The Morale Doctor is In

How to treat employee burnout and reinvigorate call center engagement for the long haul

Do you feel it spreading through your contact center workforce? That sense of ennui, stagnation or general “blah” that creeps up on agents and saps their energy and enthusiasm?

That’s burnout—and it’s a call center morale killer that usually strikes long-tenured employees but can quickly drag down motivation among almost anyone they come in contact with. 

If you’re seeing symptoms of burnout in your SMB contact center, or in online interactions with certain remote agents, it’s time to do something about it. But what?

Triage Immediately

Once an employee reaches burnout stage, you’re in crisis mode. As we mentioned in our previous post about short-term employee engagement for contact centers, burnout isn’t a sudden-onset problem. It develops silently over time.

Frequently when the outward signs of burnout finally appear, call center managers have only a short window of opportunity to prevent the worst outcomes. These can include performance declines, adherence problems and eventually the loss of a highly experienced agent. So act fast!

Diagnose the Problem

Burnout is a common job issue, and it’s associated with stress that hasn’t been sufficiently managed or mitigated.

Contact center work, with the overwhelming call volumes, demanding customers, limited breaks between encounters and high expectations for efficiency and results—well, it’s stressful. This makes contact center agents particularly vulnerable to burnout.

Managers should suspect burnout when a previously high-performing agent exhibits changes that last many days or weeks, such as:

  • A lack of energy or affect
  • Uncharacteristic complaints about the job or assignments
  • Unusually negative reactions to managers and coworkers
  • Inability to accomplish tasks as quickly as they once did
  • Declining customer satisfaction ratings and other metrics
  • More sick days, tardy arrivals and long unscheduled breaks 
  • Loss of confidence

An agent suffering from burnout may not show all of these symptoms. A worrisome cluster is enough to warrant intervention.

Prescribe Solutions

If you fear a particular agent is suffering from burnout, offer immediate support, much like you’d comfort someone with a bad cold and recommend fluids and rest.

You may want to start by putting the agent in touch with a trusted member of the team, perhaps a sensitive HR professional or their quality coach, whomever has the best rapport with the individual. Use the conversation to learn how the agent is feeling and allow them to talk about any difficulties they’re facing.

And be careful not to deny the agent’s perspective, such as by telling them “it’s not so bad.” Instead, empathize. Just feeling heard and understood can be a first step out of burnout!

When the employee is ready, see how you can help them cope with the issues they’ve raised. You might:

Underscore the positives

Sometimes high aspirations and perfectionism contribute to burnout. Praise for a job well done—paired with reassurance that it’s okay to struggle at times—can be a pick-me-up and help instill a healthier, more forgiving attitude toward themselves.

Suggest stress management techniques

Discussing the cause of burnout—stress—can help agents focus on combating it. They may realize that their self-care has fallen off, gotten stale or was never an intentional practice. Help them brainstorm a response, whether that’s making time for healthy meals, meditation, exercise, a long talk with a friend or an afternoon with a good book.

Give them a break—literally

Break up the monotony by treating the agent to lunch or working in some downtime to have fun with the team. Anything that disrupts “the usual” can alleviate the Groundhog Day-like boredom that infuses many a contact center. 

Also consider whether the agent can take a few days off to recharge. Even if it doesn’t happen right away, planning for a vacation (or a stay-cation) provides something to look forward to. That alone can be energizing!

Lower the pressure or increase the challenge

Has the agent taken on additional responsibilities? Are the really complicated calls usually routed to them? Consider offering a chance to do a little less for a while to bring the stress level down. 

Alternatively, have they been doing the same old thing for ages, to the point they don’t feel challenged anymore? Can you switch up the work, put them in charge of a project, have them coach a colleague or offer other opportunities? Doing so might drive some new excitement.

Address their concerns head-on

This one can be hard for call center leaders, but if the agent brings real critiques to the table, it’s best to take them seriously. You may not want to hear that a particular manager is demeaning when no one is watching or that the uptrainings have been more frustrating than informative, but having a voice really matters to agents. 

If an employee has the courage to raise meaningful issues, it’s likely that a problem exists and needs attention. Even if it takes time to solve, the agent may respond well just knowing improvements are in the works.

Monitor Results

Once an agent has put an action plan in place, don’t let it be the end of the interventions. Continue to offer support and come back together to touch base about how they’re doing.

If the burnout begins to fade, praise the agent for their efforts and encourage them to keep up and build on the measures they’ve adopted. If burnout endures, on the other hand, continue to explore the root cause and help devise better solutions.

Throughout this process, be patient. We said it before—burnout takes time to develop, so it’s a significant undertaking to drive it away. Some immediate relief may be achieved with the suggestions above but true recovery from burnout can take weeks or longer to achieve.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Even the most employee-centric contact centers must confront agent burnout occasionally. In poorly managed operations, however, burnout will be endemic and constantly drive turnover, waste resources and undermine efficiency, performance, quality and customer experience.

If you find that agents consistently lose motivation soon after joining the company or that there is a tenure “ceiling” when most employees tend to leave, you may have a systemic problem. 

In this case, you’ll want to investigate the underlying factors contributing to high levels of burnout—things like an obsessive focus on average handle time, negativity in quality management and coaching, a lack of autonomy for agents, inflexible schedules and so on. Only with a clear idea of what’s wrong from an agent’s point of view can effective strategies be implemented.

Fortunately, there is a prescription for burnout prevention. Consistent call center workforce engagement (WFE) is the best way to foster morale over the long haul. Sharing a compelling mission, integrating health and wellness programs, creating a supportive environment where exciting and different things happen day to day, giving employees a voice, offering real opportunity for professional development and advancement—these and other measures help engage contact center agents and keep burnout at bay, day after day, year after year.

For more information about call center engagement, download our magnum opus on the topic. The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs can help you battle burnout long before it brings down your best agents. 

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