Preventing burnout is key for customer service reps in high-stress environments. We’ve discussed what organizations and leaders can do to create a better work environment and reduce turnover, but if you’re a customer service agent, how can you take care of you?
Jeff Toister—of Toister Performance Solutions and author of The Service Culture Handbook—is an expert on customer service burnout, having just released a new study on burnout in customer service.
“One of the things that happens in customer service is we’re engaging a part of our brain that focuses and refocuses attention, and it consumes a lot of energy. That’s why at the end of the day serving customers, you might not have done a lot of physical work, but you physically feel exhausted,” Toister explains.
Oftentimes, burnout can sneak up on us before we realize what’s happening. According to Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, here are three symptoms identified by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975:
- Emotional exhaustion: The fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
- Depersonalization: The depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
- A decreased sense of accomplishment: An unconquerable sense of futility and feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
As Dr. Marilyn Paul puts it in An Oasis in Time:
“Burnout. This one word is so powerful, and yet it hardly captures the deep emotional and spiritual costs of losing one’s inner flame. Burnout is serious and hard to repair. Waking up without a taste for the day ahead destroys joy. We can get used to living that way—and many people do—but it leads to life as a form of despair rather than an embrace of the richness around us. Many of us aren’t savoring our lives. We may have more than enough in the way of belongings and interesting activities, yet we have a pervasive sense of emptiness, a vague dissatisfaction. Burnout diminishes our ability to savor our quality of work and our relationships. People who are chronically tired lose their gusto. At that point, life tastes like dust because we’ve become too exhausted to relish it.”
Does that ring a bell? If so, we can offer some lifestyle changes that can turn things around.
Methods for preventing burnout
“I think for customer service reps, it’s about finding what works for you and building habits around that,” Toister says.
Toister says the real burnout risk for customer service workers is directed attention fatigue, which is mental fatigue caused by trying to concentrate on a task while blocking out other distractions. The ideal solution is strict uni-tasking, but that isn’t always possible in customer service.
“There’s two parts of our brain that we involve in customer service. One is focusing attention and the other is really blocking out distractions. But customer service is inherently full of distractions,” Toister says.
“Contact center agents are using maybe seven different pieces of software [simultaneously]. We have two, maybe three, monitors on our desks. So we’ve got distractions galore,” Toister explains.
“And that just wipes out that part of our brain. It really makes it tired,” Toister says.
The key for perpetually distracted customer service reps is to find alternative ways to relax their brains.
The symptoms are very similar to ADHD symptoms. Mechanically they’re different in our brain, but the impact is the same. You have less of an ability to focus,” Toister says.
“[It makes it] harder to stop to complete activities. It’s harder to control your emotions. All of these things are really important for customer service reps. We have these habits that are giving us ADHD-like symptoms and burning us out, and there are enough of us who have ADHD already. We don’t need to make it worse,” Toister says.
“Whatever you can do, whether it’s mindfulness exercises, whether it’s simply developing more healthy habits, whether it’s going outside and reading a book on your breaks instead of getting on your phone and checking social media. Any of those things can help clear your mind and restore a little bit of your attention,” Toister says.
Get more sleep
“You need to rest, and there are a few ways to do that. One is to get a good night’s sleep. We know people chronically don’t get enough sleep. So there’s no way around it. You have to find a way to get more sleep,” Toister says.
The benefits of sleep are well-documented. Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker outlines several eye-opening facts about sleep:
- Regularly sleeping fewer than six hours per night wrecks your immune system and more than doubles your cancer risk.
- Being sleep-deprived causes you to eat more because it increases hormones that make you hungry and suppresses hormones that make you feel full.
- The physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep dwarf those caused by an equivalent lack of food or exercise.
- Scientists have studied sleep-deprived airplane cabin crews and found that parts of their brains related to learning and memory had physically shrunk, and their short-term memory was significantly impaired.
- Adults who are 45 years or older who sleep fewer than 6 hours per night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who sleep seven or more hours per night.
How can you improve your sleep? Toister outlines three tips:
- Limit caffeine in the afternoon. “Caffeine takes on average about 24 hours to clear out of our system. And the first 6 hours are the most potent. So if you have caffeine in the afternoon or evening, for most of us that disrupts our sleep,” Toister says.
- Limit electronics before going to bed. “A lot of people go to bed and they’ve got social media. If they got television, they’ve got both. And those actually keep our brains distracted,” Toister says.
- Sleep according to your natural rhythm if you can. “All of us have kind of a natural circadian rhythm where if we didn’t have responsibilities, we would go to bed at a certain time and wake up at a certain time without an alarm. And that makes it much much easier to get a good night’s sleep,” Toister says.
Author, podcaster, and “former lifelong insomniac” Tim Ferriss outlines several methods that help him sleep in Tools of Titans:
- A sleep mask and earplugs
- A white noise machine
- 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon of honey stirred into 1 cup of hot water, recommended by Dr. Seth Roberts
- The ChiliPad, which is a thin mattress topper filled with water that can circulate water at a specified temperature. Ferriss uses it to cool himself down to sleep. It’s pricy, so what you can do instead is simply turn down your thermostat before bed. The optimal temperature to fall asleep is 65°F.
