Agent happiness is the lifeblood for any call center—and, by extension, any brand that values customer experience. So what do you do when call center burnout—agent unhappiness—is running rampant in your organization? Is it adding a new contact center service or tool, new schedules, updated protocols, fresh training?
Call centers have long had a reputation for “high levels of turnover, absenteeism, employee burnout and emotional exhaustion.” And these challenges have all been magnified by the pandemic. In November 2020, Spring Health surveyed over 1,100 adults working in the U.S. and found that 76% of respondents were experiencing work-related burnout.
Unfortunately, struggling employees often keep quiet about how they feel until it’s too late—until they feel like they can’t continue in their job and quit.
Employers need to understand what burnout is and how it affects employees, so they can support their agents and improve the call center work environment to reduce the risk of employee burnout.
We’ll give you a quick teaser: Many companies think they need to enhance work culture, provide overtime pay, or offer other incentives to keep agents motivated. But what if a tool could actually relieve the stresses of working in a call center, and offer boundaries around an agent’s calendar so they’re not left drowning in queues?
First, let’s get on the same page.
What is call center burnout?
The World Health Organization describes burnout as:
“chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
In a call center environment, many stressors can contribute to feelings of burnout:
- Consistently high or unmanageable workloads due to staff turnover and increased call volumes and support tickets—especially since March 2020.
- Unhealthy or insecure work environments, including “layoffs and downsizings, increased job responsibilities, lack of work-life boundaries, caretaking duties at home.”
- The emotional impact of spending all day providing support to angry, upset, or frustrated customers. Dr. Kristina Hultgren is a senior lecturer at The Open University in the UK. Her research and interviews with call center managers and agents revealed that “agents are at constant risk of angry outbursts from customers, sexual harassment and outright abuse.”
These factors all combine to create a work environment that puts call center agents at high risk of burnout.
How burnout affects your call center team
Burnout affects individual team members’ physical and mental health. It can cause feelings of fatigue and anxiety and affect work performance. It can also have a multiplying impact on your whole team, which will only compound as more team members are struggling. Some ways agent burnout can affect your entire team include:
- Lower individual and team productivity. Burnout can make it hard for call center employees to focus on their work. This may mean agents are slower to answer customer calls or take longer to resolve their queries. So customers will experience longer wait times, and your team will miss call targets and performance metrics.
- More team absences. Burnout can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression and physical symptoms like fatigue or insomnia. These symptoms make it more likely that burnt-out team members will call in sick. This can leave your call center team understaffed at short notice, which will increase the workload for your other team members.
- Increased staff turnover rate. Spring Health found that employees believe reducing work hours and increasing paid time off will help avoid or lower levels of burnout. If your agents don’t feel like they can take time off to rest and recharge, they might just leave, which puts more pressure on your remaining agents. Geckoboard’s 2021 Customer Support Experience Report found that staffing levels were an ongoing concern for support teams. One respondent explained, “At the moment there is a lot of churn… and so the pressures on the rest of the team are growing.”
How to support call center agents struggling with burnout
High workloads, insufficient staffing levels, and unhealthy work habits are big contributors to burnout for contact center agents. However, call center managers can support agents by improving their work environment, reducing workloads, and giving agents the tools and technology to work more efficiently. Here are four ways you can help your agents and reduce burnout levels across your teams.
1. Build trusting relationships with employees.
You can’t help or support your employees if you don’t know how they’re feeling. Encourage open communication with your team so that if you spot signs of burnout or one of your agents is feeling overwhelmed, they’ll feel comfortable sharing that with you.
One sign of burnout you can look for is a drop in agent performance. When an agent’s struggling with burnout, it can affect their focus and productivity, which may leave them falling far short of their usual performance standards. Even worse, missing targets can exacerbate that sense of overwhelm and even fuel their burnout.
If a previous top-performing agent is missing all their targets, that’s a clear sign that something’s wrong. Check in with your agents to build trust and encourage open conversations about why they’re struggling instead of just challenging their performance.
2. Proactively monitor team workloads.
High workloads are a leading source of stress for employees. Many call centers are handling an increased number of customer calls and support tickets compared with before the pandemic, but they are also experiencing high staff turnover and absence due to illness. This can put your remaining agents under even more pressure, with fewer agents available to manage a growing number of calls.
Look for signs that call volumes are regularly exceeding your total agent capacity. If call volumes exceed capacity, you need to take action.
Obviously you can hire more agents or add more agents to each shift to increase availability. But staffing for peak volumes leaves wasted headcount salary in non-peak hours.
You can also increase call center opening hours, so customer calls are spread over a longer time rather than spiking at peak times. This still presents a problem of peaks and hiring when the agent workforce pool is nearly dry. (It also puts a strain on hiring managers as they spend more time vetting and hiring folks.)
The best fit: Offer customers the option to schedule a callback when an agent becomes available to spread the call volume throughout the day. The peaks will be smoothed out without wasting money on agent time, and callers will love the ability to skip the hold line.
3. Improve the work environment by reducing the likelihood of angry callers.
Consistently high call volumes can contribute to adverse work environments for your agents. In addition to agents watching their call queues get longer, customers will have had to wait on hold for a long time and may be angry and hostile when the agent eventually speaks to them.
Your call center agents are on the phone with customers all day—customer moods and behavior have a significant impact on your agent’s workday. A run of angry customers creates a negative, emotionally draining work environment, whereas calm, cooperative customers create a much healthier one.
The length of time spent waiting on hold can make all the difference to your customers’ moods—and the overall experience agents have on the call. Long wait times can make customers angry, frustrated, or hostile toward your agents, which will lead to a boat load of stress for your already sapped agents.
But you can let customers opt out of waiting on hold by giving them the option to book a callback from one of your agents. Mindful allows customers to schedule callbacks for a time when an agent is available or a day and time that suits them.
Scheduling a callback rather than waiting on hold changes a customer’s perception of their wait time. They feel in control as they can get on with their day, rather than listening to your hold music or message loop for an unknown length of time. They’ll also feel like the brand actually valued their time, allowing them to use it as they please instead of being tethered to a phone.
When an agent picks up a callback, the customer is far less likely to be angry, making it a much less stressful experience for the agent and customer alike.
4. Create a strategy to reduce incoming call volume.
If high workloads are a leading source of stress for your team, you may need to implement bigger changes to customer communications and reduce incoming call volumes. For example:
- Offer other communication channels like chat, messaging, and email.
- Improve self-service support options, so customers can solve their own challenges. Add FAQs or a help center, and invest time and resources into writing walkthroughs and support articles for customers.
- Let customers book calls—even without calling. Embedding a low-code scheduler widget like Mindful allows customers to request a callback on your website, mobile app, or chatbot conversation, and you can implement in a matter of hours, bypassing hours of dev time.
Some call centers even change how they operate, switching to an outbound call model rather than responding to incoming calls, where customers request callbacks, and agents call back when they’re available. This gives agents (and customers!) more control over their schedule, keeps call volumes manageable, and means customers don’t waste time on hold.
Call centers are normally high-stress, high-pressure work environments—especially at peak times. Our customers found that Mindful helps create a calmer work environment and improve agent happiness by:
- Reducing long hold times, which means fewer angry customers unloading on agents.
- Turning call volume peaks into predictable customer contacts.
- Making it easier to plan staffing levels and work schedules by making call volumes more predictable.
Different tools and technology won’t eliminate burnout in your call center, but they may help agents feel less stressed and more in control of their workloads. Technology like Mindful can help streamline work processes, lighten workloads, and lower stress levels for your agents.