Understanding call center burnout
Call center employees face unique challenges that can often lead to burnout. Understanding why can help fix bigger problems down the road.
Published September 21, 2020
Last updated April 30, 2021
Working in a call center can be a stressful gig. Whether inbound or outbound, in an office setting or at home, call center agents are easily susceptible to burnout. Thankfully, burnout can be managed—but first we need to understand what it is, and how it affects customer service reps.
Here is what we'll cover:
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized burnout.
Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, consisting of three primary features:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Put simply, burnout happens when people experience work-related stress for a long period of time. It can manifest as feelings of being overwhelmed, helplessness, or dread. This is a huge problem.
Chronic stress can cause long-term mental health issues like depression and anxiety and manifest with physical symptoms like heart disease.
Unfortunately, call center agent burnout is incredibly common. Customer service jobs require a lot of emotional labor, and it can be difficult to keep up with the fast-paced and results-driven work of call centers. After all, your agents are only human.
Anne Helen Peterson, author of the 2020 book "Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation," explained it well when she described burnout in a viral BuzzFeed essay in 2019:
Who experiences burnout?
Anyone can experience burnout. A Gallup study found that 76 percent of workers experience burnout sometimes, while 21 percent experience burnout very often. As part of our new normal, with workplace conditions constantly changing, it’s easy to assume that workers are feeling burned out more than usual.
While the face of burnout is often educated, white, able-bodied millennials, certain groups of people are not well represented in the conversation. Tiana Clark, a poet and creative writing teacher, penned a response calling attention to the fact that black women and POC are often left out of the conversation.
“The truth is, I don’t feel like I am allowed to be tired,” she writes. “As a POC millennial, not only am I dealing with the endless emails and the Slack notifications, but I'm still trying to prove my humanity inside and outside of the workplace.”
Amanda Roosa writes in Relate that women are over-represented in call centers worldwide because “women have proved to be better at adhering to empathetic scripts and incorporating personal touches when speaking to customers.” Emotional labor, often unrecognized and not compensated, can contribute to burnout just as well.
“Call centre jobs are notorious worldwide for their high levels of turnover, absenteeism, employee burnout, and emotional exhaustion. Agents are at constant risk of angry outbursts from customers, sexual harassment and outright abuse. If women are driven into these low-paid and stressful jobs, where they have little influence and low status, talent will be lost. It also potentially discriminates against men who could and would want to do the job.”
Kristina Hultgren, Emotional labor in the workplace, Zendesk Relate
Call center employees are often left out of the burnout conversation alongside myriad fast food, retail, warehouse, and customer service workers that make up the bulk of the modern working class. These people are often older—the median age for customer service reps is 37—and support family members. Call centers specifically can be stressful places to work, and their employees are not well represented in the burnout conversation.
Burnout happens in call centers for the same reasons it happens in other workplaces: stress, unclear expectations, lack of a work-life balance. It should go without saying that call center work is hard. Customers reaching out for help are often unhappy. While many customers prefer to do their own research or use self-service channels for problem-solving, sometimes a conversation is the only way to solve a problem. As messaging and chat gain prominence as customer service tools, there are still many people who prefer to pick up the phone.
Signs of burnout
For many people, call center work is the first steady role they’ve held. It isn’t as physically taxing as food service, for example, and many call centers pay higher than minimum wage. But for some call center employees, answering the phone and shooting off emails all day can be emotionally taxing and incredibly tedious. When work is unfulfilling and the only thing keeping somebody tethered to their work is a paycheck, burnout is a likely outcome.
These are a few signs of burnout to watch out for, according to psychologists:
- Physical symptoms
The physical toll of burnout could include fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, depression, or anxiety.
- Loss of enjoyment
This may look like a pattern of being late or being eager to leave as soon as possible when a shift is over.
- Pessimistic outlook
Negativity, especially from an employee who is normally positive, could be a sign of distress.
- Isolation or absenteeism
Skipping team social events could be an early warning sign. Similarly, calling in sick or not reporting for shifts could be a sign of burnout.
- Increased irritability
Burned out employees may be more likely to lash out at fellow employees or express frustration with customers.
- Diminished productivity
Burnout can make it more difficult to put in time and effort required to sustain productivity, resulting in poor performance or missed milestones.
- Careless errors
Burnout makes it harder for employees for focus, resulting in careless errors, especially on tasks that would normally be considered part of routine work.
However, when call center reps feel that their labor, knowledge, and time is respected, they will be less likely to burn out. If they feel a sense of mobility within their job, all the better.
As Elissa Reggiardo writes in Relate, “support is not just answering phones, answering emails, and handling angry customers—it's a whole world of solutions development, intuition, empathy, brand management, time management, and a lot more.” In order to feel empowered, it’s important to find allies or mentors and for workers to outline for themselves where they want their support careers to take them.
Making environmental changes, however, may not be enough. Maylen Tara, a thought leader who works to facilitate a dialogue around burnout in the workplace, suggests that employees experiencing burnout should consider therapy. “The first thing I would tell anyone who is experiencing burnout or thinks they may be close to burnout is to go see a therapist,” she told us. “Therapy is the most helpful resource there is for burnout.”
The manager’s guide to call center burnout
How to recognize burnout in employees
Recognizing when employees are burning out takes a keen eye and a bit of empathy. As Tara explains, “Before the full blow of the burnout, there are the months before when one is lacking motivation and simply exhausted with their work, which may mean that the quality of their work is reduced.”
