The aim of this article is to review issues relating to wellbeing and stress that may affect contact centre staff. It will discuss the causes of stress and wellbeing and the outcomes, then set out some realistic ways in which stress can be managed and wellbeing can be supported.
Stress is defined as “an interaction between the person and their (work) environment and is the awareness of not being able to cope with the demands of one’s environment when this realisation is of concern to the person”. Work-related stress has been extensively researched and many of the personal and situational factors associated with it have been identified. Subjective wellbeing is more than the absence of ill-health.
A MODEL OF STRESS AND WELL-BEING
- Job or task design: tedious and repetitive work, work that under-utilises employee skills, constant client contact.
- Workload and work pace: work overload or under load; high time pressure.
- Work-life balance: conflict between the demands of work and those outside work.
- Work schedules: badly designed or inflexible schedules; unpredictable or unsociable hours.
- Work role problems: lack of clarity about what to do; conflicting requirements; too much or too little to do.
- Organisational design: poor communication; little participation in decision-making; low trust; inflexible work practices; lack of control over work; too much or too little responsibility.
- Career development problems: career uncertainty or stagnation; low status and lack of appropriate rewards.
- Selection systems: poor fit between staff needs and capabilities and job requirements.
- Training: few chances to enhance relevant skills.
- Relationships at work: isolation; lack of consultation between management and staff; interpersonal conflict; lack of support.
- Hazardous work
Primary appraisal involves an assessment of the relevance and potential consequences of a demand. Demands can be appraised as ‘irrelevant’ to the individual, ‘relevant but benign’ (offering the chance to preserve or enhance wellbeing) or ‘relevant and stressful’ (representing a potential threat to the individual’s goals, beliefs or expectations). There has been little research into which strategies, if any, are used to address demands that are seen as irrelevant or benign. Almost all research has focused on demands that are appraised as both relevant and stressful.
Stressful appraisals include an appraisal of harm or threat and also of challenge. Harm represents damage that has already occurred. Threat appraisals occur when a person anticipates that the demand will be associated with future harm or loss. Challenge appraisals occur when the demand is seen as having potentially positive outcomes, even under difficult circumstances. A demand which is appraised as a challenge is seen as an opportunity for recognition, praise, learning and personal growth.
One framework that integrates the concepts of primary appraisal of threat and challenge considers the need for a balance between demands and the resources available to deal with them. Resources include objects (e.g. possessions), personal characteristics (e.g. self-esteem, attitudes, knowledge and skills) and desirable conditions (e.g. good management systems, supportive relationships). When demands match resources, the demand is seen as a challenging opportunity to learn and succeed but when demands exceed resources, the demand is seen as a threatening opportunity for failure.
Coping processes are not inherently good or bad; the usefulness of a coping strategy depends on the context in which it is used. When demands are within the person’s control then the most adaptive coping strategies are likely to be those which involve actively planning and addressing the demand but when demands are outside the person’s control then it may be more important to focus on managing emotional reactions rather than the demand itself. One of the most important factors in effective coping appears to be the ability to use a range of coping strategies appropriately
Much of the research into the importance of work demands and job control has been conducted within the framework of demand-control-support model. The model proposes that work in which people face high demands but relatively low control over the resources that are needed to meet those demands is particularly stressful (Karasek, 1979). Social support is included in the model as a ‘buffer’ against stress. There is evidence that jobs which are high in demands and low in control (high-strain jobs) are associated with worse physical and psychological health than jobs which are high in demands and high in control (active jobs), Control (e.g., participation in decision-making) means that individuals have some influence over how they do their work and can have input into the decisions that affect them. Effective employee consultation and participation can increase the range and quality of information available for making decisions and can increase commitment to changes and strategies from those who are required to implement them. However, levels of control and participation must be appropriate to individuals and roles: there are significant individual and cultural differences in preferences for active participation in decisions at work.
Although the evidence tends to be mixed, the negative effects of high-strain jobs may be more apparent when social support is low than when it is high. Social support comprises the resources provided by other people and includes emotional support such as sympathy and understanding, information provided by others and practical help. Interpersonal networks that provide emotional, informational and practical support can be very important in managing stress and well-being. Friendships at work can be an important source of social support associated with job satisfaction and intentions to remain with the organization.
