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What Is Call Center Stress Syndrome?

min read
What Is Call Center Stress Syndrome?

Working in a call center can often be intense. Call center staff employees, or agents, are on the front line of helping customers solve problems and addressing their complaints. These customers are not always polite. Sometimes, they’re verbally abusive.

At times, agents have trouble coping mentally, emotionally, and physically with the high stress that often accompanies their call center job. This struggle, which can lead to burnout, is also known as “call center stress syndrome.”

If you’re a call center manager, you need to stay attuned to whether call center stress syndrome is impacting your team and their well-being and performance. The following is an overview of telltale signs of call center agent stress.

5 Signs of Call Center Stress Syndrome in Agents

Left unaddressed, call center stress syndrome can lead to call center burnout, which is a serious mental health condition. Burnout itself is officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a syndrome that can lead to anxiety, physical illnesses such as heart disease, and suicidal thoughts or self-harm. And a recent Gallup survey found that more than three-quarters of employees experience burnout at least sometimes at work. 

How do you know if an agent may be experiencing call center stress syndrome? Be on the lookout for these common signs:

1. Lack of Energy

Physical and emotional fatigue are common side effects of burnout and major factors in call center stress syndrome. Insomnia and loss of appetite are other symptoms. 

Call center employees with this syndrome may also:

  • Appear increasingly anxious in the workplace
  • Show signs of depression
  • Become more irritable toward co-workers
  • Show less patience in the workplace and with callers

2. Decline in Concentration and Productivity

Physical and emotional fatigue contribute greatly to stressed-out call center employees being unable to focus on tasks and maintain productivity. Failure to focus on the job can also lead to careless errors, such as passing calls along to the wrong department.

3. Feeling Isolated

Call center stress can make agents feel alone. They may not want or be able to communicate their feelings to others in the workplace or in their private lives, which can be isolating. 

To just “get away” from everything (and everyone), agents with call center stress syndrome may start skipping after-work social events, avoiding team-building exercises, and reporting in sick from work. If it’s the latter, they might actually feel physically unwell, but they won’t attribute their absence to burnout, stress, or depression. As a result, they don’t get the help they need. 

4. Negative Attitude Both in General and About Work

Burned-out agents often exhibit an increasingly pessimistic attitude about their work. A sign that an agent is suffering from call center stress syndrome might be complaining more vocally about tasks they previously handled without any issue. They might also more openly express negative feelings about non-work-related matters, including unhappiness they feel in their personal lives.

5. Less Interest in After-Work Hobbies

Part of a stressed-out employee’s increased alienation may manifest in a retreat from after-work hobbies, such as playing a sport or reading a book. This retreat from activities that previously brought them joy can also end up undermining their physical and emotional health.

The Top 5 Causes of Call Center Stress Syndrome

Managers can play an influential role in helping to minimize the causes of stress within the call center environment by staying attuned to their employees’ behavior and attitude and addressing likely stressors. The key causes of burnout in call center agents are:

1. Customer Service Constraints

Call center employees are often in an untenable position as the first line of response in dealing with customers. How they handle customers’ issues can have a tremendous impact on the customer experience. And customers often expect them to go to great lengths to resolve their issues. Agents are also tasked by managers to meet stringent performance metrics such as dealing with a minimum number of calls per day.

These competing pressures — wanting to please customers and meet their high expectations while also wanting to please their manager and meet strict key performance indicators (KPIs) — can result in role conflict that can generate enormous stress for agents.

Call center staff might also face role ambiguity, which occurs when managers don’t offer them with enough guidance or clarity to enable them to do their jobs properly. For example: Agents typically work from approved scripts. But when a caller takes them “off script,” and the agent doesn’t have the autonomy to respond to the caller’s issue, this can create stress for the agent, especially if the customer becomes irate.

2. Micromanagement

Micromanagement is excess supervision and control of employees’ work by a manager or supervisor. It’s incredibly common in the workplace. In fact, one recent survey indicated that nearly 80% of employees felt they had experienced micromanagement in their job.

Micromanagers stress out employees by constantly asking for updates on work processes and outcomes, discouraging or outright denying creativity and autonomy, constantly looking over their shoulders, and refusing to trust them to make decisions directly related to their work.

