An article I wrote for Charities Management magazine:
– Being Human at Work
Contact/ call-centres have a reputation as ghastly places to work full of stress and misery. They have even been dubbed the “sweat-shops of the modern age” and while this is unfair to many, it still applies to some both in the UK and abroad. With charities increasingly adopting contact centres these issues need to be examined, especially in light of the values that the NGO sector espouses. Luckily there is much that can be done by leaders to support staff managing their stress and their time in call-centres.
Dehumanising Call-Centre Staff
Starting with the industrial revolution mechanical models have been applied to people that are appropriate only for machines and reduce human beings to mere cogs. This tradition has continued in contact-centres today which can focus on measurables such as call response times and average call lengths at the expenses of qualitative and longer-term considerations. Turning staff into statistics is extremely stressful and ultimately bad for charities as employee engagement dwindles and stress related illness and staff-churn devastates whole offices. Note as well that this way of doing things leads to a culture that is dehumanising for the public too, who may well vote with their feet and support other charities more in keeping with their values.
Recognising Stress at Work
Stress is bio-psycho-social phenomena which just means that is shows up mentally (e.g. depressed or racing thoughts), behaviorally (e.g. changes to diet and seep, socially (e.g. aggression or withdrawing) and biologically (e..g psychosomatic illness and aches and pains). Different people behave differently when stressed – some may go out drinking more with colleagues for example while others many retreat into isolation, some say they are fine but express their stress psychosomatically (through bodily symptoms) and others complain bitterly desperate for empathy.
Stress related illness are some of the biggest killers in the Western World (e.g. heart disease) and the biggest single cause of work absenteeism (source – CIPD). Aside from all that stress is just a modern way of talking about unhappiness and suffering, and as people generally don’t work for a charity for the money alone, they might as well be at happy at least!
Meaning and Stress
A very stressful thing for people is lack of meaning and that can abound in call-centres. Staff must feel connected to something meaningful to feel satisfied. Luckily in charities this is easier than in many businesses and other organisations. If staff feel emotionally connected to the end-result of their work they will be less stressed and more motivated. There are many ways to do this but it could for example mean regular screenings of videos of the charities work, occasional field trips and other links to those who ultimately benefit from their work.
Training to Prevent Call-Centre Stress
Good conflict resolution and communication training is essential for call-centre staff to manage the stress of their job. I highly recommend NonViolent Communication as a system, although there are many out there showing staff how to diffuse tension with callers, make clear requests of managers and not “take it personally”.
Health, wellbeing and Stress
Sleep, diet, hydration (water, not caffeine or alcohol) and regular exercise are critical resilience factors in regard to stress at work. Healthy lifestyle factors can be encouraged by employers and managers with such measures as cycle to work schemes, office gyms and changing canteen food options.
Mindfulness and physical centering and grounding exercises are also well worth learning and teaching to staff as a standard part of induction training. Some contact-centres employ an in-chair mass therapists to come in as a treat and various other “alternative” approaches may be of use.
Environmental Causes of Stress
Physical environment play a huge part in stress and large open-plan offices with a lot of background noise are not only annoying for customers but highly stressful for staff. Lack of natural light is also a problem. Small changes can also make a difference if office design i fixed too, office plants for example. Individuality and creativity are also important so encourage people and teams to decorate their desks and areas as they see fit.
Perceived Control and Stress
It is the feeling of lack of control that many staff experience in contact-centres that is stressful, with incessant calls lining up to torment them and little they can do about the tide. By giving staff back as much control of their environments as possible stress will be dramatically reduced. Just giving staff the ability to go “off-line” for a period unquestioned will make a difference.
Leadership, Listening and Gratitude
It is ironic that those working in the listening trade are often not themselves listened to. By building a culture of empathy, social support and mutual respect charities will prevent “compassion-fatigue”, stress related illness and other forms of burnout. Similarly celebrating success, showing gratitude and “mourning” the moving on of colleagues helps with stress.
Good leadership reduces stress with clear communication, fair standards and reliability with commitments being central. People join charities for what they do and often leave bosses for what they don’t. Likewise potential workplace bullying amongst peers is also needs managing. Leaders model behaviors in response to stress and establish a culture of “how things are done” that impacts those they lead. I would challenge many charities to embody the values internally (e.g. justice, sustainability, care) that they expose externally. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” as Ghandi suggested.
Time Management to Prevent Stress
For modern leaders pulled in different directions time management is a critical challenge. In calls-centres what is urgent must be differentiated from what is important, priorities established and implementing a good time management system (e.g. Getting Things Done by David Allen) can make a big difference to stress and productivity levels. Efficiency is important and determining key elements of people’s work vital, but again this must not be taken to far if stress if to be avoided. Often time management is really commitment management and comes down to learning to say no and ask for help (sometimes called delegating).
Acknowledging people’s humanity and human limits is again key, people can not be expected to do more and more no matter what. I used to work for an NGO in the US and to his protestations I would say to my boss, “I’m taking a lunch break BECAUSE what we do is so important, not despite it”. Model good time and stress management.
Even with a good stress training program and consideration of stress when designing organisations structures and practices, managers may still need to intervene when staff are particularly stressed. This could look like sitting down for lunch and listening to an employees problems, non-obtrusively suggesting strategies that could help (e.g. flexible working or a change in responsibilities), or even calling someone into your office and demanding they leave work by 6pm each day. Language here is important as many people may not like the word “stress” and use different words to talk about the same issue. Framing the issue in the positive by using words like “resilience” and “mental toughness/hardiness” may be more acceptable. Sadly there are still gender differences in regard to stress and I have found men less likely than women to sign-up for stress management workshops in many organisations in the UK and abroad, perhaps seeing it as a sign of weakness.
Whatever intervention you use as a manager take account of the law (in the UK managing stress is a Health and Safety Exec. requirement), organisational policy and the individuals’s personality and feelings, there is much that can be done.
If managed well contact-centres need not be hellishly stressful. Helping staff manage stress can be considered an investment – one that is morally, legally and financially necessary.
About the Authour
Mark Walsh leads Integration Training – based in Brighton, Birmingham and London UK. They are bespoke charity, NGO and business training providers. Specialising in “embodied” approaches to leadership, time and stress management, team building and communication. His training blog is one of the most widely read online, he tweets from @warkmalsh and can be contacted on +44 (0) 7762 541 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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