Stress can manifest itself in a range of symptoms and ultimately make you or your staff very ill. Symptoms to watch out for include headaches, irritability and forgetfulness.
In this article Carolyn Blunt looks at a range of techniques to improve stress levels for you and your team.When we feel stressed it is usually because our mind and body are experiencing the ‘fight or flight response’, when our body is flooded with adrenaline due to either physical threat or, more commonly, mental ‘overwhelm’ .
Symptoms include headaches, tearfulness, over-indulging in food, alcohol or cigarettes, irritability, forgetfulness, feelings of helplessness, loss of interest in appearance, disturbed sleep.
This can cause us to get into a downward cycle of negativity that once entered, can seem impossible to break out of.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has identified six personal strategies to break the stress cycle:
1. Support – How supportive is your manager? This is one key question I ask each of my coaching clients; and naturally a lack of support at work is an obvious source of stress. We can spend more waking time at work than with our own family, so support from our colleagues and managers is critical in keeping us happy and calm at work. Simply showing a sincere interest in each individual is essential. Hand-in-hand with support is encouragement. How much are you encouraged by your manager? Another key question is motivation, and it is sad to hear that there still exists fear, competition and exclusion by some managers towards their staff. A good leader motivates people to want to work for them, not because they are being paid to or because they will be punished if they do not. Encouragement costs nothing and builds self esteem – a natural defence against stress. If you are not able to get support from your own manager consider finding a mentor or coach at work that you can talk to in confidence.
2. Demands – If your workload, work patterns or work environment are not properly managed these may be a source of stress. Consider the amount of work you (or your team) complete in a set number of hours. Analyse whether this is realistic – is it the same for everybody or do some people have more than others? Do you have a way to communicate upwards when workloads are unbalanced, unfeasible or if the work environment is not a positive one? Do your skills fit the task you are being asked to do? Have you received proper training?
3. Control – The HSE advise that employees have a say in how they do their work. However, we know that in a contact centre environment it is not simple to offer flexi-time or allow much deviation from industry-regulated scripts. Yet staff can be empowered to make some decisions on their own, input ideas and show initiative. Customer service roles demand that each customer is treated as an individual and a key component to good customer service is allowing agents to take ownership and find solutions to satisfy customers. You should also be able to identify the training you think you need and to ask for it.
4. Relationships – Managers should be dealing with unacceptable behaviour quickly and fairly, and employees need to have a way of reporting unacceptable behaviour (such as bullying). Gossip is commonplace in contact centres (well – we do populate them with people who like to talk for a living!) and relationships often develop between staff. When relationships between staff go wrong this can cause a nightmare for everyone. Use the support of HR and, if you have it, staff counselling services.
5. Role – Knowing exactly what is required of you is essential to avoid stress and confusion at work. Ensure you have clear objectives and a job description and that your team members do too. Clarity of the organisation’s wider purpose and how you contribute has been cited as one of the key aspects for engaging and motivating employees.
6. Change – Communicating with people through periods of change is one of the best ways to keep stress to a minimum. You should know how proposed changes will affect you and be given timetables for changes and support through the change – whether this is re-training, consultation or opportunities to discuss and influence the changes. If you don’t get this information ask for it. Otherwise the rumour mill goes into overdrive!
Six strategies to help you stay calm
One thing you always have control over is your own reaction to stress:
1. Distract yourself with something else. Make yourself postpone all worry and anxiety until the activity is over. My personal choice is to go for a walk or bake cakes with my daughter. The space and distraction of the task gives me time to calm down from what may have been building into an overwhelming sense of panic. Once rational thought has resumed I can formulate an action plan to tackle it or decide to let go if it’s out of my control.
2. Make a list of all the things you are stressed about or feel you are missing out on, perhaps as a result of an unexpected change or the current recession. Then make a list of all the things you still have and that you still value, ensuring this is the bigger list. It will help to control any negativity and keep you focused on the positives.
3. Take things one step at a time. Sometimes we can feel that there is just too much to do and we don’t know where to start. If you feel like you are constantly rushing around but couldn’t tell me what you did in a day then you aren’t making best use of your time and will soon burn out, become frustrated and make little progress.
This is how it feels to fire-fight but not complete any of the tasks you need to do to move forward long term. You may be being helpful to your colleagues or friends, but what about your own objectives and needs? There is a balance between being a team player and being taken advantage of. Unfortunately, saying that you haven’t achieved your own objectives because you were too busy helping everyone else is unlikely to pay dividends.
Plan your day, even if only for a few minutes, by thinking which few things you would feel good about having completed by the end of the day. Then focus on those and do not let yourself become distracted. It is ok to say no sometimes!
4. Don’t feed the negative cycle. In times of hardship humans look to one another to know what to do or not to do, how much to worry and what is safe. If you are expressing anxiety you will make others anxious too. This leads to more and more people feeling scared and worrying, often unnecessarily!
Whilst you should be realistic and not bury your head in the stand it is important not to get carried away with your worries and exaggerate your speculation of any hardship ahead. Equally, be aware of other people that feed your own worries when you speak to them. Give them a wide berth for a while, you don’t need any encouragement to worry!
5. Have a back-up plan. Be prepared for the disaster or incident you are worrying about if possible. Make a list of who would be able to help you, how you would survive financially and what action you would take. There could be some action you can take now to make yourself feel more secure. For example, get your CV up to date, go on some interview skills training, network with well-connected people. These activities will help you to feel like you have an element of control over your situation and you are not merely being ‘done to’ or leaving your life in other people’s hands.
6. Let off some steam – to relax you may first have to give that adrenaline an outlet. Vigorous exercise is great but just punching a pillow can work! I like to shake up a can of fizzy drink and then let it explode in the garden. This visual scene helps me to act out my frustration and usually ends in laughter – the best remedy of all for stress busting.
Carolyn Blunt is a contact centre training expert with Real Results Training and was recently voted in the top 10 most respected people in the UK Contact Centre industry. If you enjoyed this article you might also like more free resources. Please visit www.real-results.co.uk and see the Members Area.
For more information on training your contact centre managers, team leaders or advisors cost-effectively call Carolyn on 0161 408 2003.