Reasons for burnout
- Unfair treatment
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication from managers
- Unreasonable time pressure
Is the quality of your direct reports’ work diminishing? Are they frequently late, taking longer breaks, and seem unhappy? Do they seem combative or argumentative? Combined with a stressful work environment, each of these could be an external sign of burnout.
The most important thing to remember about call center burnout is that it is not the individual employee’s fault. While managers have a crucial role in aiding their direct reports through the tribulations of burnout, they can also be a factor behind it. When employees are treated unfairly, micromanaged, or given impossible expectations, burnout is only one outcome to worry about—poor work conditions can increase call center attrition, training costs, and cost a workplace its reputation.
Being proactive: How to prevent burnout in yourself
Provide support for employees, but don’t micromanage
Call centers employees are frequently monitored throughout their shift to collect information about talk time, average handle time, and other metrics that relate both to the customer experience and their own work. As mentioned previously, when the employee experience is tracked—meaning breaks, scheduling, time off, etc.—it can create an environment where good employees feel under appreciated. It is, however, super important to keep track of daily KPIs. Where’s the middle ground?
While micromanagers may have good intentions, it isn’t an effective leadership style. According to Gallup, the key question to recognizing a micromanager is asking, “Is the team customer-obsessed or boss-obsessed?”
Micromanagement is when a manager closely observes and controls the work of their employees. Because call centers are heavily dependent on tracking KPIs, managers can easily default to closely tracking employees beyond relevant KPIs, creating an environment where employees feel overwhelmed. Nobody wants to be nitpicked.
Managers can support their employees in a number of ways. Allowing call center employees to take personal or mental health days, for example—and not holding it above their heads—can foster a better environment for employees. Similarly, scheduling to optimize the workforce can give employees the time they need between shifts to unwind.
Creating opportunities to give critical feedback to employees (rather than criticism) will help employees feel valued and appreciated instead of bogged down. Thoughtful feedback given with context, support, and advice is effectively the opposite of the feedback typical of micromanaging—and, hopefully, will drive the results that managers are ultimately looking for. As we’ve said before, don’t forget the WHY in your KPIs.
Invest in better call center technology
The technology used in call centers can be a pain point for customer service reps if it’s outdated and cut off from the other bits of software used by the organization. Call center software that allows employees to collaborate across teams, displays relevant information, and is intuitive to use can be the difference between employees feeling empowered or hindered by their workplace.
Legacy call center software (read: dinosaur software) that inhibits agent collaboration, shows irrelevant metrics, or doesn’t include relevant customer information alongside call data can create a frustrating employee experience—and at the end of the day, it’s the customer who will feel this the most. Call center employees want to do their job well, and modern software can help them do that.
Let the employee focus on the task at hand, allow them to provide the best customer service possible, and don’t let them stress about the big picture when it isn’t necessary.
Profit is no longer the bottom line. Customer experience, which begets loyalty, is key. There’s a huge correlation between employee experience and CX—and the ability to combat burnout for call center reps is key for the modern age of customer communications.
How managers can deal with burnout in call center reps
Address unfair treatment
Unfortunately, what constitutes unfair treatment is extremely subjective. Between having HR intervene in workplace conflict or ignoring it all together, managers have a duty to foster the safest, healthiest work environment possible. It’s better for productivity, and it’s better to keep people happy. It’s not an easy task, but a manager can make all the difference.
Prioritizing empathy as a company goal is a great place to start, but may be out of the hands of a call center manager. Fear not: empathy training, in which skills like active listening and emotional intelligence are cultivated, can help managers and employees feel understood.
Sort out unmanageable workloads and unreasonable demands
If employees are finding the workload to be unmanageable, you may want to consider lightening the load. While it might seem completely counterintuitive to suggest lowering expectations in a result-driven work environment, we have to remember that customer service reps are human. Hiring the right agents—people with industry experience and know-how—can balance out employees at the beginning of their career. These are people for whom productivity comes naturally, and they can provide support to struggling employees.
As discussed previously, the software used in call centers can make a big difference in the quality of work. Modern contact center software that includes novel channels like messaging and chat alongside email and phone is better for customers (they like having options!) but also enables agents to work more efficiently. Giving agents the ability to diversify their workstreams can improve the quality of their experience, especially if boredom is a factor. Additionally, modern add-ons to support software like chatbots, automation, and self-service can alleviate the workload from reps by answering easy questions. Analytic tools can help agents self-monitor, which means they won’t necessarily need their manager breathing down their neck in order to hit KPIs.
Clarify roles and improve communication
Lack of role clarity is commonly cited as a factor in workplace stress. Better role clarity means more satisfaction with leadership, higher productivity, and a higher chance of sticking around. One way of addressing lack of role clarity is by abiding to a consistent cycle of feedback. Whether it’s a daily standup to go over short-term goals or one-on-ones at a regular cadence, consistent feedback and direction can help stressed employees feel centered. Most employees do want feedback—even when they’re stressed. If regular feedback isn’t already a part of your call center’s culture, give it a try.
The decision to deploy new customer support software heralds an exciting new chapter in a company’s journey. Your customer service solution should be poised for success from the get-go, and for the long haul. This guide will help you maximize your chances of success by translating your company goals and strategy into requirements, and by establishing concrete plans for scaling as your company grows.