Social support is not unequivocally positive. A high level of practical help can reduce an individual’s feelings of personal effectiveness and induce feelings of inferiority. Support networks involve reciprocal obligations which can be experienced as coercive rather than supportive and negative feelings of stress as well as positive feelings of wellbeing can be communicated and shared throughout work groups.
Organisational cultures also vary in the extent to which they support well-being or stress. In workplaces where peers and managers discourage individual success and achievement, employees experience increased levels of stress and diminished well-being. Some organisations have developed initiatives to help employees balance work and non-work demands. The use of initiatives such as flexible work arrangements, leave arrangements, assistance to care for dependents and employee assistance programs depends not only on availability but also on employee perceptions as to whether or not managers and supervisors support the use of the initiatives and whether employee career prospects (e.g., promotion) will be damaged by use of the initiatives. Managers and supervisors can also influence work demands through the timing of meetings, deadlines, scheduling, monitoring, and modelling long hours at work or good work-life balance. An organisational culture which does not support the effective management of work demands is likely to be associated with greater stress and reduced well-being.
Outcomes: Stress and Well-being
WORK STRESS AND EMPLOYEES
Stressors in CONTACT CENTRE Work
The demands that staff face may differ for different kinds of contact centre work. Demands that may be encountered in business work include clients who are suicidal, aggressive or agitated, apathetic or depressed. They may also face vicarious traumatisation, compassion fatigue, and aggression from clients that is physical (in Face to face Customer Service), emotional or legal. Their work may require sensitivity to people and environment, willingness to meet other’s needs before one’s own, the ability to withhold emotional response in the face of reported trauma and intense emotion, and the ability to tolerate intense emotion and ideation with limited or no outward personal response. For sales and educational staff, workloads, targets, poor management practises, lack of resources, having too many things to do, professional self-doubt, feelings of incompetence, feeling ‘stuck’ and being tired can be stressors. Staff in educational or organisational settings may face conflict between the needs of clients (sometimes organisations) and the individuals (customers, job applicants) for whom their services are intended. Staff employed in local government sector may face stress from, funding pressures, time constraints, committees, administrative work and paperwork. Particular stressors for managers include the proliferation of information, the need to rely on interpersonal skills to get things done, office politics and fragmented tasks.
Coping with Work-Related Stress
Stress and Satisfaction Among Employees
Biculturalism, Multiculturalism and Work-Related Stress Among Employees
IMPLICATIONS: MANAGING WORK-RELATED STRESS
Identifying Demands in Contact Centre
Secondly, structured interviews are carried out with employees and supervisors in the jobs to be assessed to identify potential stressors associated with the tasks and physical work environment. The third step is to select the stressors to be included in the self-report inventory and to decide on the format, scoring and interpretation of the inventory. The inventory is then administered to staff and supervisors (preferably those who did not take part in the development phases to avoid redundancy of information).
This process provides relevant and detailed information although it may be too time-consuming or expensive for some workplaces. As well as identifying problems, it is important to identify aspects of work that people find satisfying and rewarding.
These might include: a variety of interesting tasks, a sense of control, good collaborative relationships, a well-designed work environment, appropriate rewards and chances for career progression. When identifying stressful and healthy aspects of work, the information should be specific, it should be written down and should include examples or evidence for the presence or absence of each aspect. Ideas about how to address problems should be recorded at the same time. A documented approach ensures that details are not overlooked and provides baseline information that allows changes to be tracked. Once stressful and healthy aspects of work have been identified, it is necessary to decide which problems or demands should be tackled first. Early steps need to be taken to address the most significant problems but it is also helpful to look at ‘easy’ ones where relatively simple solutions are available. This gets the process started. Action plans need to be developed and implemented, then follow-up reviews or stress audits should be conducted to investigate the impact of the changes. When problems are being addressed it is important to make sure that the positive aspects of work are not undermined by any changes but are strengthened as far as possible. Once work aspects that lead to stress and wellbeing have been identified and managed, regular review can help make sure that the problems have been addressed, that new problems have not arisen and that the intended results have been achieved.
Managing Demands in Contact Centre
- Primary. This approach includes strategies to reduce the causes of stress and increase those factors at work that are associated with well-being.
