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Making Agent Mental Health a Priority: Five Agent Stressors and How to Address Them

We can all probably agree that frontline contact center agents have one of the most challenging and most important roles in an organization. They are often the face of the company, shaping customer perception from even one interaction. In the last year, much has been discussed about the importance of employee engagement and well-being, and for good reason. In “normal” times, this should be top of mind for executives, but the impact of COVID-19 has exasperated many of the stressors agents were already experiencing. With many employees still working from home, and the continued stress related to the pandemic, it is a good time to put ourselves in agents’ shoes and evaluate if we are doing everything we can to create a healthy work environment. Supporting employees by ensuring their mental and physical wellbeing is truly a priority.

In this article, you will find five common feelings leading to stress for many agents, and suggestions for addressing these for your staff.

I feel isolated, disconnected, and unheard.

Working from home has been positive for some agents and difficult for others. Coupled with a pandemic that forced people to self-isolate, it is no surprise that this has become a common stressor. This can also lead to an even greater disconnect between agents, their peers, their managers, and senior leadership. Customer experience (CX) leaders also need to remember that agents have a unique perspective because they talk to customers every day. This gives them valuable insights and ideas that do not always see the light of day. Regardless of whether employees are in a contact center or are working from home, it is important to create a cadence of scheduled activities and agent feedback mechanisms to reduce the feeling of isolation and drive more engagement. These can include:

  • Consistent and frequent one-on-one check-ins: This is different from formal performance discussions, but is instead a time to talk with agents, assess how they are doing, listen to any challenges they are having, and/or hear their ideas. This should be an informal setting that is non-threatening to the agents so they feel comfortable opening up to their supervisors.
  • “Fun” activities, wellness opportunities, and interest groups: Fun activities could be with their own teams, or cross-functional teams, but the goal is to bring people together in a way that has nothing to do with work. Examples might include online gaming sessions, virtual games, monthly online lunches, and book/music/movie clubs. Additionally, many companies are now providing ongoing and structured opportunities for employees to participate in virtual (or in-person) exercise and wellness activities such as yoga, meditation, or group walk/runs.
  • Employee satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and anonymous feedback: Most companies now have employee satisfaction surveys. Those who excel post the results, analyze the data, implement action plans, and communicate progress to those plans. Focus groups are another means to gather agent feedback. Surveys will give you valuable data, but nothing can replace a good conversation. These should be structured, ongoing, and paired with a communication plan. Providing the ability for agents to submit anonymous suggestions and questions also goes a long way in removing any fear agents may have about voicing concerns. However, leadership must ensure they have processes in place to respond to all submissions, track them, and do something with them.

 

I fear my job is at risk.

It has been an unsettling year for everyone, creating uncertainty about job security. It is not possible to guarantee staff that their job is safe, especially given the events over the last year, but leaders are able to minimize the angst through:

  • Transparent and consistent communication: You may not be able to disclose everything, but the more transparent you can be as a leader, the less stress your staff will feel. It is always important for agents to hear from their leaders because in the absence of communication, people will create worst case scenarios in their own minds, which is often worse than reality. Both monthly (or quarterly) “town halls” with senior leaders and weekly meetings with direct managers are key.
  • Genuine open-door policies: Create a culture and environment that encourages staff to ask questions and voice their concerns. This requires all levels of management to adopt genuine open-door policies, even if you need to set aside certain hours that are available for just that. This can even be done remotely by way of opening a web meeting during certain hours or allowing staff to schedule on your calendar during established hours.
  • Training and development: One of the best ways to alleviate concerns about job security is ongoing training and development. Again, there are no guarantees of job security, but by creating career paths, development plans, and working with staff to further their skills, agents will gain confidence that they are valued and the company is still invested in them, regardless of what the future may hold.

 

I get “yelled at” all day from unhappy customers.

