What Customer Support Leaders Can Do to Support Mental Health During a Pandemic

COVID-19 has had a serious impact on every workplace, but in particular on customer support teams. Customers are under strain, anxious about the pandemic, about forced lockdown, and uncertain when this will all end. 

These conditions have led to more frustration and anger directed towards customer-facing employees. In addition to this, employees are adapting to working from home more than ever, and they lack the support from coworkers that they normally would have. 

These conditions may lead to your customer support employees experiencing an additional burden on their mental health. Being able to address these problems off early is a crucial part of being a customer support leader. 

What is mental health? 

Just like physical health, everyone has mental health, and it fluctuates along a spectrum. Someone can have good mental well-being or they can suffer from severe mental health problems. Work has a big impact on mental health, and that’s why customer support leaders should do all they can to promote good mental health at work. 

Signs of poor mental health can include struggling with low mood, stress or anxiety. The definition of a mental health problem is when poor mental health continues for a long period of time, impacting a person’s ability to participate in their normal activities. Someone may or may not be diagnosed with a specific health condition – common conditions include depression, anxieties, and phobias.

Work-related stress is a form of poor mental health. Stress in the workplace can be a trigger for other mental health problems when employees react to pressure and the demands of their job.   

What can support leaders do to help employees?

There are many things that leaders can do to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace, and to head off any issues before they occur. Prevention is always better than cure. 

1. Promote wellbeing to improve mental health

If you want to develop a healthy culture in customer support then you should focus on wellbeing, and make sure that employees feel empowered to speak up about any issues they may be facing. The longer that issues remain unspoken, the more likely they are to develop into serious problems over time. Ask about stress levels and mental health during 1:1 meetings to get a sense of how your agents are feeling.

Encouraging discussion around the topic of mental health is an important step to finding solutions, minimizing absenteeism, and supporting customer service reps to develop better mental health at work. 

2. Nominate a mental health champion

Ask if any of your team leaders are willing to become a mental health champion. Ideally, this role will be filled by someone with their own experiences of poor mental health who is willing to talk about it and be an advocate for others who might be struggling.

Ask your mental health champion to publicly share their story, whether that’s their own challenge or a close friend or family member. Spread their story across your customer support team, which could be in a newsletter, or maybe your mental health champion is willing to talk to other team members on a video call. 

It’s better when senior members of the team start the conversation, so other employees hear their stories and also feel encouraged to become mental health champions. 

3. Be vulnerable with your employees

If there’s anything good about the pandemic it has to be that mental health challenges are becoming normalized. Almost everyone has struggled to some extent and has a story to share – but the stigma will only be reduced if those in power share their own experiences. 

Adopting an honest policy about your own mental health struggles as a leader encourages employees to talk to you about their own issues. You could consider producing a series of videos in which your customer support leaders talk about their mental health and share them on the company intranet. 

Since so many of us have been working from home, this has created more transparency about our lives outside of work. This may be having our kids crash our video conferences, or other employees simply getting a glimpse of where we live. When managers share their challenges, this makes them seem more relatable and human. 

 4. Set the example of healthy behaviors 

It’s not enough to say that you support mental health – set the example yourself of providing self-care, attaining a good work-life balance, and setting strong boundaries. Employees are less likely to take care of themselves if they see leaders burning the candle at both ends. 

Unfortunately, leaders themselves are often so focused on their team’s wellbeing, alongside making sure all the work gets done, that they forget to take care of their own needs. 

Share with the team that you took a walk at lunchtime, are having a therapy appointment, or are taking your own staycation (turning off email of course). 

5. Make resources available on your intranet

Customer support reps need to know where they can access support if they don’t feel comfortable approaching a person. It’s no good having a policy deeply buried somewhere that no one is likely to access – make your health and wellbeing resources clearly available on the company intranet. 

Ensure that all resources you provide are user-friendly. Employees are unlikely to read through a 50-page document on your mental health policy, and you need to make your resources enticing. 

Include videos, personal stories, and articles containing tips on topics like “How to destress”. Supply information on mental health helplines, healthcare resources, and the details of your own HR department. 

6. Train team leaders to have mental health conversations

It’s a key part of the role of team leader to be able to identify problems their agents are having and to have those important conversations. These conversations can be hard, so team leaders need to undergo training. 

They need to learn how to identify the signs of anxiety, depression, and stress – the common symptoms of many mental health conditions, including work-related burnout. 

Team leaders also need to be taught to consider if someone is: 

  • Struggling with the pressure of the job
  • Starting work late and looking tired
  • Getting along with and forming relationships with coworkers

They should be having these conversations at least as often as every one-to-one meeting they have with their direct reports. These conversations should be normalized, so agents expect to discuss their mental health, and this reaffirms that leaders are supporting them.

 7. Be flexible and inclusive

Remember to expect that the situation, your team’s needs, and your own needs, are going to change – and sometimes rapidly. Check-in regularly to problem-solve any issues that may arise before they have a chance to turn into big problems. These conversations can also be an opportunity to communicate norms and practices that support good mental health. 

Being inclusively flexible is about proactive communication and norm-setting so people can identify and protect their boundaries. Most importantly, don’t make assumptions about what your agents need from you, since this will likely change over time anyway. Customize your approach to helping them address their own unique causes of stress, such as issues with childcare or feeling the need to work all the time. 

Proactively offer flexibility and be as generous as possible in your response. Being accommodating doesn’t necessarily result in lowering standards, and flexibility can help your team continue to thrive amid the uncertainty.

8. Change your policies and practices

Closely related to the previous point is being open to changing your policies and practices in relation to the pandemic, to reduce stress for your employees. For example, you may need to take a closer look at your rules around flexible working, paid time off, general communications, and paid and unpaid leave. 

Let your employees know that if they need to reduce their working hours, that’s okay. When you make changes, be explicit that you’re doing it to support the mental health of your customer support team.  

Try to approach your team’s performance reviews as an opportunity to share compassionate feedback and learning instead of measuring them against strict targets.

Final remarks

In the beginning, just focus on getting the conversation going and normalizing the topic of mental health in your support team. Make sure everyone is engaging openly with the subject and nominate your mental health champions to establish more of a dialogue. Make sure resources are available on your intranet for your employees to help themselves. 

As a leader, it’s important to be open about your own mental health challenges, and your behavior will set an example for the rest of your team to follow. Team leaders should be conducting those difficult conversations regularly with their direct reports and catching issues before they become a full-blown crisis. Update your policies and procedures to support your team in a time of unprecedented pressure and change.

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