What is Call Center Burnout and How to Overcome It?

By | August 24, 2021

The career of a call center agent is often short-lived, with research suggesting that call center workers aged between 20 and 34 years old stay with an organization only about one year on average. 

 

Many of those working in call centers experience high levels of stress, which all too often leads to call center burnout

The high expectations and pressures put on call center workers contribute to this high turnover rate. Remaining happy, helpful, patient, and positive all day long isn’t easy, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work. 

What is call center burnout?

The exact definition of agent burnout is still widely debated. While many seem to struggle to differentiate between depression and burnout, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) offers a more definitive definition: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Who experiences call center burnout?

When the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” back in the seventies, he was primarily focusing on those working in caregiving jobs, such as doctors and nurses. Since then, however, the consensus is that anyone can experience work-related burnout, although it is more prevalent in certain occupations. 

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The call center burnout rate is so high, according to a study by Toister Performance Solutions, that “a whopping 30 percent of agents face a severe burnout risk.”

 

Signs of call center burnout

 

signs of call center burnout (1)

 

The ICD also clarifies both the physical and psychological signs of employee burnout

Call center agents deal with challenging customers while handling the pressure of knowing their calls (and their performance) are being monitored and timed. Also, a U.S. News Careers report observed that customer service agents undergo below-average job flexibility, which further contributes to their burnout. 

When agents lack the motivation or energy to perform, it becomes a cause of serious concern for any business. So, what are the symptoms, and how can managers and leadership teams make an early diagnosis? 

Outlined below are some proven tips to recognize call center burnout.

1. Fatigue, exhaustion, or energy depletion 

Fatigue is, according to the ICD, “usually experienced as a weakening or depletion of one’s physical or mental resource and characterized by a decreased capacity for work and reduced efficiency in responding to stimuli.”

2. Difficulty concentrating 

This often includes the inability to focus the attention and mental energy necessary to complete a goal or task. 

According to The Productivity Project author, Chris Bailey, it’s more likely for employees to procrastinate if the task they should be working on advocates to one of these five attributes:

  • difficult
  • unrewarding
  • unstructured
  • boring
  • frustrating

Having to handle a large volume of calls is a huge factor in creating call center stress specifically. Tight workload and targets based on the number of calls will leave call center agents feeling overwhelmed and make it difficult to concentrate. 

3. Decline in productivity

Burnout can often give rise to reduced professional efficiency, leading to poor customer care and unforced errors.

  • Low productivity leads to disorganization amongst workers who fail to complete their tasks. Communication between employees is delayed, and deadlines end up getting pushed further. 
  • If the agents cannot meet their goals efficiently, it will directly lead to the downfall of business growth. Customer service will take a hit, thus, increasing the churn rate of existing customers. 
  • Low productivity has a negative impact on the morale of employees. When agents feel less motivated about their work, processes tend to get missed, and conflicts are bound to arise. 

4. Feeling short-tempered or irritable

Most of the call center agents get hired for their flexibility to handle angry callers. But this doesn’t mean they become immune to the constant anger and potential abuses from their customers. When agents deal with difficult customers, they are more likely to lose patience and express frustration with clients and fellow employees. 

Agents can become overwhelmed and stressed by interactions with difficult customers. This impacts negatively on their mental health and can cause stress-related illnesses.

5. A sense of isolation

Employees that distance themselves from work-related social events, miss shifts, or call in sick regularly may be experiencing some level of call center burnout.

6. Negative feelings relating to work

A lack of job satisfaction, loss of enjoyment, and a pessimistic attitude towards work are often symptoms of call center stress syndrome. Employees may also experience feelings of ineffectiveness or a lack of accomplishment.

What causes call center stress?

Why is call center stress so widespread and debilitating? Primarily due to the nature of the work and the environment it is conducted in. One study identifies 27 different causes of call center stress, including:

Role conflict and ambiguity

Both role conflict and role ambiguity contribute to workplace stress. Role conflict occurs when a call center agent experiences two (or more) simultaneous sets of pressures where “compliance with one would make more difficult compliance with the other.” In a call center, this is often caused by the customer putting pressure on the agent to solve their problem and pressure from the call center managers or supervisor to achieve operational efficiency while tracking agents’ metrics and KPIs.

