Employees everywhere are struggling with severe increases in stress and anxiety brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Fear of being exposed to the virus in the workplace, concerns about personal and family members’ health and safety, worries about job security, managing childcare and eldercare, lack of access to technology or tools to do the work, adapting to different work schedules, unmanageable workloads—these are just some of the factors amplifying employee burnout.
Work-related stress has been steadily climbing over the years due to an always-on workplace culture, 24/7 connectivity and the erosion of boundaries between work and personal lives. In recent weeks, however, COVID-19 has created a continuously elevated state of stress that is manifesting in the form of intense emotional reactions—both inside and outside of the workplace, says Chason Hecht, CEO of Retensa, an employee retention strategies and research company. He points to well-publicized incidents that have been occurring across the country, such as fights breaking out in stores for standing too close or for not wearing face masks.
It not surprising that prolonged anxiety might provoke hostile or aggressive behavior, especially when you consider the body’s immediate physical reaction to a stressful event. Stress triggers a surge of hormones—as the adrenaline courses through your veins, your heart pounds, you breathe faster and your muscles tense for a momentary “fight-or-flight” response that lasts until the perceived threat or danger has passed.
But what happens when an individual exists in a permanent state of stress?
“One of the startling realizations in the last 20 years is that a stressful event will elevate cortisol levels for 48 hours,” Hecht explains. “So if someone is feeling stressed about a fender-bender that happened Sunday evening, they’re still feeling the implications on Tuesday morning. But, more recently, that elevated sense of concern and anxiety is happening every day, and there is no unplug from the stressful event.”
While the short-term ramifications of stress hamper an employee’s productivity, accuracy and creative thinking, chronic stress has long-term health effects such as cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, and sleep and eating disorders, among other problems.
Connect with Your Agents: Ask for Feedback
The isolation of social distancing during the pandemic has more employees feeling disconnected from their co-workers and supervisors, which increases their vulnerability to burnout. Managers, who are dealing with many of the same stressors, may not have the resources to monitor agents who are feeling overwhelmed until it surfaces as high absenteeism, poor morale, low productivity or turnover.
Another problem is that many companies leave it up to their employees to self-assess and self-manage their stress, which most workers are unlikely to do. A more effective approach calls for employers to proactively and continually take the pulse of their employees’ mental health and emotional wellbeing.
An employee wellness survey is one of the best ways to capture your employees’ unexpressed concerns and anxieties—and it is an absolute must in the management toolkit as companies reopen their facilities and agents return to the workplace, says Hecht. “There are far fewer physical manifestations of overstress and burnout than there are of coronavirus,” he points out. “If someone is sick, there are obvious indications, such as coughing or high temperature, but that is not the case with stress.”
To capture the most useful feedback, Hecht recommends announcing the intent of the wellness survey to employees at least a week before sending them the questionnaire. Communicate the purpose of the survey, how their input will be used, and make clear that you’re interested in their honest, open feedback.
“That helps to prime the individual in the days leading up to the survey,” he says. “They can begin to think about how they’re feeling.” When that self-awareness occurs, he adds, employees are more likely to not only participate in the survey but provide more thorough and robust responses. (Editor’s note: Retensa is offering a free employee wellness survey to help contact centers gauge agents’ stress levels and pinpoint root causes.)
“Your employees are more stressed-out than ever,” Hecht says “It’s not a question of are they or aren’t they, it’s a question of how much and how it’s affecting their work. Doing nothing guarantees the worst possible outcome.”
Tips to Alleviate Agent Stress On the Job
The sudden migration of on-site agents to work-from-home models has been a major upheaval, says Verint’s Kelly Koelliker, Director of Content Marketing. She offers the following advice to prevent agent burnout on the job:
Offer agents time in different channels. Taking calls all day long can be draining when calls are emotionally charged. “Callers are venting about other issues that are going on that may or may not be related to the issue they are calling in about,” Koelliker says. “When every call is a crisis, this can lead to a very stressful work environment. Offering agents the opportunity to work in a different channel, even if handling the same types of questions, can provide a much-needed hour of emotional break.”
Double-down on self-service to reduce call volume. Many contact centers are experiencing unprecedented spikes in call volumes, which means that agents are not getting the necessary breaks to manage stress levels, she says. “Try to offload as many of those contacts to self-service as is possible.”
Relax tracking the usual metrics. If agents are having to spend more time empathizing with or soothing anxious callers, then this is not the time to focus on typical performance metrics like handle time or schedule adherence. “You don’t want the agents stressed that they are going to lose their jobs because they are unable to adhere to their normal goals and metrics,” Koelliker adds.
Provide quick, seamless access to technology, training and knowledge. “While this may seem like a given, it can be very stressful when agents can’t get access to the things they need to do their jobs,” Koelliker says. For instance:
- Ensure that agents have access to reliable, glitch-free technology. “Verint introduced a robotic process automation solution that monitors the health of agent communications systems using intelligent automation to solve problems, prevent downtime and eliminate common contact center inefficiencies that put a strain on both IT resources and agents,” she explains.
- Provide “zero-click knowledge” so that agents don’t have to spend time searching for the information they need. Leverage technology to automatically push relevant information to the agent effortlessly, right at the moment of need.
- Upskilling boosts agent performance, morale and motivation. “We have customers who have had to upskill and train agents to expertly assist on topics and questions that they’ve never been asked before,” Koelliker says. “Some questions were specific to COVID issues while others required agents to quickly become proficient in a new area. Organizations have little control over rapidly changing business needs and requirements; making knowledge easily available to support these transitions can aid agents in becoming successfully upskilled as opposed to severely stressed.”
A Supportive Culture Forms a Solid Foundation
Generally speaking, a supportive leadership team and culture not only ensures that employees can manage stress levels daily, but better equips them to handle unexpected situations when they arise.
Take a look at Sweetwater, for example. The COVID-19 shutdown put the company’s culture to the test as stay-at-home orders led to a substantial upswing in demand for the online retailer’s musical instruments and audio gear.
“We have been experiencing sales at the same levels that we experience on Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” says CEO and Founder Chuck Surack. “Our teams were forced to act quickly and efficiently to meet the massive increases in demand with the majority of our employees working from home.”
Leadership support for employees was a top priority throughout the transition from on-site to working from home. In addition to continuous communication to keep employees up to date about changes in policies, practices, and procedures, Surack says the company provides employees with a variety of support programs, including:
- Access to a variety of free, confidential resources for employees, including an on-site medical clinic. “Employees can visit with our physician about what they’re experiencing and feeling during this time and he can provide experienced guidance and direction based on their circumstances,” he says.
- An Employee Assistance Program that provides employees and immediate family members with several free sessions with a therapist, as well as 24/7 counseling via phone. Also, a financial counseling program for employees who may be struggling with financial issues or debt, and resources for first-time homebuyers.
- Information for additional resources such as Remedy Live—a local, free, faith-based program that is staffed 24/7 to anonymously chat about any number of issues, including anxiety, depression and loneliness. And a local agency that helps people with addiction problems.
- Access to an on-campus fitness center and personal trainer (which reopened in June).
Employees also are encouraged to take part in other wellness practices, Surack says, such as “meditation, taking walks outside, and of course, listening to music, which countless studies show is a great way to put yourself in a better place. We have worked to develop a culture that encourages collaboration and teamwork so that no one person feels as though he or she is carrying the load alone. As a leader, my priority is to provide resources to help employees tackle any issues they may be experiencing, both professionally and personally. While it may sound cliché, our employees are our most valuable asset, so we do everything we can to support them in whatever way needed.”