Contact center agent burnout is nothing new. Just look at average attrition rates: the Quality Assurance and Training Connection (QATC) reports that annual contact center employee attrition averages 30-45%, which is extremely high compared to other industries.i Additionally, the average contact center agent career lifespan is just three years.ii
Some customers view contact center agents as extensions of "the business" rather than fellow human beings that are trying to help them. Compounding the problem is the extreme power difference between customers and agents. Customers can antagonize or argue with agents with little fear of retaliation. After all, if agents fight back, they're likely to be reprimanded, or may even lose their jobs. Being required to patiently submit yourself to abuse several times a day is stressful and contributes to burnout.
If angry confrontations are becoming more common in other industries, just imagine what contact center agents are dealing with. It serves businesses to focus on improving the agent experience, so those agents continue to provide satisfying customer experiences (CX) and avoid burnout.
In this article, we'll provide five practical ways to support your agents in these stress-filled times.
What is job burnout? How does it factor into employee attrition?
According to the Mayo Clinic, "Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."iii They also say that while "burnout" isn't necessarily a medical diagnosis, it could relate to other conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
Those who experience burnout may also be influenced by outlying personality traits and the demand of family life. Lockdown, isolation, or managing remotely schooled kids round the clock can add strain on top of work-based stress, and may just result in serious job burnout.
Of course, job-related factors often contribute to burnout, including:
- Unclear responsibilities and performance expectations
- Unfair treatment
- Lack of empowerment and control
- Long hours and a heavy workload
- Limited work/life balance
- Negative culture and dysfunctional workplace dynamics
- Lack of help and support from managers, supervisors, or executives
And for those in the service or "helping" industries, such as contact center agents, I would add aggravated or even downright abusive customers to the list.
The shift to remote work has created some factors that contribute to agent burnout. Those who rely on social interaction or a nearby supervisor that provides support can feel isolated when working from home. It can also be difficult to completely unplug from your job when you work from home. Agents may be tempted to quickly log on to see if that customer sent a follow-up email. While this might be good for CX, it's not exactly evening out the agent's work/life balance.
What are the signs of contact center agent burnout?
Perhaps you've seen them in your agents, maybe you’ve experienced them yourself. Either way, be on the lookout for these all-too-familiar signs of agent burnout:
- Lower job performance and efficiency
- Increased impatience with customers and coworkers
- Increased cynicism
- Higher absenteeism
- Lack of energy and enthusiasm
How widespread is employee burnout? Enough to be a genuine concern that contact centers leadership would do well to mitigate. A Deloitte study revealed that 77% of survey participants have experienced burnout at their current jobs.iv Another study revealed that 74% of call center agents are at risk for burnout.v
Burnout leads to a spike in employee attrition
One of the most important reasons to prevent burnout is because it's bad for people's health. Severe burnout can disrupt sleep, cause headaches and stomach problems, and may lead to increased use of controlled substances. A Gallup study found that burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, possibly as a result of the effects mentioned above.vi
Another major reason to prevent burnout is to avoid employee attrition. A survey conducted by Kronos revealed that, "95% of HR leaders agree that burnout sabotages workforce retention."vii Given the current labor environment, contact centers can't afford to lose too many agents, regardless of the reason. It can cost several thousand dollars to replace an agent, and each one that walks out the door takes a piece of intellectual capital with them. If that’s not enough of a reason, here are other reasons to try and prevent burnout:
- Worn-out agents can negatively impact CX
- A reputation that your business burns out its employees can make it difficult to recruit new talent
- Your employees expect it—Quartz research indicates that 81% of workers believe employers should make reducing burnout a top priorityviii
- The reduced efficiency associated with burnout can negatively affect service levels and budget
In a nutshell, preventing burnout helps contact centers keep more of their talented agents and protects the quality of the customer experience.
5 ways to mitigate contact center agent burnout and attrition
Given the urgency of preventing burnout, contact centers need to attack it on several fronts. Whether actions represent baby steps or giant strides, the important thing is for organizations to make continuous progress toward improving the agent experience.
Here are five ways contact center leaders can reduce the stress that causes burnout and attrition.
1. Break the routine
Personally, I experience on-the-job boredom when tasks become repetitive and routine, and I’m not alone in this feeling. For many, getting into a dull rut at work creates stress and disengagement.
