Agent Burnout: Stress Signals and Solutions

By Anne Nickerson

Call volume is off the charts. Management is calling for higher quality and greater productivity. Clients are more demanding; callers are often unhappy. Two open positions waiting to be filled have been eliminated. Sound familiar? As a contact center employee, this is a normal day. No wonder the armor of the even the healthiest person is worn through! While stress is an expected part of life, stress producers are compounded in contact centers where agent burn out and attrition are among the most difficult issues to manage. How do you know when you’re in the danger zone? Do you know what to do about it?

Stress Danger Signals: Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clanging bell to warn us when we’re heading into stress overload? Since this warning system doesn’t exist, we can try to understand more about stress and recognize the signals before distress, or disaster, occurs.

In the days of the caveman, stress occurred when a saber-toothed tiger showed up in the path. This apparent threat offered two options: fight off the attack or run like crazy. Our bodies prepare to respond to stress in the same way our caveman ancestors were primed. Our brain sends chemical messages into the bloodstream, releasing sugars and fats for quick energy. Our hearts beat faster, providing more oxygen to our blood. Muscles tense in preparation for action. Pupils dilate and our senses of smell and hearing become more acute. Digestion ceases, making blood available to the brain and muscles. Perspiration increases, reducing body temperature.

Today’s “attackers” are rarely as physical as a saber-tooth tiger. They’re primarily emotional: deadlines, traffic jams, irate callers, childcare hassles, no time for “time-off,” job changes, worry, embarrassment, and so forth. Our bodies respond to all threats – physical or emotional, real or perceived — as if we were still cave dwellers. However, if we get all revved up, but don’t allow the stress to be dissolved, health problems – physical and emotional – may become serious issues.

Stress can be a friend as well as a foe. The right amount of stress can actually motivate us to work at the top of our game, while too much stress can paralyze us.

Everyone in the contact center has a bad day every now and again. However, when out of the ordinary behavior begins to become the “norm,” we need to take a closer look. Some of the common workplace behaviors, that if ignored, can fester into full blown stress overload include: role confusion, “naysayers” or pessimists dominating the floor, conflict avoidance, expressions of boredom, fatigue, decreased productivity, sighing, dry mouth, nervous coughs, sweating, irritability or anger, ready tears, hyperactivity, and indigestion. These can all be symptoms of other issues, but when several of them show up, it’s time to make the determination whether what we are experiencing is:

  • Useful and motivating to better solutions, processes, or services, or;
  • Paralyzing us in meeting our mission, goals, objectives, and values.

If stress is due to the latter, then it’s time to develop new coping tools and make a commitment to change.

Making Stress a “Friend”: Coping Tools: We have the power to react to situations with positive, constructive, and future focused thoughts, or we can react with negative, destructive, and hostile thinking. We can let a circumstance “bug us,” “go with the flow,” or reframe the situation.

Everyone is capable of developing techniques to better cope with stressors. Learning to manage stress is largely a process of adapting to positive and negative situations around us and discovering what works best. Here are several ideas to add to your stress coping toolkit.

Self-Talk: E + R = O: In the E + R = O formula, “E” represents events that occur, “R” is our response, and “O” is the outcome. The only element we control is our Response. For example:

Persons A and B are on their way to work, hopelessly stuck in traffic behind an overturned semi-truck. It is clear that there is nothing to do but wait. In the meantime, each chooses to assess the situation:

Person A: “I’ve got to get to work on time or I’ll be fired. I should have known there was a traffic jam – I could have left earlier! I’ll feel like a fool walking in late. Where are the police? I won’t get hold of anyone if I try to call. Somebody should be here by now to clean up this mess. This always happens to me.”

Person B: “Everyone is going to be upset that I’m late. I’ll just have to explain that I planned carefully, but I couldn’t have predicted this accident. They’ll understand. I hope the police get here soon – it’s probably difficult with all this traffic. Everyone finds himself or herself in this position at some time. Getting upset won’t get me there any faster. I’ll call and leave a message for my team. Since I’m in this jam, I’ll practice my presentation while I’m waiting.”

Who do you think will get to work less stressed and be more prepared for the day? Person B, of course, who used self-talk techniques to keep herself calm because she:

  • Didn’t dwell on what could have or should have been done.
  • Didn’t exaggerate the negative consequences.
  • Didn’t expect that everyone would understand, but focused on acceptance.
  • Chose to react in a way that helped her arrive at work relatively relaxed.

The next time a potentially “stressful” situation is happening, take a deep breath and listen to your internal dialogue. Relax and choose to see the opportunity.

Problem Solving Formula

  • Relax and identify the real problem (not symptoms).
  • Consider options and evaluate potential consequences.
  • Choose the best solution.
  • Act, evaluate and learn.

Relaxation: Close your eyes and sit up straight. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, counting silently to two, holding the breath to count of three. Exhale through your nose on counts four and five. Continue this breathing technique as you flex and relax muscles. Tighten your right shoulder to your ear, release. Repeat with your other shoulder. Tighten and relax arm muscles, stomach, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Shake each hand out. Rotate and flex each foot. Open your eyes, get up, and stretch! Sigh or yawn deeply and then back to work!

Attitude of Gratitude: At the end of each day find the ‘positives’ by identifying something you feel good about from your day or something you’re looking forward to tomorrow. Remember to find time to do something you enjoy and thank someone who made your day a little better.

10 Ounces of Prevention: “The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get”. With this thought in mind, consider these stress prevention methods:

1) Ask questions. Repeat back directions or what someone expects of you. This can save hours and prevent misunderstandings.

2) Say, “No!” to extra projects, activities, and people that don’t feed your energy supply.

3) Set up contingency plans: If ‘x’ happens, here’s what I’ll do.

4) Create order in your home and workplace.

5) Schedule a realistic day.

6) Take a lunch break and get away from your desk for 10 minutes.

7) Do one thing at a time.

8) Choose a friend to talk with to clear up confusion.

9) Have a forgiving view of events and people – it’s an imperfect world.

10) Get unpleasant tasks done early so you’ll be free of anxiety the rest of the day.

Dealing with stress is not an easy task, but contact center stress is inevitable. Put yourself in charge of managing the pressure by practicing some of these battle-tested techniques. Remember, stress can either motivate or paralyze – but it’s up to you.

Anne Nickerson is Founder and Managing Director of Call Center Coach, LLC TM, a firm focused on operational audits, executive coaching, and management development. Her business mantra is to “coach leaders of today, so they thrive tomorrow.”

[From Connection Magazine October 2005]

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