“I was working longer and longer hours just to keep up.”
“The tiniest thing would set me off.”
“I felt trapped and helpless.”
“I had a sense of tunnel vision.”
“I told my manager, and all they said was, ‘You’re doing a good job, don’t worry about it.’”
“I get to the point where I just don’t want to do anything. A snowball of apathy.”
“I came back from sabbatical, and the workload was the same but my perspective was so different.”
These descriptions of burnout were recently shared with me by customer service professionals.
In 2019, the World Health Organization listed burnout as an "occupational phenomenon," which makes it sound like a corporate version of “The Natural.” Though it is not a medical diagnosis, burnout afflicts far too many customer service staff.
Why are customer service professionals so prone to burnout?
As people recalled their burnout experiences to me, they each described different situations, but their resulting emotions were quite similar. They all experienced burnout as an ongoing state of stress at work, building to a sense of complete exhaustion, disengagement, and often helplessness.
Many dreaded facing another work day, feeling like they had nothing left to give. As their productivity suffered, they often saw no alternative other than to work longer hours, but they still failed to keep up.
We will discuss more of the indicators of burnout later and suggest some options for addressing it. First, though, it is important to understand why customer service workers are particularly prone to suffering from burnout:
Customer service means handling problems. An essential role of customer service is to listen to other people’s problems and work to solve them. That often includes dealing with angry, harried, and frustrated people.
Support teams are hired for empathy. Great customer service folks are often highly empathetic, putting them at risk of taking on some of those customer emotions, leading to compassion fatigue.
Customer service staff care. At least in customer-centric companies, the customer-facing folks care about their customers and about doing a good job. If you truly don’t care about your work quality, burnout is less likely.
The queue is endless. No matter how fast you work and how many conversations you close, you can never really finish the work. That can contribute to feelings of hopelessness.
Customer service is often undervalued. In many companies, the customer service team is underpaid, under-resourced, and excluded from business decision-making processes.
Even in ideal circumstances (which excludes a great deal of the world), dealing with customers all day requires a lot of emotional energy and effort.
However, there are practical steps that both people managers and individual contributors can take to avoid, treat, and survive customer service burnout.
Customer service burnout: Symptoms and signs to look for
Burnout is not something you can directly measure. Instead, it is a cluster of symptoms that people with burnout tend to experience. Any given individual may have all or only some of them, and they may be intermittent or variable over time. So this is not a scorecard; it’s a guide to use with your own judgment.
Recurring anger with yourself, customers, or teammates.
Feeling trapped or hopeless or helpless to improve your situation.
Exhaustion that doesn’t seem to improve over the weekend.
Dread of facing another work day.
Sudden adrenaline bursts or feeling easily triggered by small things.
Anxiety about your performance and work relationships.
Working long hours but not keeping up.
Physical changes including gut health, headaches, skin color, and posture.
Increased mistakes on tasks you usually manage easily.
Cynicism and disengagement where you may no longer care about doing a good job.
9 ways to reduce the risk of customer service burnout
Preventing burnout completely is not within any person's control, but managers can reduce the risk significantly and prepare for early intervention when burnout arises.
Create a safe environment. Allowing people to share openly with you, without fear of negative repercussions, is essential to creating psychological safety for your team.
Be prepared with helpful resources. Does your company offer free external counselling sessions or have internal staff to help? Make time to collect and understand the resources you have before you need them so you can be immediately helpful.
Make operational improvements. Often burnout comes from unsustainable workloads or broken systems. Making genuine progress on those issues will help everyone on your team.
Offer a path forward. Does your support team have clear career paths available to them? Part of burnout can be a sense of hopelessness, that nothing will ever change. An achievable growth path can create hope.
Advocate for resources and help. If your team is struggling to keep up, find ways to get a seat at the table, advocate for investment in support, prove your value, and get your team the help they need.
Look after your own health. If you’re experiencing burnout, you won’t be able to do a good job for your team members. Pay attention to yourself so you can be there when they need you.
Offer (and protect) out-of-queue time. Give people projects (e.g., documentation, live training, or internal communications) that take them away from the grind of the support queue, and make sure they have time to work on them.
Make time for consistent, quality one-on-ones. Making consistent time for quality one-on-one meetings with your team will build trust and let you identify issues more quickly.
Watch your metrics for outliers. Your help desk reports will show you people who are less productive than normal, which can be a sign of burnout. However, working longer and longer hours might also be a sign, so seek to understand your outliers.
Even if you have made environmental changes and reduced the risks as much as possible, team members can still experience burnout, and you will need to respond.
7 ways to help a direct report who is experiencing burnout
If a team member tells you they’re feeling burnout, you have at least passed the first test. They must feel a degree of psychological safety to be able to share that much. Trust is vital to a well-functioning team.