- Spinal decompression, usually with gravity boots which he admits are extremely dangerous. He also recommends devices like the Lynx Portable Back Stretcher and the Teeter P3 Back Stretcher.
Some other things Ferriss has recommended are reading fiction in bed and taking ice baths before bed.
Limit screen time
Not only do screens worsen your sleep, but excessive screen time can also directly contribute to burnout.
“You have to take breaks from distractions. And what I mean is we’re constantly on social media, we’re constantly watching a screen, and that is inherently unhealthy for our brains. So we need to limit that, and the more you can limit that, the more ability you’ll have to stay focused and calm throughout the workday,” Toister says.
Preventing burnout by going outside
“The third thing is to get outside. There’s been a number of studies that say just being outdoors, without electronics or social media, just enjoying nature helps calm your brain and restores your ability to really focus. And so I think the overarching message for customer service employees is you need to give your brain the opportunity to reset and that’s going to help you feel a lot better,” Toister says.
A growing body of research indicates that regular sunlight exposure can help calibrate your circadian rhythm so you get more sleep at night. Stanford professor Dr. Andrew Huberman highly recommends this.
Spend time with friends
In Toister’s survey, one of the key indicators for customer service burnout was not having a close friend at work.You need regular human contact for optimal health.
“Staying meaningfully connected with others leads to a greater sense of calm, less stress, less anxiety, greater productivity, better cardiovascular health, reduced likelihood of cancer, and fewer premature deaths from all causes,” says Dr. Marilyn Paul in An Oasis in Time.
In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, authors Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski call out positive social interaction as a key to avoiding burnout:
“Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place. Most of us expect we’ll be happier if, say, our seatmate on a train leaves us alone, in mutual silence; turns out, people experience greater well-being if they’ve had a polite, casual chat with their seatmate.”
How can you do that? The book suggests: “Just go buy a cup of coffee and say ‘Nice day’ to the barista. Compliment the lunch lady’s earrings. Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck. It helps!”
Exercise to treat burnout
To thwart burnout, you have to be resilient, and exercise is a proven method for building resilience. A 2022 study says, “Resilience is central to positive mental health and well-being especially when faced with adverse events.”
The same study also found “that as exercise level increases so does resilience. The relationship between exercise and resilience is independent of sleep and mental health under normal conditions.”
In other words, exercise makes your mind tougher regardless of sleep or other factors.
“Exercise touches on a bunch of other things that impact your ability to rest, recover, get a good night’s sleep, etc.,” Toister says.
The authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle recommend doing whatever you can to get exercise and doing it regularly:
“When you’re stressed out by the bureaucracy and hassle of living in the twenty-first century, what do you do? You run. Or swim. Or dance around your living room, singing along to Beyoncé, or sweat it out in a Zumba class, or do literally anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply. For how long? Between twenty and sixty minutes a day does it for most folks. And it should be most days—after all, you experience stress most days, so you should complete the stress response cycle most days, too. But even just standing up from your chair, taking a deep breath, and tensing all your muscles for twenty seconds, then shaking it out with a big exhale, is an excellent start.”
Directed attention fatigue really comes down to a single factor: a lack of mindfulness. That might sound very incense and crystals, but it can literally stop you from breathing.
In Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art author James Nestor describes “continuous partial attention,” which affects up to 80 percent of office workers: “We’ll scan our email, write something down, check Twitter, and do it all over again, never really focusing on any specific task.”
What’s wild is that distracted state can have a negative effect on your breathing similar to sleep apnea:
“In this state of perpetual distraction, breathing becomes shallow and erratic. Sometimes we won’t breathe at all for a half minute or longer. The problem is serious enough that the National Institutes of Health has enlisted several researchers, including Dr. David Anderson and Dr. Margaret Chesney, to study its effects over the past decades. Chesney told me that the habit, also known as ‘email apnea,’ can contribute to the same maladies as sleep apnea.”
Need help calming your brain? We’ve recorded a short mindfulness exercise for you to follow along with.
Not able to play the video? Click here to watch the video
Preventing burnout in a nutshell
We’ve offered several suggestions, but you don’t have to take on complex mindfulness exercises or buy expensive gear to help burnout. Jeff Toister says a simple technique is to set a timer for 20 minutes, and for that 20 minutes do nothing but read a book outside.
“It’s amazing how clarifying that can be. Because what you’ll do is you’ll get into what’s called a flow state, where you’re no longer worried about anything else. Your mind gets quieter, you get focused on that activity. And in many cases, when the timer goes off, you’re so surprised that the time flew that fast, and you’ll feel so much calmer just from engaging in that really brief activity,” Toister says.
In An Oasis in Time, Dr. Marilyn Paul, recommends setting aside a “sabbath day” of rest every week. Her recommendations?
- Avoid technology.
- Connect with loved ones.
- Nurture your health.
- Get outside.
- Avoid commerce.
- Light candles.
- Drink wine.
- Eat bread.
- Find silence.
- Give back.
It’s really that simple.
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