8 Ways to Avoid Call Center Agent Burnout Intensified During a Crisis

    The coronavirus has changed work as we knew it for the foreseeable future. Many companies have moved to remote work, including call centers.  The key is to tackle the coronavirus crisis and take the necessary measures to protect your organization, your employees, and your customers. McKinsey offers some solid insight into COVID-19’s implications for business.

    No matter how your business decides to handle the crisis, one thing you must prepare for is increasing stress in the call center, which leads to burnout.

    How can your organization curb burnout during a crisis, especially in the call center? First, you must understand what call center burnout is and who gets it. Only then can you make plans for how to mitigate it.

    What is Call Center Burnout?

    If you're not sure how to define burnout, you're not alone.

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    Although few would dispute that it exists, medical literature still reflects a debate about whether burnout comes from other psychological conditions or arises from environmental factors. When the term was first coined back in the 1970s, it applied only to caregiving jobs like nursing, but now it's used across industries.

    According to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), employee burnout is a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Specifically, it’s characterized by three distinct outcomes:

    1. Feelings of exhaustion or lack of energy.
    2. Feelings of negativity or cynicism related to the workplace, or a feeling of increased mental distance from one’s job.
    3. Reduced efficiency in the workplace.

    Burnout has serious consequences at the macro level. In healthcare spending alone, it costs $125 to $190 billion annually and contributes to 120,000 deaths per year. And for employers, 95% of HR leaders agree that burnout sabotages workforce retention, according to a survey by Kronos.

    When employees feel disconnected and disengaged, it leads to declining performance, risking your reputation, and a negative impact on customer satisfaction.

    Everyone Can Get Burnout

    Burnout is a phenomenon that’s specifically related to work (not life outside the office), and it can be more prevalent among certain occupations over others. However, it’s a feeling that can impact almost anyone, and it’s a problem for many workers regardless of job title. Managers aren’t immune to employee burnout, and neither are front-line agents.

    According to a Deloitte survey of 1,000 full-time U.S. professionals, 77% of workers have experienced employee burnout at their current job, and more than half have experienced it more than once. And for 23% of workers, they feel burnout at work often or always, according to a Gallup study.

    The problem is that with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting businesses at all levels, there’s increased pressure on call center agents.  Employers expect their agents to be empathetic even while they answer increasing numbers of calls and deal with emotionally charged customers, which causes immense amounts of stress ultimately leading to burnout.

    And when it comes to call center agent burnout during a crisis, the impact is even greater, and so too are the consequences for your business. After all, call center agents don't just placate customers; they interpret and enforce your policies and communicate your value, and in so doing, help maintain a consistent public face of the company.

    Call Center Burnout Rate

    Customer support is one of the functions most at risk for burnout, especially during a crisis. According to one study, 74% of call center agents are at risk for burnout. And 30% of those individuals are at severe risk of burnout.

    Contact centers also have some of the highest turnover rates in the country, ranging between 30-45%, more than double the average for all other occupations. And the average call center agent lifespan is just three years.

    Behind such a high call center burnout rate and turnover rate are the expectations placed on agents. Call center agents must be patient, positive, happy, and helpful. All traits that are difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate when stressed and in the midst of a crisis.

    It’s why so many call centers around the world are struggling right now. For example, Ohio’s coronavirus call center is experiencing “very high call volume,” which is upsetting a lot of people and even causing panic. Washington State’s hotline call center is also stumbling with glitches, lack of staff, and contradicting messages. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    There’s also increased stress at this time that goes along with hitting KPIs such as average time on call and first call resolution, which can also add to the call center burnout rate. The reality is that many of your agents could be just one angry phone call or customer chat away from reaching their breaking point—a point where they don’t care how they handle customers.

    So, what can you do to beat these call center burnout statistics? First, you have to learn how to recognize burnout and then overcome it.

    The Tricky Problem of Call Center Agent Burnout

    Typical signs of burnout are quite clear: exhaustion, poor job performance, and a growing cynicism about the workplace. Often, it's spoken of interchangeably with job stress, but the consequences of call center agent burnout cannot be denied.

    Burned-out employees are:

    • 63% more likely to take a sick day;
    • 6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job;
    • 13% less confident in their work performance;
    • 50% less likely to discuss performance goals with their managers.

    In short, burnout causes work quality to decline, and valuable people choose to leave, take time off, or show up in a robot-like state.

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    How to Overcome Call Center Burnout

    Incentives to improve job performance are important to keep employees happy overall. But in order to reduce the chance of burnout, business leaders need to implement action plans to increase employee comfort level and develop an environment where they can excel personally and professionally.

    We’ve outlined eight potential strategies to mitigate call center agent burnout in your business.

    1. Prioritize Stress Reduction

    Burnout is less likely in a company culture that values break time and leaving when a shift is over.

    This kind of culture in a call center prevents agents from hopping on to another call when they should be eating lunch or opening a chat when they should be getting ready to pack up and go home. While you may love this initial enthusiasm for the job, it can quickly fizzle out and turn into burnout.

    Through your policies and example, remind employees the job is a marathon and not a sprint. A simple office wellness program during the coronavirus outbreak can include perks like healthy snacks in the breakroom, breaking up shifts to keep agents empathetic and effective, remote work opportunities for employee health, and cleaning breaks to keep phones and work stations sanitary.

    For example, one call center company added an app to agent screens that led them through self-guided breathing exercises. This simple change provided agents a moment of "Zen" between customer chats, which helped reduce stress and increase agent effectiveness.