3. Heavy Workload

An intense workload can be a source of stress for any employee, but call centers are among the most results-driven workplaces. 

It’s important for managers to know the strengths and weaknesses of their employees and make sure that they adjust workloads accordingly. That may sound like a counterproductive approach in a workplace where an agent’s individual performance is so closely tracked. But it’s easy for an agent with too heavy of a workload to slip into stress and, ultimately, burnout. 

On the flip side, agents who feel they can cope with their workload are likely to deliver higher-quality work, improve the all-important customer experience, and even exceed the overall performance expectations they need to meet.

4. Dealing with Angry Customers

Call center agents encounter unhappy and downright angry customers regularly. It takes a certain type of person to handle complaints day in and day out. Yet, even the most level-headed, empathetic, and patient agents can get worn down by the never-ending parade of irate customers and start to feel serious stress as a result.

One effective call center stress management technique is for managers to check in with employees regularly just to “take a pulse” on how they’re feeling. If a valued employee is exhibiting stress, the manager can then act swiftly to help remedy the situation — such as by temporarily reducing the employees’ workload demands.

5. Poor Tools and Resources

A professional never blames their tools for shoddy work, but it’s a fact that outmoded technology or a lack of technology, generally, can seriously hamper call center efficiency and lead to agent burnout. At minimum, agents require a reliable computer network and up-to-date equipment.

Call center agents spend long hours sitting at desks and looking at computer screens, so accessories such as blue light-blocking glasses or filters to reduce screen glare, combined with adjustable, ergonomic chairs and cushioned headsets, can make the agent’s workplace experience much more comfortable — and less stressful. 

Providing a reasonably quiet workplace, adequate fresh air and natural light, and easy access to restrooms, breakrooms and other amenities can also reduce stress across the call center team.

5 Effects of Call Center Stress Syndrome on Agents

So, now that you know the common signs and causes for call center stress syndrome, let’s examine the effects of this issue. Burnout can impact agents, the call center, and the business  in multiple ways — enough to fill a book. But here are five of the most serious repercussions:

1. Mental Health Impact

Undermined mental health is one of the most significant side effects of call center stress syndrome. It’s also an issue that troubles managers: A recent survey found that 87% of employers consider the mental health of their employees their biggest well-being concern.

2. Physical Health Impact

Physical health impacts from stress can range from simple headaches to gastrointestinal issues, severe back pain, and panic attacks. (It’s also costly: The Harvard Business Review pegged the total healthcare cost from the psychological and physical problems caused by burnout at between $125 billion and $190 billion per year.)

3. Decreased Performance

Estimates suggest that almost three-quarters of U.S. workers lose at least 15 minutes of productivity a day due to stress, and about one-third of workers lose an hour or more. Only a quarter of workers say their productivity is unaffected by stress (and some may be bluffing!).

4. Increased Absenteeism

Absenteeism is a common impact of stress in call centers. Employees suffering from stress or burnout may call in sick but might not admit to stress as the cause. Or they may not make the connection that stress is at the root of their feeling unwell. Either way, it results in the issue not being addressed appropriately. 

Absenteeism also results in low morale among other employees in the call center who might need to cover for their colleague and a loss of productivity for the business. 

5. Poor Customer Satisfaction

Perhaps the greatest impact on a business due to call center stress syndrome is low customer satisfaction. If agents aren’t being empathetic on calls, or patiently listening to complaints, customers are only going to become more frustrated — or angrier.

A poor customer experience can lead to brand reputation damage due to negative online reviews and consumer complaints. Our recent study found that 76% of customers switch to another brand if they have just one poor customer experience.

The good news: Proactively gauging and addressing call center agents’ stress levels has the potential to improve the customer experience dramatically, which enhances the bottom line.

6 Tips to Deal with Call Center Stress Syndrome

So, what’s the secret to call center stress management? It starts with acknowledging that call centers are high-stress workplaces by nature and that many agents will succumb to stress and burnout if they don’t have adequate support. They are also likely to leave their jobs.

To minimize turnover and ensure high productivity in the call center work environment, managers must recognize the reality and seriousness of call center stress syndrome. Here are six ways they can deal with the issue head-on:

1. Support Employees, Avoid Micromanagement

Be your employees’ greatest supporter. Recognize that they’re working in a tough environment and show them some of the empathy they’re expected to demonstrate to customers. 