Now the real test: What can a manager do to help a direct report who is struggling with burnout?
I spoke with several customer service managers, and one point came up repeatedly: A manager is not a therapist. Your role as a people manager is not to “fix” a team member. You may be able to adjust elements of their work life, but you can’t control their emotions.
Review this list of options and be prepared to try a few until you find something that helps. Let yourself be led by the person reporting burnout to you, because every person experiences it differently.
Offer immediate relief. Take some work off their plate, offer a judgement-free mental health day or longer leave period, or just block out time to listen. Work to give them some space to really think about what they need in the long term.
Dig into the underlying causes. Help your team members be as specific as they can about what is triggering their burnout. It may not all be work related, but there can be particular workloads, contexts, or people that are most triggering and should be addressed first.
Ask them what will help. Let your team members tell you what they need (if they can). What you think will help most may not be the best choice.
Accept that it may not be all about work. Burnout can come from multiple areas, and not all of them at work — a global pandemic, for example. There may not always be a solution within your control.
Avoid token gestures. When the team is drowning under an impossible load, a 30-minute pizza party is more insulting than helpful (even more so if it’s the bad pizza.)
Be flexible where you can. Small changes can make a big difference. Rotating people through different tasks for variety, for example, can really help. Can you offer an extended vacation time rather than risk losing a valuable team member?
Encourage people to put themselves first. Helping people find the right path for them is an important role. Sometimes, that might be another role within the team or organization, and you could offer help in transitioning. In other cases, they may decide to leave entirely, and your role is to be supportive and understanding (and not make them feel guilty for prioritizing self-care).
12 ways for customer service professionals to deal with burnout
If you’re reading this because you are experiencing burnout (or feel like you’re about to be), take heart. It is not a permanent state, and all of the folks I talked to have recovered and are much happier. Here are some of the strategies they used to get through and get better.
Create some space. In the midst of burnout it is difficult to even think about what might help. Take advantage of any leave or outside work time to give yourself enough perspective to make a plan.
Work to understand the causes. Take note of when you feel most stressed and what is triggering your reactions most strongly. Then try to identify what you believe is causing those reactions in those moments. That is the first step to changing them.
Change your environment. A physical change of location can help you to avoid some of the habits and triggers that you encounter daily. Even if you still need to work, moving to another room or working outside can be a relief for a time.
Talk to your manager. Even if you don’t think it will work, try approaching your manager for help. Lay out how you’re feeling and your understanding of the causes. A good manager will work with you to chart a path out. Of course, they may not always be able or willing to help, but you have at least given them the opportunity, and now you know you need to look elsewhere.
Take extended time off. Several people mentioned that a longer break (two weeks or more) from their work situation was critical to their recovery from burnout. It is a privilege, certainly, but if you can make it happen, it could really help.
Ask for what you need. Your manager isn’t inside your head, so the more you can tell people what will help you, the better chance you have of getting it. Some folks I talked to asked for time away from the support queue, extra holidays, or a rotation of tasks.
Stand together with your colleagues. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may not be alone. One person raising burnout as an issue is easier to marginalize than a group of people making a complaint together. Work together to create a louder voice in your company.
Consider therapy. Whether facilitated by your employer or on your own, a good therapist can really help you identify what’s happening and what needs to change. You can safely share details with your therapist that might be risky or inappropriate at work.
Address your physiological symptoms. Breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness practices can help you cope with some of the physiological impacts of burnout. It’s not a long-term solution, but it can be impactful as a coping mechanism while you figure out a plan.
Practice advocating for yourself. Speaking up, loudly and consistently, can be helpful in itself and also in driving real changes. This is a skill that often comes with age and experience, but it can be improved at any time with deliberate practice. If you can’t tell people what you need, you are unlikely to get it.
Get out of there. Sometimes your best move is to find another role at your company or to change companies completely. Your employer is not your family, and they will be fine without you. Consider finding a remote customer service role, and if you can swing it, take a good break in between roles.
Know what you value. Whether you stay in your role or find a new one, it’s helpful to know what is important to you. When the company or team you work for does not share some of your fundamental values, burnout is a higher risk. The more you understand how you see the world, the better choice of employer and role you will make.
Neil Young was wrong
It is not better to burn out than to fade away. Quietly leaving a bad situation might be the best thing you can do!
Customer service staff are at high risk of burning out, but it is not inevitable. Even given a high workload and stressful customers, the environment, policies, and management of the team can create more positive outcomes.
If you are experiencing burnout and feeling stuck, please seek help. Pushing through is not the answer, and there are better situations out there for you. That might be in your current role, a new internal role, or at another company. You don’t have to suffer through it.