No, It is not in your head: Combating Mental Illness in the Workplace

Your customer experience is only a reflection of your employee experience. Anything that affects the employee has an effect on the customer, which ends up affecting business. Keeping that in mind, companies are trying to ensure that their agents are relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings. However, despite their efforts, mental health issues continue to exist in the workplace.

A number of surveys confirmed very worrying trends:

 Each of these figures is a cause for concern on its own. All of them taken together paint a worrying picture.

In a way, mental illness is an occupational hazard to customer service agents, and they stand to be the most vulnerable.  Something needs to be done before the situation gets worse.

While there is no direct cause for mental illness, there are certain factors that might take a toll on an agent’s health:

  • Understaffing: 
    When the workforce is running low, agents usually end up taking on more than they can handle. This leads to longer working hours and harms performance.

  • Unrealistic Targets: 
     Sometimes, a manager might overestimate his agent’s abilities, leading them to set goals that require too much from their agents. Such tasks take a toll and might lead to burnout.

  • Unreasonable Customers: 
    Certain customer-agent interactions can be conflicting in nature. Agents have been known to come out of a particularly uncomfortable phone call shaken, trembling and even in tears. Such interactions are emotionally stressful and can lead to a downward spiral.

While mental illness is often kept a secret, the warning signs can be identified: 

  1. Absenteeism

  2. Loss of Productivity

  3. Irritability and sensitivity to criticism

  4. Increased intake of caffeine, alcohol, and/or cigarettes

  5. Sudden gain or loss of weight, dishevelled appearance

You are just as vulnerable to mental illness and usually, recognising the warning signs in yourself is harder. Self-care is something every agent and manager needs to prioritize. While mental illnesses usually require therapy and professional help, there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t lose control when the going gets tough.

  • Breathe:
     If caught in a situation that is escalating, take a timeout and breathe. Cyclic breathing has been proven to reduce blood pressure levels, clears your head and most importantly, helps you focus and calmly think of ways to defuse the situation.

  • Reach out:
    Talk to people and reach out for support. Your coworkers share the same environment that you do, so it is likely that they are going through the same stress as you are. A strong support system not only helps you recover, but also makes the problem seem smaller, and gives you the strength to go about solving it. This is not limited to your workplace. If you feel more comfortable talking to your friends and family, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do so.

  • Do not take it personally: 
    One of the key principles of customer service is to keep it personal, but to not take it personally. When dealing with an aggressive customer, make sure there’s enough emotional distance that would allow you to turn the conversation around. Stay polite, do not engage and explain your position calmly. If you think the situation is getting out of control, do not hesitate to pass the call to your manager or a colleague who is capable of handling the situation. Also, remember the customer is not always right. You are allowed to say no, catch your breath and fight another battle.

  • Find an outlet: 
    When the stress gets overwhelming, having a creative outlet helps you unwind. It can be anything that works best for you, from a scoop of ice cream to a 5km run. Having a relaxing hobby as an outlet is very helpful in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

  • Get help: 
    If you still have a hard time coping, talk to an expert. Suffering in silence will only make the situation worse. Therapy assists agent recovery and rehabilitation.

What can you do as an organization?

  • Recognize mental health as a legitimate concern: 
    Trivializing mental illness in the workplace not only affects your business but also sends the wrong message to your agents, a message that undermines their mental wellness. It also reinforces the stigma against mental illness. The sooner you acknowledge mental illness as a real concern, the closer you get to finding solutions that help your agents.

  • Listen to your agents: 
    Understand the root cause of the problem by having open conversations with your employees. Assure them that they will not be judged for the opinions they have and that the only purpose of the conversation is to make their lives better. Encourage them to voice anything that stresses them out or makes them uncomfortable and let them know that you will address their concerns as soon as you can.

  • Set realistic deadlines: 
    Some deadlines might be beyond the abilities of your agents, so you need to understand their limits.  Setting unrealistic deadlines not only affects performance but also leaves the agent feeling underconfident in their abilities. Setting attainable targets, with simple and sensitive incentives helps boost morale in more ways than one.

  • Create awareness: 
    Sometimes, talking about it is enough. Accommodating mental health removes the stigma surrounding it and encourages agents to come forward.

  • Introduce mental health insurance policies for your employees: 
    It’s a worrying fact that mental health is not covered by most companies, despite a law passed in 2008 in the USA that required health insurance plans to include mental health.

While yoga rooms and meditation sessions are definitely a step in the right direction, a lot more can be done. Organizations need to think creatively and come up with a comprehensive program to address and combat mental illness. A successful company has to encourage a workplace culture where agents feel safe and are not afraid to talk about their problems, both physical and mental.

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