Supporting Agent Wellness During Mental Health Awareness Month and Beyond

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, contact center agents were asked if they were actively looking to change jobs, with one in three saying “yes.” Workers stayed true to this answer, with average turnover jumping from the typical 50% up to at least 80% or higher through 2022, according to Kelly Services’ contact center team.

Much of the higher turnover rate in customer service was due to a combination of the pandemic itself, the stress that comes with customer service and support roles, and increased agent burnout as customer needs and emotions surged, alongside changes to agents’ personal lives themselves. Interestingly though, fewer than 18% of agents gave “higher pay” as the main reason for pursuing new opportunities. Instead, they wanted greater happiness and deeper engagement in their professional life.

Employees Expect More

During Mental Health Month, it’s important to consider how the landscape of work has changed in just the last few years. How we addressed employee wellness before 2020 may no longer be enough. In 2022, the American Psychological Association found that 81% of employees consider an employer’s ability to support their mental health as an important factor when they look for work.

In customer service and support, individuals who identify as women have traditionally outnumbered those identifying as men. Many of their roles and priorities changed during the pandemic due to the loss of family members, adjusted caregiving and household responsibilities, and impacts on their own health. In fact, 51% of women shared that worry or stress related to the pandemic affected their mental health, compared to only 34% of men, according to KFF. As we enter a post-pandemic world, employees—especially women—are much less willing to sacrifice mental wellness for work. Nor should they need to.

There are strategies we can put in place that can help shift the dynamic, creating healthier environments and opportunities to meet the mental health needs of the post-pandemic workforce. We talked to women in customer service roles around the world to get insight on the strategies that matter most to support healthy employees. These recommendations come from the female perspective but are relevant and applicable to all contact center employees.

Give Employees a Voice

Often, employees are hesitant to ask for mental health support, fearing it will impact their employment or opportunities for advancement, but it is more important than ever to encourage employees to be open and honest about their mental health. Allowing employees to help shape the workplace environment can alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety and reinforce the message that mental health and wellness are organizational priorities supported at all levels. But ensure all voices are heard – not just the voices of traditional leaders.

“The best place to start is to ask the women and marginalized people in your workforce what they need, listen to how you can best support them, and act in ways that address the barriers and challenges that they face,” says Clare Muscutt, founder of Women in CX.

Empower Employees to Self-Advocate

Surveys and meetings with supervisors are important, but they can be more effective when employers formalize a process for gathering input on what types of support and resources employees need to support better mental health in the workplace. Often, employees do not know how to be their own advocates, so offering training and coaching can give employees confidence as they articulate their needs. Consequently, employees have a greater stake in their organization's contributions to mental health.

“Employers can provide workshops on effective negotiation and self-advocacy. This will empower their whole workforce and especially help women and minorities who historically don’t advocate for themselves. It will show the company is comfortable having strong, empowered employees to drive the change needed for a true equalitarian workplace,” said Nicoletta Mura Doyle, an operations and engagement director in Italy.

Create Flexibility in Work Schedules

Daily stress and anxiety can often be reduced simply by allowing employees to have more flexibility in their work schedules. Many agents and families changed their work and life structure during the pandemic and appreciate the ability to schedule shifts and work time online or via a mobile app. Other popular options are shifting work hours to accommodate changes to daily routines.

“Companies should formulate or refine policies and offer flexible working to support a work-life balance culture so that women are able to fulfill their caregiving and family responsibilities at home and also excel in their roles at work,” said Malebogo Kgannyeng, a country manager in a contact center in Botswana.

Offer Wellness Training and Coaching

Many companies have some level of employee assistance through their healthcare benefit programs. But often, this isn’t enough. When determining the best resources for mental health training and coaching, remember many contact center employees work remotely. Online classes and personalized individual coaching via video allow employees to participate on their own time and leverage all the new resources. Encourage teams to schedule time to brainstorm ways to reduce stress and bring new ideas to the team leaders, whether these are coping mechanisms, process changes or new technology to support their day-to-day jobs.

The best place for employers to start is through internal programs and initiatives such as wellbeing, mental health checks, group coaching, etc., to cope with the challenges of customer service and personal lives and ensure women feel supported and continue using their empathy, patience, and great communication capabilities to the max with the customers. These are simple yet impactful ways that companies can drive employee engagement and ensure their workforce feels supported.

Inspire and Motivate for Today and for Future Generations

Encourage employees to focus on kinship and career development, not only for themselves but to build a better workplace for future generations. Share your stories—of success and challenges—with others. Contact centers are where the “helpers” thrive, and it’s important to recognize and celebrate the role agents play. This simple act can have a profound impact on mental health.

“Inspirational female leaders should be supported to be courageous and share their career stories. Equally, contact centers invest time in inspiring the next generation through initiatives such as ‘bring your daughter to work’ days. My aunt took me, and it had a lifelong impression. All too often our contact centers get overlooked,” said Emily Stevenson, head of CX in the United Kingdom.

Embracing ways to improve the mental health of contact center employees has become an operational imperative. Helping individuals better balance the pressures of work and home can reduce stress and anxiety to create a stronger, more engaged, and resilient workforce. And this leads to reduced attrition of staff and better interactions with end customers.