Role ambiguity, on the other hand, occurs when a call center agent is not given the necessary information to perform their role effectively. For example, call center agent burnout may occur because they encountered a problem for which no supervisory guidelines exist.

Rude or angry customers

None of us enjoy being shouted at or verbally abused and, although call center employees are trained to not take it personally, the pressure to keep making or receiving calls is such that they have little time to recover and recuperate. This is one of the main causes of call center work stress, fatigue, and isolation.

Lack of recognition

Many call center agents feel undervalued within the company and society in general, since they failed to be recognized as the frontline workers. The sense that their efforts have no impact on the company and that the skills needed to perform their role are consistently overlooked can lead to call center burnout.

Limited opportunities

Few call center employees see their jobs as part of a career strategy or feel they have adequate opportunities for career development. The repetitive nature of the work also means there is little opportunity for them to expand their capabilities and skills base, leading to a lack of transferable skills. 

Outdated technology

Out-of-date equipment, inefficient software, and multiple office systems can frustrate call center agents and customers alike. These challenges lead to employees feeling that they aren’t able to optimize their productivity and efficiency, increasing stress levels and leading to agent burnout

Excessive monitoring

Call monitoring practices are commonplace in call centers but often cause stress for the agents. According to one study, just the threat of monitoring is enough to “negatively affect employee well-being.”

Monitoring work from home call center employees can be particularly intrusive, especially when cameras are introduced into the home to monitor work performance. According to some, this not only means constant monitoring of the employee but of their families as well.

Rigid surveillance systems can be emotionally demanding, leading to “high anxiety and depression, and low intrinsic and extrinsic job satisfaction.” To avoid such scenarios, human resources must intervene whenever and wherever it’s possible and help the agents. 

How to overcome call center burnout

 

#1 Emphasize stress reduction

Call center agents who are encouraged to take regular breaks rather than hop on another call when they should be eating lunch are less likely to burn out.

Over the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has led to an exponential rise in call volumes at customer service centers, giving call center workers little chance to relax. You can combat this by:

  • reducing the length and frequency of your work meetings 
  • changing your vacation policy and taking time off from a work martyr culture
  • offering healthy snacks in the break room and taking care of employee wellness
  • encouraging workers to take cleaning breaks to keep their workstations clean and organized
  • breaking up shifts to help agents remain effective and empathetic
  • offering remote work opportunities and encouraging employee retention
  • encouraging work-life balance 
  • Promoting mental health awareness amidst the pandemic rut.

#2 Clarify roles and eliminate conflict

A manager can resolve role conflict by ensuring that their priorities are in line with the pressures customers place on call center agents.  For your agents, the customer’s needs are always the top priority so, if you, as a manager, also focus on customer satisfaction, you can resolve that conflict and address the potential for employee burnout.

Quick Read: This blog on cloud communication will help you improve customer retention and stand out from your competitors.

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Not only does this reduce the risk of call center burnout, but it also has a positive impact on turnover rates, with 83% of employees saying they are “at least pretty sure” that they’ll still be working for the same company in two years. Regular feedback can also improve role clarity, helping those suffering from call center stress to feel more centered through a clearer understanding of what is required of them. 

A common cause of call center stress syndrome is the lack of clear expectations and role clarity. If not handled effectively, this can lead to a dramatic increase in turnover.

#3 Provide manager support

Call center agents often work in isolation, taking full responsibility for all aspects of their client interactions. Having access to a support system helps reduce that sense of isolation, assuring employees that their manager is there for them if something goes wrong. Managers should focus on team-building activities to encourage remote work engagement

Although important in any workplace, in a work from home call center setting, it’s particularly vital. A Gallup survey conducted in 2018 showed that employees who “feel supported by their manager are about 70% less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.”