- Secondary. These initiatives aim to help individuals to cope with stress.
- Tertiary. These strategies aim to provide support to those who are stressed.
Primary intervention: Reducing Causes of Stress and Building Resources for Wellbeing
1. Job redesign could aim for example to:
- ensure staff have more control over the pace and method of work and have the opportunity to ‘see a job through’;
- allow for professional development and provide opportunities for learning through training and experience;
- recognise improvements in skills and expertise;
- allow for flexible hours, part-time employment or job sharing;
- improve understanding of the task;
- promote informal contact between fellow staff, clients and supervisors;
- clarify what is expected of staff to reduce uncertainties about the job;
- Build consultation and communication to clarify expectations, negotiate workloads, seek more or less responsibility, clarify misunderstandings, find effective and acceptable solutions, seek feedback on performance and so forth.
2. Other initiatives that have successfully reduced stress and dissatisfaction include:
- Regular staff meetings to share feelings and innovative ideas;
- Alternative job arrangements;
- Adequate staffing;
- Reasonable shift schedules;
- Organised and efficient work functions and environment;
- Recognition of and action on legitimate complaints;
- Opportunities to improve skills;
- More flexibility and staff member participation in scheduling;
- Scheduled rotation of work assignments;
- Appropriate use of job analysis, staff selection and training so that knowledge, skills and abilities are relevant;
- Effective systems for motivation and performance management;
- Work-life balance initiatives such as flexible work (e.g. working from home, compressed work weeks, flexible hours), leave arrangements (e.g. maternity leave, paternity leave, leave to care for a sick dependent), dependent care assistance (e.g. childcare, eldercare), and other services such as employee assistance programs. These help ensure that dependents are cared for but they need to be appropriate to staff needs;
- Leisure such as weekends and holidays can allow resources to be replenished and can reduce exhaustion, stress and burnout, at least for a while.
Secondary Intervention: Assisting Individuals to cope with Demands
Training in stress management often includes coping techniques such as relaxation, meditation and time management, and lifestyle information on health, exercise and diet. These programmes may be helpful if the sources of stress are being actively managed and the training is aimed at the specific needs of staff. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are designed to handle personal and emotional problems which interfere with work performance. An EAP will not solve the problems but can give advice on managing stressful situations.
Contact centre staff needs to recognise that they are vulnerable to stress and distress in certain circumstances and to take responsibility for their own wellness. Some important steps include building support networks that include peers, colleagues, family and friends; keeping a balance among work, leisure and other activities; maintaining competence through supervision, education, conferences, workshops, membership of professional associations and reading, and self-care with attention to relaxation, exercise, sleep and nutrition. Self-knowledge of values and the potential for values conflict at work is also important. Personal therapy can help to promote self-awareness and self-monitoring. Staff needs to remain aware of their satisfaction, stress, priorities and opportunities.
Tertiary Prevention: Supporting those who are stressed
In addition, these approaches minimise the effects of stress (at best) and do not fulfil the legal obligation to take practicable steps to eliminate stress Successful management of stress requires intervention at both the individual and organisational levels.
Beyond Managing Stress: Increasing Wellbeing
they need and making sure there is good, supportive, on-going communication. Trust and fairness are important and so are clear goals and expectations. Employers and managers need to be easily accessible, to share information and to encourage others to do the same. Work-related stress has serious implications for health and wellbeing, and managing it is far from straightforward. This may account for the documented ineffectiveness of stress management. In managing stressors at work it is important to identify, assess and control stressors but also to work towards enhancing the rewarding aspects of the job. Stressors faced by contact centre staff include client characteristics, workloads, professional self-doubt, lack of support and poor management. Employees are often reluctant to seek help for themselves when they are stressed. Stress and burnout are often reported but, despite the evidence for the stress of work, levels of satisfaction in the profession are high. Employers and managers of Contact Customer Support staff need to ensure workplaces and work is designed for wellbeing, satisfaction and performance. Employees themselves need to take responsibility for their own levels of stress and to consider the coping strategies they use to deal with demands. The management of stress involves finding and reducing controllable sources of stress and building support and resources to help employees manage stress and build wellbeing.
Article based on fragments of “Responsible Caring” by Dianne Gardner and Michael O’Driscoll.