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How to protect the mental wellbeing of your customer service staff

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It is more important than ever that customer experience team leaders and project managers handle their employees’ mental health.

8th Jun 2021
Strategist Buyer Brain
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Last year, many of us were commuting between our bedrooms and desks, doing our jobs from home and worrying about all the uncertainties of a pandemic that took us by surprise and for which we were not prepared. Meanwhile, couriers, bank or retail employees and many other essential workers continued to go to work, striving to keep their customers happy despite the microclimate of fear and uncertainty, when people isolated themselves and each interaction weighed differently.

For some, the work did not change that much – the route of a courier remained mostly the same in the pandemic – while the routine of others suffered: many of the front-end bank tellers were forced to respond to requests by phone or email, without the direct interaction that would have solved faster and more efficiently the problematic situations that customers went through.

One year later, we wanted to find out how things have changed for the customer – customer service employee relationship. What kind of difficulties are they facing? How do they manage the fear of illness and also their mental health?

Fatigue vs empathy

Little did we all know that many of the temporary work changes that were implemented last year would become our normality. In this new environment, many customer service employees had to adapt their home desks to an entire call-center infrastructure or handle furious customers without the real-time guidance of their senior managers.

On the other side, customers were experiencing a range of complex emotions developing special expectations about the way they wanted and needed to interact with the brands, of which customer service representatives where the embodiment.

CX teams facing fatigue

The prolonged uncertainty and continuous health threat lead to fatigue, a phenomenon that can happen to all the employees that experiment long-term and extreme stress or long-drawn cognitive activity. Some of its common symptoms include mental block, lack of motivation, low levels of productivity and overall cognitive function, irritability, stress eating or loss of appetite and insomnia. These symptoms can vary from person to person and often begin to show gradually.

According to academic literature mental fatigue can be acute or chronic. Acute fatigue is perceived for a short amount of time and is relieved after a brief period of rest. Most of us experience acute fatigue as a normal sensation. However, if left unresolved, acute fatigue can snowball into chronic fatigue, anxiety, or burnout.

For clients, fatigue translates into high expectations, the desire to be helped in real time, be treated with empathy and provided emotional support. This took a toll on employees working in customer service, as besides managing their own isolation and uncertainty, they had to take care of their clients’ needs and deal with their anguish or irritability, without having a clear end date as to when this will be over.

The impact of cognitive empathy

While fatigue is becoming a part of our new reality, so is empathy. The customer-centric organizations that embraced the customers’ demands and needs by shifting from a corporate approach to cognitive and affective empathy, managed to have stronger teams in terms of emotional and mental health and more satisfied customers.

Cognitive empathy is a powerful tool that helps understand how a customer feels and how to offer the best response based on the client’s context, while affective empathy is responsible for developing a human tone of voice for the company. It is not surprising that one of the simplest but impactful actions undertaken by the customer service teams of empathic companies was to start each dialogue with questions such as “How are you?” or “How are you feeling today?”.

However, the best impact requires CX teams to personalize and contextualize their actions, besides having a deep understanding of the clients' needs. Real empathy implies flexibility and the ability to improve the customer journey or experience, depending on the situation, to help a customer who can't go through the entire digital journey, or to identify a piece of information within the company that can resolve a complaint faster.

“As customer service specialists during a pandemic, we need to embrace a conscious effort to be mindful and empathic to our clients’ needs: not to criticize, not to dismiss, but to be responsive, kind and flexible. We and our clients share a common objective and that is to make our customers’ lives easier by supporting them in their issues.” declares a call-center project manager.

Looking ahead

Ultimately, how can CX team leaders and project managers handle their employees’ mental health?

  • Assess employees’ fatigue and wellbeing periodically, by conducting performance testing or daily interactions or discussions, in order to detect behavioural fatigue symptoms in an early stage.
  • The manager is the go-to-person for every work-related inquiry, so he/she must be a model for their employees regarding the normalization of mental health talks in the office.
  • Remove the stigma regarding acknowledgment of fatigue, anxiety, or burnout and encourage every member of your team to open up and share their stories.
  • Position trust and open communication as core values of your organization and practice them daily
  • Encourage your employees to address mental health specialists if their acute fatigue turns into burnout.
  • Educate and empower your employees by adopting Mental Health programs inside your organization.
  • Respect their off-work hours and encourage them to take a break even if they work from home, especially during these stressful times.

This article is part of the Mind me asking? campaign powered by Yellow Canary, a free online platform that enables people to assess their emotional wellbeing and encourages them to reach out to psychologists for help (www.yellow-canary.org).

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