Employees who feel their managers value them, listen to their problems and offer thoughtful feedback are less likely to burn out than those who are constantly criticized, monitored, and micro-managed. 

Similarly, call center agents with a clear understanding of company policy are likely to feel less overwhelmed when problems do arise. 

#4 Increase agent autonomy

As call center agents work alone, they already have some level of autonomy and are trusted to satisfy customers, albeit within certain parameters. Giving them more freedom to make choices and to improve the customer experience will make them feel trusted and give them a stronger sense of responsibility for their work. Again, this helps to reduce call center stress and has a positive impact on turnover rates. Autonomous employees are generally more engaged in their work, leading to greater accountability and higher levels of performance and productivity. 

#5 Improve call center training

A lack of training is one of the challenges of call center agents which leads to poor customer service in a call center.. Whether it’s an inability to use the call center technology effectively or a sense that they aren’t performing at their full potential, training can boost employee confidence and reduce the risk of employee burnout

Appropriate training can also increase efficiency and consequently reduce unmanageable workloads. It also has a positive impact on turnover rates, with research showing that 94% of employees would consider staying at a company longer if it invested in training and career development.

#7 Incentivize and encourage

Encourage your call center agents to develop important soft skills such as empathy, integrity, initiative, and adaptability. These have a positive impact on customer satisfaction but, more importantly, are the best indicators of success and happiness within the call center itself.

Recognizing those agents who go beyond the call of duty boosts employee morale, reduces burnout risk, and improves customer service. 

Similarly, a call center incentive program is a great way to reward your top performers and won’t impact your bottom line. Research shows that a 10% increase in employee engagement levels generates a 2% increase in profits, so your incentive program should pay for itself! 

It can be tempting to overload those agents that perform well, giving them additional responsibilities like training recruits or performing assessments. This can easily lead to burnout, so make sure you reward them by reducing their regular duties and giving them time to complete their assigned tasks. By giving them the training and support they need to progress, you’ll reduce call center stress and encourage job growth.

#8 Empower them with technology

The right technology can create a customer-centric culture that improves customer satisfaction and reduces employee frustration. In turn, it will also have a positive impact on your call center burnout rate. Contact center software can integrate all your channels of communication, providing agents with pertinent information that gives context to the customer’s complaint. 

The right software can also empower your call center agents by enabling them to collaborate across teams. Skills-based routing technology, for instance, can increase agency efficiency, while the use of AI makes for more effective workplace management and enables workers to self-monitor, removing some of the problems associated with excessive monitoring. 

Smart options like IVR, voicemail, voice bots will enable your team to handle customer calls and the queues as swiftly as possible.

A cloud-based call center solution offers greater versatility and makes it easier to accommodate the needs of individual call center agents, including those who prefer work from home call center scenario to an office-based one.

Related: How to Leverage Virtual Collaboration To Improve Remote Workforce Productivity

Final thoughts

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Recognizing the signs of burnout can enable managers to intervene before the condition becomes too critical, but taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of burnout is even more critical. 

Call centers that prioritize customer satisfaction, emphasize stress reduction and use the latest call center software make their employees’ working lives more rewarding and satisfying, thereby reducing the likelihood of call center agent burnout.

You can’t expect your agents to fulfill their potential if you don’t give them the tools with which to do so. Training, technology, and role clarity all contribute to greater efficiency and job satisfaction and, in doing so, reduce the call center’s naturally high turnover rate and the likelihood of losing key team members to a serious bout of call center burnout.  

 

Illustrations by Mahalakshmi Anantharaman

Animations by Sreehari Selvaraj

About Freshcaller

Freshcaller is a modern-day reimagining of our everyday phone system for customer support, sales, IT, and HR teams. With Freshcaller’s cloud-based architecture, it brings together the best of legacy features like IVR and advanced capabilities like Smart Escalations, Call Routing, Custom Call Center Analytics to help you set up a state-of-the-art business call center. Freshcaller offers phone numbers in 90+ countries, requires zero phone hardware, and is extremely easy to use.

 

If you want to find out more about what we do, check out www.freshcaller.com.

 

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