A day in the life of a contact center agent is often filled with mind-numbing repetition. Answering the same question over and over again isn't very rewarding and handling back-to-back customer complaints all day takes its toll. Just because someone is good at a particular task doesn't mean they want to do it forever. In fact, high performers are inclined to want to stretch their wings by learning new skills. However, this doesn't require you to promote every super-agent into a supervisor. There are plenty of things you can do to enrich the agent experience without permanently moving them out of their current positions.
Consider the following tips to break routines that have become stale and wearisome.
- Change the channel. If your operation is like most contact centers, you offer more than one support channel. It’s healthy for agents (and good for the business) to cross-train them on multiple channels. Give a burned-out phone agent a reprieve by having her handle emails for a few weeks or vice versa. This just might be the kind of break that refreshes their enthusiasm for her job.
- Switch skillsets. Similar to working new channels, handling different types of interactions can be a welcome change of pace. For example, if a contact center agent is burned out from handling customer complaints, switch him to the sales queue for a while. Learning new skills breaks up the monotony of the average workday, and multiskilled agents provide the business with more flexibility and coverage.
- Project-based work. Allocating a portion of an agent's day to project work is a great way to break the tedious routine, especially when the project is something the agent can get excited about. Here are some possible projects you could consider assigning:
- Enterprise CX initiatives. Who can represent the voice of the customer better than a seasoned agent?
- Special training. Contact centers frequently conduct special training for new products, policies, software functionality, etc. These are opportunities to give agents a break and let them spend part of their day teaming with the training group to design and deliver training that’s specifically applicable to them.
- Contact center activities. Special events such as volunteering, parties, and team competitions are better when they have agent input. Planning and carrying out these events is a fun, rejuvenating break for the right agent.
Be creative when identifying ways to break the routine, and make sure the solutions alleviate stress instead of adding to it.
2. Training and education
If you have ever encountered a situation at work that you didn't feel prepared for, you'll know from experience that it's stressful. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon for contact center agents, especially new ones. For a new agent, the difference between floundering and flourishing is as simple as implementing well-developed and thorough onboarding procedures. Such processes provide a firm foundation for employees to grow from and make those initial contact experiences less overwhelming and less likely to lead to premature burnout.
But even experienced agents can feel the pain of embarrassment or frustration when they don't know how to help a customer.
When you're short-staffed or on a tight budget, investing in ongoing training can be one of the first things that get cut. But by doing that, contact centers are doing their agents a disservice and inadvertently contributing to stress and burnout.
In addition to alleviating stress, professional development also contributes to engagement, loyalty, and retention:
- 86% of Millennials would stay at their current jobs if their employers offered career training and developmentix
- 92% of workers say professional development positively impacts their level of engagementx
However, the benefits training provides are eliminated when that training is poorly executed and becomes just another irritant. Follow these tips to make training more effective and engaging.
- Pinpoint individual training needs. A shotgun approach to training can make you miss the target. Personalize training for each agent with tools such as AI-powered interaction analytics and quality management to identify individual training needs so you can design customized curriculums.
- Set training goals. Ambiguous training goals and deadlines add stress to agents, who need to know what's expected of them. Give agents training goals and timelines to keep them on task.
- Make training fun. Injecting some fun into your training can make it more engaging and enjoyable. Include some friendly competition and set team training objectives, or use gamification to motivate agents to hit performance targets.
- Reward achievements. Who doesn't like to receive rewards and recognition? Provide rewards to teams or individual contact center agents for achieving their training goals. For example, provide a nice team lunch that gets agents away from the contact center for a couple of hours. And don't forget your remote agents—send them a care package or restaurant gift certificate.
- Leverage technology. The right technical tools can help streamline training and performance improvement efforts. For example, performance management systems make gamification a snap and real-time interaction guidance software coaches agents on soft skills while conversations are happening.
Feeling shaky on your agent training game? Download the New agent training tips for today’s digital world to gain expert insight and advice.
3. Provide effective, modern technology
Outdated, siloed technology is an irritant that causes undue stress. If your agents have to sign in and out of and navigate through multiple applications throughout the day, it's probably time to upgrade your contact center systems. Call center solutions are evolving rapidly, and modern technology and integrated platforms significantly improve the agent experience.
Consider the following solutions to improve agent satisfaction along with customer experience.
