International VP Enghouse Interactive
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Staff wellness matters more than ever in service

6th Apr 2021
International VP Enghouse Interactive
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Needs must, and as 2020 rolled out, customer-facing businesses across multiple sectors were quick to adjust to the reality of the pandemic. As Covid-19 infections increased, many migrated their teams away from physical ‘bricks and mortar’ contact centres and into the home environment. Over time, there has been more discussion about long-term hybrid working where agents have moved from having a permanent desk in their office to a permanent desk at home, while just attending the office for meetings and strategic planning.

For many organisations, the technology was already in situ to facilitate this migration. Agents already had broadband at home; cloud contact centres were in place. Secure VPNs provided remote access to systems and applications that helped frontline workers to deliver optimum service levels to customers from their kitchen tables and front rooms.

The burden on mental health

Unfortunately, what is often missed in this new customer service world is the impact on the agent or customer service representative (CSR). ‘Frazzled’  - a word popularised by comedian, broadcaster and mental health pioneer, Ruby Wax, perfectly sums up how many of these frontline agents were feeling by the end of 2020. As Wax herself said to an audience of communications and contact centre executives in December 2020 in a presentation, entitled: “The Much Needed Tonic”: “In this culture right now, we are always wired. We do not have that off switch. This is frazzled.”

Wax is well-qualified to know. She obtained a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from the University of Oxford to increase her understanding of the brain and the science behind mental health issues. She used this knowledge as the basis for her theatre show: “Sane New World: Taming the Mind,” which toured the world. This gave her greater insight into the mental health issues people face and she found them to be even more common than she might have thought. “The show wasn’t just for the one in four. It seemed everyone was going through something,” she said. “One in four have a mental illness, four in four are frazzled. That is the state of the nation right now.”

Contact centre staff have good reason to be more frazzled than most. Stress levels can build up quickly. That is not in itself a bad thing, of course. As Wax says, ”we need stress. Humans were built to be stressed but the contemporary ailment is we are stressed about stress. We are sabotaging ourselves with our own thinking.”  Agents have more scope than most to be prey to this feeling. They can feel a sense of isolation through lack of supportive social contact. Typically, they are at the sharp end on the frontline, delivering customer service. If they fall short, they might well blame themselves.  It is an issue that has become ever more difficult since the advent of Covid-19.  As Wax points out: “With this pandemic, we are at fever pitch. Never before have we been prepared for this uncertainty, loneliness, panic. We can’t leave the house. We are not used to this cave mentality and then you leave the house and you are even more terrified.”

Adding to the mix the external pressures on contact centre agents have become more acute. A recent survey by the Institute of Customer Service canvassed 1,000 customer-facing employees and 1,000 members of the public – and found that more than half (56%) of essential workers have faced abuse from customers during the pandemic.  It was recently revealed that The Co-Op supermarket has invested £70m in security measures for staff across the UK, including body-worn cameras.

Issues of stress and poor mental health are likely to be exacerbated by the inevitable technical issues that can stem from keeping technology up and running when working from home. Issues with poor connections and problems with configuring new technology can become overwhelming when working remotely.

Finding a way forward

Organisations need to protect the wellness and mental health of staff working in these difficult conditions. It is difficult to do this effectively without being face to face and reading body language.

Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Real Time Speech Analytics (RTSA) can help in providing social interaction and measuring how well people are doing. Vocal coach tools can potentially be used to pick up signals of mental health issues, including stress, anger, and frustration. Any member of the team can potentially help agents that are struggling also. As Wax puts it: “If you see somebody in the office and you see them starting to burn…. You will notice what happens because they can’t shut it down. That gives you the chance to step in and help them. Alternatively, if you notice somebody that might have depression. If you look closely you will see that their eyes are dead. They might have anger issues. They may find it difficult to make choices. If you notice this, send them an email, and if they say, they want help, get them to a doctor.” 

Over the next year, we’d also expect to see more smart, well-resourced businesses launch staff well-being initiatives to better engage with their employees about mental health. These formal programmes also need to be accompanied by a positive culture, where management needs to be available at all times to offer practical support but also to talk through difficult situations that agents may have experienced and listen carefully to their perspective, or simply to regularly check in with them to assess how they are coping with the pressures of lockdown. 

In these times, in particular, collaboration and community are key. As Wax herself says. “The businesses that are really surviving are where it is all about working together. Divide and conquer is over. It has to be. You can’t do ‘top down’ anymore. That guy ‘up there’ has to let go and trust teams. And by the way, when Darwin said ‘survival of the fittest, he didn’t mean the top dog, the alpha, the killer wins. He meant those who co-operate best. Those people who make people feel good. Those are the survivors. ”

That sense of everybody pulling together should be key for businesses moving forwards, especially after the pandemic. Employers should be considering flexible working rosters, especially for those with difficult domestic environments or who have home schooling commitments. There also needs to be a process of ongoing encouragement for agents to make sure they are taking regular breaks, getting sufficient exercise, and not signing up for too many overtime shifts. 

Finally, it is also important not to neglect training and coaching for contact centre workers. Training programmes offer excellent opportunities for engagement between managers and agents and opportunities for employees to better understand progress, where they stand in the organisation and what is expected of them.

All this is key because without engagement and interaction of this kind, we are likely to see sickness, absenteeism and staff turnover rising and productivity falling within many businesses.

Many people are likely to feel stressed, demotivated, and burnt out, all features that might come under Ruby Wax’s general umbrella description of ‘frazzled’. Businesses need to find better ways of identifying issues employees have with mental health and  engaging with them better to help to resolve those issues. That will ultimately be key both to the health of their staff and the health and robustness of their own organisations, as happy (and less frazzled) staff are ultimately more efficient and productive.   

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