In the same way that you keep a close eye on agents’ performance measures, make sure they are taking breaks, work with them to schedule time off, and confirm that everyone is getting sufficient downtime to regenerate between shifts. 

Also, don’t micromanage agents. Give them opportunities to display initiative, be creative to the extent that their job allows, and offer them timely, constructive feedback. And above all, listen to their concerns and let them know it’s OK to raise their hand when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

2. Provide the Right Tools for the Agents

Employees in any organization will generally be happier — and stay in their jobs longer — if they have the right resources to support them. In the call center, these tools and capabilities include automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

Invoca for contact centers can help agents (and their managers) perform at their best by automatically scoring every call handled in the contact center — not just a sample. Invoca delivers these scores to agents immediately after each call, so they can quickly adjust their tactics to be more effective. 

Invoca’s AI gives managers a complete and unbiased view of agent performance. Managers can use these insights to give meaningful recommendations to agents to increase their confidence, help them handle calls better, and dramatically improve quality assurance (QA).

3. Invest in Employee Wellness Programs

A recent survey found that 89% of employers viewed their wellness programs as part of their overall business strategy, a 5% increase from the prior year’s survey. Mental health and emotional well-being are a major focus for employer wellness programs, according to the study. 

Having a good wellness program available to call center agents makes sound economic sense and can deliver a significant return on investment. One study found that every dollar spent on employee wellness returns three times as much in reduced medical and absenteeism costs.

4. Provide Better Training and Development

Training is a key component of call center agent job satisfaction. Poorly trained agents aren’t set up to succeed, and they can quickly get discouraged, become stressed, and hit burnout. 

Invoca’s in-platform training capabilities set the stage for more relevant and timely agent coaching and collaboration. Managers can offer coaching pointers to agents directly in transcripts and scorecards generated immediately after each call. Agents can use the same resources to self-coach and also ask their managers for targeted recommendations.

5. Manage Unmanageable Workloads

Don’t allow your agents to get bogged down by heavy workloads that never seem to ease. Help reduce their burden by realistically scheduling their hours in the call center — and be prepared to adapt their schedule if workloads build up. 

6. Offer Performance Feedback

Providing constructive performance feedback to agents is a must in the call center work environment. The work can often be mundane and repetitive, but thoughtful feedback delivered timely can help keep employees engaged, focused on continuous improvement, and feeling more satisfied at work overall. 

The feedback process also presents an opportunity to check in with an agent to gauge their stress level and determine if any adjustments to their schedule or workload are needed.

Improve Your Call Center Environment with Invoca

You can reduce the stress level in your call center work environment, boost team morale and job satisfaction, and help keep call center burnout at bay by focusing on what’s happening in your agents’ day-to-day work lives. Offering positive reinforcement can go a long way toward helping them feel valued and supported.

Invoca’s unbiased, objective call scoring means you don’t just see how an agent performs on a bad day — you see every day. That insight helps you provide constructive feedback that motivates employees to make the most of their call center career.

Invoca allows you to give your sales agents real-time comments on their performance

Here’s an example of how one company, MoneySolver, uses Invoca to address agents’ stress in the call center while improving team performance: The financial services company based in Jacksonville, Florida, has a large team of about 100 agents working in its sales-focused call center. Half of the team qualifies calls, and the other half closes deals. 

With such a large team, it was difficult for managers to give each agent the individual performance feedback they deserved. But after deploying Invoca’s conversation analytics software, MoneySolver was able to create two AI-powered scorecards — one for agents qualifying calls, and one for the closers.

Creating scores for every call gave MoneySolver’s agents an instant morale boost because they knew 100% of their calls were reviewed, instead of a small sample, and that any human bias in grading was taken out of the equation. It’s also improved the company’s employee engagement since all scores are posted on a friendly competition leaderboard.

With Invoca, MoneySolver enhanced its training for and engagement with its call center employees. It realized a significant return on investment, too: It doubled its close rate after deploying Invoca’s call tracking and conversation intelligence software.

Read the full case study here.

Additional Reading

Want to learn more about Invoca's contact center solution? Check out these resources:

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