimulation, creativity, and autonomy in your agents. Yes, they’ll have all the answers in front of them, but aren’t offered the freedom to discover a solution themselves. This leads to disengagement, boredom and stress.

Low Wages

Companies reinforce the idea that customer service work is temporary and undervalued by underpaying service roles. The hourly pay, often just a hair above minimum wage, is incredibly demotivating and discouraging to agents. In spite of contact center agents’ work being demanding, taxing and vital to company reputation and operation, customer service jobs are rarely compensated well. This contributes to high attrition, but also adds significant stress to those employees.

When you feel low on the totem pole, you fear that any mistake will cost you your job (and your paycheck – even if it’s low). This forces some agents into survival mode at work. They don’t want to face humiliation for being reprimanded by a supervisor. They want to avoid a write-up, or the loss of their job. They’re insecure at work and it leads to a poor outlook on their future with the organization.

When in survival mode, employee morale sinks, motivation suffers and management often resorts to negative incentives instead of seeking out how to improve. It’s a perpetual cycle that won’t change until agent morale improves. But, you have the power to combat the cycle, to restore morale in your contact center, and to relieve daily stress for your employees.

Building morale to combat stressors in your contact center

The trick to combating agent stress is to reduce the severity of stressors and create a more supportive environment. Contact centers that focus on improving morale replace severe threats with minor ones – like losing a team challenge or missing out on a reward for not completing a training course. These smaller micro wins and losses are simple ways to increase motivation and learning opportunities.

When your agents enter a workspace that celebrates their hard work and gives them space and understanding to grow, they’re better prepared to cheerfully serve customers. High morale overrides the challenges of contact center work.

Learn the 9 business impacts and improved customer outcomes that follow a better agent experience.

Here’s how you can reduce stress and motivate your contact center team.

Decrease Repetition

Mix up your agent routines and don’t assign the same agents the same repetitive tasks day after day. Shake things up by adding in short breaks for your agents. Let employees step back from responding to calls or other types of keyboard work and de-stress.

Let them take a break and grab a cup of coffee. Give them freedom to take a deep breath and prep for the next phone call by getting some fresh air or brief exercise.

Try rotating agents through different queues to keep things fresh. You can rotate based on an existing schedule or have agents swap schedules amongst themselves. If you assign certain channels to certain agents, change up what line of communication agents use. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to sit and answer emails than deal with phone call after phone call with a different person. Break up the day and make the work less tedious.

Increase Training

Handling angry customers is a big part of contact center stress. Make sure your employees are sufficiently trained to handle stress effectively. They need to be able to compartmentalize their day so the emotions of a nasty phone call don’t leak into their other interactions or home life. They need to know what processes and procedures can support them when they feel overwhelmed or stuck. Coaching your employees regularly guarantees they have the skills they need to combat the toughest issues they face.

Make sure agents have the tools and resources available to deal with tricky problems. When agents know the procedures and their contact center platform well, they can make decisions on their own, without the scripts and processes. This kind of autonomy sets them up for long-term job satisfaction. And, it can improve employee morale, too. Be a resource and support your agents. Make sure they know you’re available to chat through a tough interaction, to vent to, or to learn from.

Quality management matters to every contact center. Learn how in-line training and frequent feedback eliminate burden for your agents, while still improving CX.

Establish a Sense of Security

Contact center agents need to feel like they contribute to the larger picture of the company. Without a sense of belonging, it’s demotivating for employees to stay with the company, to suffer through various stressors, and continue on. Some agents might feel stuck. Like this job isn’t leading them towards a career.

Some companies play into this feeling. If management expects turnover and accepts it as a cost of doing business, turnover will continue. If agents can sense a career path and job security, community builds. Agents are more at home, more invested in relationships and company vision. Agents want to continue to work hard so they can advance within your organization. Setting a path before your agents gives them direction and goals to work towards, increasing happiness in their daily tasks.

Read up on more ways to fight stress and how to keep your agents engaged, over here.

Most importantly – remember your agents are human.

If an agent is overwhelmed by stress and hits rock bottom, show them your support by giving them space to find healing. Don’t chastise them for needing a break, but instead give them a couple days off to care for themselves. Burnout is no joke and can create toxic patterns for your employees at work, and at home.

The cost of getting some extra tasks done should never require your agents to sacrifice diet, sleep, and well-being. Remember your agents are people too! They need rest, vacation and financial support. Working to improve employee morale is great for your contact center, but the benefits for the agents can be even more significant.

The result will be happier agents who are driven by success, not fear, to provide excellent customer service.

Build up your agents’ confidence  and improve employee morale with these 7 coaching methods for a better agent (and customer!) experience.

We originally published this post on January 30, 2018, and we updated it for new insight on June 3, 2020.