There is no question that agents have a difficult job. Yes, it can be satisfying to solve customers’ issues, but let’s face it – most of the time customers are not contacting an agent because things have gone well. This can be very taxing to agents and the best ways to help them navigate through this is:

  • Training and coaching: Help agents learn the skills and utilize their resources to de-escalate difficult customer situations and resolve issues effectively. Agents will of course receive training on tools and processes as part of new hire training, but there is always something to learn to make the job a little easier. Ongoing monitoring and coaching are of course important, but there are other creative ways to help them develop these skills such as peer coaching, brainstorming sessions, and case studies of similar situations and how they were resolved.
  • Escalation support: There are of course times that agents will not be able to handle a challenging customer. They need to know that they have support, either from their direct manager or an escalation team. In a physical center, this is easier since they can put the customer on hold and ask a peer or leader, but remote workers may face more challenges. So, ensure you have instant messaging queues or some ability to reach someone should escalation be necessary. In short, ensure they do not feel alone should they need support.
  • Rewards and recognition: Responding to unhappy customers all day every day is taxing and can often feel like a thankless job. Whether agents are in center or working from home, it is more important than ever to implement structured programs to consistently shine a light on high performance. Most companies have performance-based approaches which are, of course, effective. But it is important to go beyond this as well, such as having peer-based nominations and spontaneous recognition when a “great customer experience” is observed. Company-wide awards programs in which leaders from departments nominate employees based on actions aligned with company values also provide exposure for staff and helps recognized individuals feel more connected to the organization as a whole.

 

I do not always receive updated information, or I get so much information I cannot keep up.

The amount of information agents receive on any given day can be daunting. And they are expected to receive, absorb, remember, and apply it — all while caring for customers. Sometimes they do not even receive needed information for various reasons. Leaders can and should look closely at their communication process and consider:

  • A central repository of changes/updates: This could require a technology and infrastructure investment, but the best-case scenario is a central repository of updates and communication for agents. This puts the responsibility on them to check it, but also ensures everyone has access to the same information at the same time.
  • Electronic receipt/tracking: Additionally, it is becoming more important to have the ability to track information flow, ensuring each agent has received, accessed, and confirmed their understanding of important updates. A central repository would certainly make this easier but there are less sophisticated ways to do this as well. The updates could be categorized and triaged based on level of importance/complexity and that would trigger the type of receipt or confirmation required.
  • Structured cadence and daily huddles: Regardless of where or how the information is provided, the more structure the better. In other words, critical updates are sent on Mondays only from specific people (with exceptions). The results are agents know when to look for key updates and from whom. Other types of updates could be shared in daily huddles with direct managers, versus sending emails. There are several ways to do this, but the key is to simplify and put a structure around it that is easier for agents to digest.

 

I work from home, but I am finding it difficult to balance work with my personal situation.

Employees who will continue to work from home also have children and personal situations they are balancing. While leaders have businesses to run, scheduling has been a source of stress for many agents. Leading companies have implemented more flexible and creative scheduling practices such as:

  • Split shifts: For example, you might allow agents to work for four hours early in the day and four hours later in the day. This can be a benefit to agents but also to the organization depending on customer transaction arrival patterns and volume.
  • Longer shifts over fewer days: Some companies are taking volunteers who would like to work a shorter week but longer hours. For example, 10-hour shifts over a four-day period might be an option. Again, depending on personal situations this allows agents some flexibility while providing the coverage needed by the organization.
  • More (but shorter) breaks: Let’s face it. Many of us have worked from home all or most of the last year. It is challenging to only have two 15-minute breaks during an eight-hour shift, especially given the distractions common at home. Offering more breaks throughout the day that are shorter in duration provides some relief to agents. If workforce management plans for this, it should not impact service levels.

 

In summary, a lot of anxiety and stress has built up over the last year and it should not go unnoticed. Leaders can alleviate these stressors in many ways, including the ideas presented in this blog post. Additionally, many organizations have expanded the resources available to their employees such as mental health resources, financial services assistance, and legal representation. Most importantly, all leaders need to be aware of any challenges facing agents and take action to help minimize them. Doing so is not only the right thing to do for employees, but will also lead to better customer experiences and greater company success.

 

Blog post, written by: Execs In The Know