Call Center Burnout: A Personal Story of Truth and Admission

“Dress like a lady, act like a man, and work like a dog.” That’s been my unconscious philosophy for years. I spent years being a toxic handler and a healing manager. That caused me to pay the price both professionally and personally. At times, I exhausted myself physically and carried psychological baggage. That caused me to burnout.

I was a manager who spent years closing and consolidating telephone answering services and call centers. I was forced to become a manager that voluntarily shouldered sadness, frustration, and anger in addition to carrying a full load of regular work. Often times, I was criticized for making everyone feel warm and fuzzy. The reality is that without the people there is no bottom line. The tougher the work you have to do, the more compassionate you have to be. I played a role that prevented companies’ self-destruction. I was disobedient to the social order to get the job done. Strong emotions are obviously a part of life. They are also a part of business whether or not we want to admit it.

Recently, I found myself on the receiving line of a lay off. It’s not 1960 anymore. I do not have a beehive hairdo and careers do not last thirty years. It used to be that you had a career, but now you have projects. Colleagues turned into networking. Promotions gave way to burnout. After years of participating in employee termination decisions, I found myself on the way to outplacement. So the tables turn. For years, I carried the confidence of others. I kept the secrets well and allowed everyone else to be less troubled. I took the “ouch” out of the bad but necessary situations. Now it was my turn. My own lay off caused me to reevaluate my personal and professional life. It took being laid off to realize that I was a call center burnout. Being laid off and realizing you’re burned out would be tough for anyone. But for me, someone who sacrificed her family, friends, and social life for her career, to feel pushed out was almost too much. It’s tough for the ego, like cutting out a big piece of you. Especially when my job was who I am and who I am is someone who has been in the call center industry for 20 years.

To understand burnout you have to take into account that highly motivated individuals are most susceptible to job burnout. The hardest hit is service providers like us. Burned out employees are most likely your best employees, the ones that care. These employees overindulge and overindulgence is a sort of narcotic. These individuals can be counted on to know what needs to be done and do it. They put in long hours even if the time is “face time.” The burned out employee will work himself or herself to death and if they can, they will hide the burnout or least they will try to hide it. Being highly motivated is like an internal prison or a sickness at best. Always trying to top the last project, thinking, “If I could only make just one more sale or break some type of industry average or standard.” Sometimes we create problems just to relieve the boredom.

The process of reinventing my life included defining the meaning of burnout. For me, this consists of the three Ds: Diet, Divorce, and Displacement. I am a person who accepts trouble as a part of life. When it comes, I take it on and remember, “this too shall pass.” Everyone has seen loss or deep disappointment of some kind. So, I decided to quit having a pity party for myself. Fortunately, pulling myself up by my bootstraps required me to ask myself some basic questions:

  • For what am I most grateful?
  • Do I want to stay in this industry?
  • What are the most important aspects of a job?
  • What attracts and interests me professionally?
  • Do I give too much?
  • Am I too burned out?

I had to look at my professional training and analyze my education and skills. Through that process, I learned that I love to help people, to see the look on their faces when the light bulb goes off. I am interested in and love the challenge of technology. I love to be creative and innovative. I love to see people react to my high energy, even if the energy is dealing with change. I recognize that I once was a diamond in the rough. I am grateful for the mentors I had along the way. I want to be a mentor for others. I want to find a diamond in the rough and develop a jewel.

No one is immune from burnout. Any person, in any industry, at any level can be a candidate. Which of these words describe you?

  • Determined
  • Independent
  • Unrelenting
  • Tenacious
  • Persistent
  • Tireless
  • Enthusiastic
  • Passionate

If you are at least four of the eight adjectives above, you are a possible candidate for burnout. To prevent employee burnout, please take this advice from someone who knows.

  • Don’t allow employees to work long hours
  • Make goals achievable
  • Be candid about burnout during employee orientation
  • Provide ways for employees to express anger
  • Show that you appreciate their sacrifice
  • Don’t rely on the same people over and over
  • Give employees compliments often
  • Offer flexible work hours
  • Create a reward system that includes comp time
  • Keep in touch with the front line
  • Have fun and laughter in the workplace

I’ve now given myself permission to take care of myself. It doesn’t have to be half an hour. It can be five minutes a day to put myself first and get centered. Now I exercise, eat right, and try to get a good night’s sleep. I lost twenty-two pounds! I’ll listen to my favorite CD in the middle of the business day. Now I am setting realistic goals for myself. I am specific in my goals, but flexible. I still struggle with reasonable time limits. I come into the office every morning at about 8 a.m. I get my coffee and I read my Wall Street Journal. Next year, I might even expense it to my company! What’s important to me is having enough time, space, community, health, and freedom to enjoy life. It’s okay to give 120 percent, but not every day.

Remember, when we’re all dead and gone, nothing will matter except the people we have touched in a positive way. It’s the people you touch, ultimately that are all that matter. So, live your life as if it were the beginning. Dance as if no one were watching, sing out loud, and do the hardest thing on earth for you. Write the word “thank you” on a little piece of paper and put it in your wallet where it will remind you to be grateful for the difficulties you have survived.

I thought I was too burned out. I thought I was tired of the call center business. I thought I was tired of the self-sacrifice. Guess what? There is a place in this industry for trustworthy, fair, kind, non-judgmental managers, a place for managers who are relentless in their drive to achieve their goals and not lose sight of business objectives. Managing emotional pain of others is one way of doing this. It is a personal calling. I love this business and will keep doing what I do till I can’t do it any more.

The author is a twenty-year industry veteran and currently General Manager for an outsourcing call center.

[From Connection MagazineMay/June 2002]