    2. Offer Manager Support

    Agents typically handle client interactions on their own, but even experienced representatives need access to a support network. And that’s especially the case if your call center has removed to remote work during the crisis. Even from home, management needs to be available.

    According to a Gallup study, employees who feel supported by their managers are overwhelmingly less likely (around 70%) to experience burnout. That’s because good managers offer an opportunity to discuss difficult situations, provide support during rough times, and work collaboratively to reduce stress.

    Managers should always be available to provide assistance with a particularly challenging call or provide a listening ear for longer-term issues. During quality assurance reviews, managers should also emphasize what agents have done well and where their strengths are, so they don't feel like they're on a hamster wheel of unsatisfied customers.

    As part of this, a coronavirus pandemic call center playbook should be available to answer important business questions. It should include information on:

    • Cancelations, refunds, and postponements
    • Business continuity
    • Product/service discounts
    • Etc.

    Managers should provide their call center team with everything agents need to handle crisis-related concerns, questions, and escalations.

    3. Encourage Your Call Center Agents

    A prosperous and productive call center starts from the top down, but you cannot create positive customer experiences or a positive culture without highly qualified agents. After all, your contact center is only as good as your team.

    It’s essential to focus on encouraging your agents who demonstrate customer service soft skills such as adaptability, initiative, teamwork, empathy, integrity, problem-solving, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. It’s these skills, which are hard to measure and teach, which are the best indicators of success and happiness in the call center, especially during a call center.

    When you encourage your call center agents by offering job security in the midst of a crisis, regularly communicating thankfulness for their work, and recognizing agents who go above-and-beyond, it’s proven to boost employee satisfaction and customer service, reducing burnout risk.


    4. Improve Agent Autonomy

    It's likely your call center agents already have the discretion to appease customers within certain parameters. Review the amount of autonomy granted to your agents and poll staff to ask whether they'd like a bit more leeway to make choices in order to improve client care.

    Autonomy makes employees better engaged, better able to serve customers, and better able to stick out the job over the long term. This includes offering the ability to work from home during this crisis.

    Even if the job parameters are set in stone and you cannot allow your employees to work remotely, you can support employees by letting them arrange their own shift changes when they need to take care of personal matters. When you allow less stringent call procedures and policies, you reduce the feelings of frustration and stress, which will improve performance and decrease emotional exhaustion.

    5. Incentivize Call Center Agents

    Working as a call center agent can be a tedious and sometimes thankless job. Agents spend hours every day talking to customers, many of whom are often upset, demanding, and unkind. Even under the best circumstances and with the best employees, this can wear agents down.

    By offering a call center incentive program, you can reduce employee churn and burnout.

    The key to a successful incentive program is to identify the behaviors that most impact your bottom line and then find a way to recognize top performers. And the good news is that it doesn’t have to be a monetary reward. Instead, match the reward to the agent. An employee who loves TV might love a few months of free access to a streaming network while another employee might enjoy a gift certificate for takeout from a nice restaurant.

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    6. Protect Talented Agents

    In many sectors, burnout affects the most talented members of the team, because they're frequently given the most difficult tasks.

    It's great to have your successful agents coach your new recruits but take care to protect those agents from an untenable situation where they are providing support while having to complete their usual workload.

    When you tap a senior member to perform training, do so with a realistic assessment of how much time that's going to take. Reduce their regular duties and integrate the changes into their quality assurance assessments. Give them a buffer of breathing room in case the coaching proves more difficult. If they don't need that buffer time, think of it as a way of rewarding an employee you want to keep.

    Also, don't forget to nudge your underperforming agents to improve and give them the training, support, and quality assurance metrics to do so. Failure to boost their performance will invariably cause those who are doing the most work (your talented agents) to burn out. Engage in difficult conversations with those who are following behind for the benefit of your entire team.

    7. Improve Call Center Training

    According to research conducted by Middlesex University, 74% of workers believe a lack of training is their biggest hurdle to reaching their full work potential. On top of that, 94% of employees admit that they would stay at a company longer if they invested in helping them learn.

    Your agents want training to do their jobs better and handle any situation that’s thrown at them. It leads to better employee engagement, improved employee retention, and more employee satisfaction, all of which can reduce burnout.

    The key is to build creativity into your call center training in a way that fosters engagement, teamwork, and encourages learning. Call center training games are great for this.

    Games might seem trivial, but they are linked to improving agent communication, problem-solving, professionalism, and customer service. Just make sure that the games you use and the call center training ideas you implement are based on reality.

    8. Focus on Job Growth

    Call center work is often repetitive and tedious. Once agents gain experience and feel comfortable in their jobs, they may fall victim to an overwhelming sense of boredom. Offering advancement opportunities to agents can make employees feel like they are making an impact, and they are going somewhere.

    Just make sure that an adequate salary accompanies job growth. Employees who are not compensated for their work feel underappreciated, are less motivated, and are far more prone to symptoms and signs of burnout.

    There must be a way to recognize high-performing agents through financial rewards and job growth. Without this, your call center agents will look for ways to grow elsewhere.


    Final Thoughts

    For many call center agents experiencing burnout during this crisis, small changes in the work environment and management expectations can do a lot to reduce stress and increase their job satisfaction. It’s about taking care of the people who do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to customer support.

    By investing in your employees and providing them with the tools they need to overcome call center burnout during COVID-19, you’ll help them work harder and ensure the success of your business.

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