- Unified agent desktop. A unified agent desktop consolidates everything agents need into a single interface. This means agents only need to sign into one system and don't have to toggle through multiple windows to find the right application. The interface can include multiple channels, knowledge bases, CRM applications, and other tools agents need to successfully resolve interactions. Younger, digital-first Millennials and Gen Z workers expect easy-to-use technology, and the lack of it could be a barrier to recruiting and increasing employee attrition.
- Automation. Contact centers across the country are currently experiencing agent shortages and higher contact volume. Both factors create a higher workload per agent, which can contribute to burnout. Tools such as robotic process automation (RPA) reduce workloads by handling some of those repetitive, mundane tasks that are energy draining. RPA bots work 24/7 and perform processes like opening new claims and changing addresses in multiple systems with 100% accuracy. Automation just might be the key to preventing agent burnout.
- Self-service. Self-service is another effective way to reduce an agent’s workload by empowering customers to resolve their own simpler problems and questions. Most people prefer to resolve their own issues, so adding effective self-service can enhance CX. Additionally, self-service reduces those repetitive, mind-numbing interactions. To identify good candidates for self-service, it helps to first look at your most common contact types.
Watch NICE CXone Power Hour: Ready for What’s Next? 5 Tips for Prepping Like a Superhero to see how one of our clients creatively identifies self-service tasks. Try their technique in your own contact center; it might just be a driving force for innovation.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
When stress levels are high, it’s not the time to back off communicating with your agents. Reducing the number of team huddles or coaching sessions may feel like you're giving agents a little break, but the reduction in communication can have a negative effect.
Don't forget that one of the symptoms of burnout is increased cynicism. Some agents may read something slightly sinister into the lack of communication, as if you're withholding information that will negatively impact them.
Continue communicating to help agents feel listened to and understood. Contact center leadership wants agents to show empathy to customers who are stressed and frustrated, and they should do the same for frustrated agents. Open lines of communication also promotes collaboration with agents to identify solutions to burnout, and it enables you to keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening on the contact center floor.
In addition to communicating with agents, contact center leaders can also reach out regularly to other business teams that have an impact on agents and operations. Warning agents in advance about an upcoming marketing campaign that's expected to generate higher volume can help soften the blow of the additional work. People don't like to be surprised by something that could have been communicated to them beforehand.
A Gallup study found that employees who strongly agree they feel supported by their manager are 70% less likely to experience burnout.xi Honest and frequent communication is key to employees feeling supported.
5. Engage your contact center agents
An essential factor in improving the agent experience is increasing engagement. Thoroughly occupied employees that are interested in what they’re working on are also committed to the organization's goals and will go the extra mile to help the business achieve them.
Some of the techniques used to increase engagement can also help prevent burnout, including:
- Regularly collecting and acting on employee feedback
- Clarifying roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations
- Providing the training and tools agents need to be successful
Additionally, when you give agents more flexibility with when and where they work, it increases engagement and decreases stress through better work/life balance. In fact, results from a Flexjobs survey show that providing flexibility within the workplace and throughout the workday is the top way workers believe their employers support them.xii
The flexibility offered by a hybrid work model, in which some agents work remotely and some work on-site, offers more control and convenience to agents and empowers them to better manage both home and job responsibilities. And when workforce management (WFM) software has features such as shift swaps and shift bids, agents have more input into their schedules, which can relieve stress. When these capabilities are available on the agent's preferred device, it's yet another win for the agent experience.
You can learn more about how to ramp up agent interest and excitement in the eBook Inner circle guide to agent engagement and empowerment.
The secret to success in preventing agent burnout is simply to get started. The five ideas discussed in this article should help you begin your journey toward reducing workplace stress and creating a more supportive environment, which is ultimately a win for everyone.
Be sure to include soft skills in your agent training
Handling an angry customer with limited knowledge of how to treat the situation is frustrating for both the agent and the customer. When agents possess a cache of soft skills and know-how and when to apply them, they can more easily defuse tense interactions and reduce stress for everyone involved.
Learn more by reading the eBook 7 soft skills for outstanding agents (as modeled by cartoon characters) mini-guide.
v Toister Solutions: Report: Most Contact Center Agents At Risk of Burnout (2016)
viii Quartz Insights: Digital wellness: Rethinking how we work with tech and tech works with us (2019)
ix PR Newswire: Millennials Are Most Likely to Stay Loyal to Jobs with Development Opportunities (2018)