Gwenllian Williams offers up advice on recognising the symptoms, understanding the causes, and providing a solution to agent stress
Call centres are known to be high-pressure environments and stress is a common problem. However, this doesn’t mean you can turn a blind eye. Stress costs businesses millions every year. It has been identified as the most common cause of workplace absence and is therefore one of the biggest threats to productivity and profit.
As a manager you need to be aware of stress from several perspectives. These include:
1. The common causes
2. The signs and symptoms to look out for
3. What to do if you suspect a team member is stressed
Causes of stress
There are many causes of work-based stress. In call centres the most common cause is the fact that agents are generally working in react mode – reacting to customers, targets and deadlines.
“People who are stressed at home are usually stressed at work as well.”
Typical stressors are:
- Pressure to meet targets on call pick-up and call times
- Dealing with difficult or angry customers
- Lack of time away from the phone
- Having to keep on top of administration
- Poor team work or lack of support from colleagues
- Feeling undervalued
“We also have to remember that people bring stress into the job. People who are stressed at home are usually stressed at work as well.”
Signs and symptoms to look out for
Signs and symptoms fall into three main categories. Look out for behavioural signs first as these will be the most obvious to a manager.
Behaviours – Mood changes, crying, arguing, getting into a panic, working more slowly than usual, clumsiness, taking long breaks and not wanting to get back on the phone, not eating or overeating, making mistakes, forgetting facts and agreements, inability to make decisions.
Physical – Headaches, muscle tension, stomach-aches and pains, sweating, shaking, feeling sick, losing weight, appearing very tense and unable to relax shoulders, paleness, skin problems.
Cognitive – Depression, anxiety, anger, becoming obsessive about little things, worrying about everything, never seeing the positive.
What to do if you suspect a team member is stressed
Dealing with a stressed person must be handled sensitively and calmly. Many people are embarrassed about being stressed and may have hidden it for some time before the symptoms came to the surface.
As a manager you have to balance empathy with management. This means you have to address the stress as a business problem without the person thinking that they are the problem. This is a tough call, but don’t let the difficulty of the situation lead you into ignoring it. The only certainty then will be that the problem will get worse.
The following stress management process will help you balance sympathy and management:
- Set up a meeting with the person in a private room
- Avoid formality. Sit next to the person and ensure there’s tea and coffee on tap
- Keep your body language open and relaxed. If the person senses tension in you, they’ll get stressed themselves
- Get straight to the point – tell the person you have noticed changes in their behaviour, which is making you think they are feeling stressed. List the behaviours
- Tell the person that you’re concerned about them and want to help
- Ask the person if they want to talk it through with you
- If they refuse – and this is rare – point out that their behaviour has changed and this is affecting others. Tell them that you’re there to help and not to judge
If the agent decides to tell you what’s wrong, then you’ll need to move into problem-solving mode, and this means using techniques to ensure you’re problem-solving while being sympathetic.
Use the following methods to get to the bottom of the problem and then solve it:
- Use active listening – let the person talk and don’t interrupt. Show you’re listening. You’ll be surprised how people will pour out their issues
- Use open questions – how, why, when, what – as this will enable you to probe into the issue
- If the stressed person blames others, make no comment about them. This will ensure you stay objective and fair
- Ask the person to suggest solutions before you give ideas. They’re more likely to buy into their own ideas
- If the person says there is nothing they can do, challenge gently and then firmly
- If the stress is based outside the workplace, assure the person that the conversation is confidential
- If there are changes you can make to help the person then agree to these. However, don’t agree to anything that will put more stress on the rest of the team
- Agree actions at the end of the meeting and set up a follow-up meeting. This will ensure the person understands that you’re committed to helping them
On rare occasions you may be told something which really concerns you. One manager I worked with was faced with a stressed team member who confessed that she was abusing alcohol and was being bullied by another manager.
In such situations the person invariably says that they don’t want you to tell anybody and begs you to keep their confidence for fear of things getting worse. However, you must act. You have a duty of care towards the person and the business. Such behaviours are potentially harmful both to the person and the business, after all.
Tell the person firmly that, as a manager, you have to inform the business through HR and that you will do everything to ensure they’re protected as the situation is addressed.
Having addressed the stress, you have to ensure that solutions are put in place. There is no magic formula for this, unfortunately, but the following principles should be maintained:
- Make solutions pragmatic and lasting. Short-term solutions do not work
- Create solutions that give the person a sense of control
- Follow through and ensure the person lives the solution. The best way out of stress is action
- If the issue is affecting a team, go to management with a business project to address the issue
- Ensure that your solutions don’t mean that you take on the stress
One word for the cynics out there. As managers we cannot get away from the fact that ‘stress’ has become the hot topic. All too often ‘stress’ is used as an excuse for avoiding work or avoiding feedback.
If your stress cases mysteriously increase around appraisal time, you just might be facing a clever strategy rather than stress. In such cases, address the issue as though it were real stress. However, keep HR informed of progress. In other words, grit you teeth and play professional.
Generally stress is real and it is painful. It damages the individual, the team and the business. If you watch out for it, address it quickly and deliver solutions, you can do something about it.
Gwenllian Williams is a director of deWinton-Williams Business Consulting
Tel: +44 20 7372 4997