How to Control Call Center Stress

By Dale Collie

Every worker in America has heard of individual stress management techniques – relaxation, meditation, and visualization – good tools for getting through stressful periods. But if they’re so great, why do we still have all this stress?

With the concerns regarding the war, weather alerts, and the fluctuating economy, people are more stressed than ever. They’re also bringing that stress to work and adding to the stress of their everyday responsibilities. We’re going to need more than mood music, aromatherapy, and comfortable lighting to get beyond the stress of today’s workplace. We’re going to need management’s attention because stress control is a leadership responsibility.

The US Army has plenty of experience with stress control as front line leaders strive to keep GIs on the job. Traditionally, the US Army has lost as many soldiers to stress as to enemy gunfire – a ratio of 1:1. The most elite units trim this loss to a ratio of 1:10 — one stress loss for every 10 wounded soldiers.

Regardless of the ratio, every front line soldier is critical to winning the battle. Commanders know that controlling stress under fire is as critical as food, fuel, and ammunition. The same holds true for call centers. You can’t get high productivity with high absenteeism.

Combat leaders watch for stress symptoms and take action. They are taught to “Know your troops, and be alert for any sudden, persistent, or progressive change in their behavior that threatens the functioning and safety of your unit.” (FM 6-22.5, Combat Stress)  Specifically, front line leaders are taught to help overstressed soldiers in six ways:

Army Step 1. Reassurance: Call Center Solution: Some people need contact with the boss to assure them that things will turn out okay. Spend time to understand your employees’ concerns. Ask for their observations on recent events. Find out what they think about upcoming changes. Ask for their advice; they’ll admire you for demonstrating your trust. Simple remarks showing your confidence in workers can make a big difference.

Army Step 2. Rest and sleep: Call Center Solution: It’s worth your while to offer some additional time off if stress is interfering with performance. Consider offering additional breaks to relieve mental and physical fatigue. Often, improved productivity will more than pay for the unstructured breaks that over-stressed agents will take on their own. Find out what’s needed to help employees get more rest at home. Bring in experts to teach the importance of rest and relaxation. Look at your overtime schedule; the extra work might be taking its toll in absenteeism, illness, accidents, and attitudes.

Army Step 3. Food and fluids: Call Center Solutions: You can influence how people eat by getting experts to teach the importance of proper nutrition. Make sure nutritious snacks are available alongside the junk food in vending machines. Provide healthy snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon when energy levels begin to fade. The investment can pay off in better performance.

Army Step 4. Hygiene (bathing, clean uniforms): Call Center Solution: A scheduled break to get cleaned up before lunch or after a hard day can pay off in a big way. As surprising as it might seem, some employees do not have running water at home. Not all of them have hot water. Not all of them have washing machines. If possible, make these things available at your workplace or find alternatives. One-time arrangements can go a long way in helping stressed workers get their emotions under control and get their productivity up where it belongs.

Army Step 5. Discussion – A chance to talk about what happened, to tell war stories: Call Center Solution: Everyone benefits from a chance to tell about what went on. Some people are more sensitive than others are. There is often great value in routine meetings to kick off the shift or explain the day’s activities. Scheduling time before or after meetings to talk about what happened can relieve stress for those in the spotlight. Team discussions after sales calls can help stressed workers understand the results and focus on what needs to be done. In times of high stress, some people need to talk about what happened to others around them. Managers can handle the day-to-day conversations while experts are available to address major stressors. Help your staff tell their “war stories.”

Army Step 6. Restoring identity and confidence with useful work: Call Center Solution: As soon as possible, over stressed workers need to return to their positions of responsibility. They need to see that (a) they can perform well, (b) that management recognizes their efforts, and (c) that life goes on. Emphasize small accomplishments. Find reasons to reward each person for their achievements.

GIs usually return to their jobs after a short rest, a hot shower, a chat with their supervisor, and a warm meal. Your people can do the same. Most of the time, they can continue in their jobs if you pay attention to their basic needs.

Watch for high stress periods in your business cycle and schedule time to work on these six steps. You’ll improve productivity and the workplace environment by taking care of your employees. Your investment of time and money will be rewarded in better performance and lower costs.

Work with your human resource experts to assist those who are beyond your own ability. Let the professionals take care of severe cases while you take care of your other employees and get the work done.

Can you identify employees who are suffering from stress? Do you know what to do about it? Evaluate employee problems with an eye toward stress control. Take these tips and apply them to your staff to see an improvement in stress management.

Dale Collie is an author, speaker, former US Army Ranger, CEO, and professor at West Point. His McGraw-Hill book, “Winning Under Fire: Turn Stress into Success the US Army Way,” takes strategies from the battlefield into the boardroom and beyond. A Purple Heart recipient, Dale has succeeded in both the Army and the corporate world through his management and leadership strategies.

[From Connection Magazine December 2004]

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