5 Methods for Preventing and Treating Customer Service Burnout

Customer service is unpredictable and can create unresolved stress. When this persists for too long, burnout is almost inevitable.

On May 28, 2019, the World Health Organization identified and classified burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” People often assume burnout stems from working long, tiring hours. But the culprit is actually more cerebral: those who suffer from burnout often feel out of control and unsupported in their job .

Call it pessimistic optimism, but this designation is good for customer service employees. Managers aren’t always aware of the mental load their team is carrying. It can be difficult for team members to talk about, and a strict work environment can make one-on-one discussions seem uninviting.

Burnout is possible to overcome, but it requires willpower, and support. Here are five things managers and agents can do to prevent and treat it.

Set reasonable standards

Some jobs feel like they need a movement for anything to change. Policies and rules appear to be set in stone and managers are their armored guardians.

In such a strict environment, employees may not get a say or believe they can speak up. This translates into their work, where they’re expected to enforce rigid policies and go against their moral principles . The circumstances don’t even have to be so severe to be unreasonable; a company low on staff may lean too heavily on their existing employees and expect overtime or create difficult working hours to keep everything afloat.

Solution: Schedule more one-on-ones, and stick to them. At my previous jobs, my team leader and I would meet twice a year to discuss my performance. At the time I felt this was enough, but I feel more understood at my workplace now that I regularly meet with my current team lead.

photo of a 1:1 team meeting

In-person one-on-ones can be the perfect setting for discussing workload impact and struggles. A good approach is to let the employee make a list of talking points and prioritize those at the beginning of the meeting . This input is valuable and makes it easier for a manager to set expectations. If no one understands the reality of the situation, nothing will change.

If scheduling regular one-on-ones is difficult, invite an employee or two to attend update meetings and present a couple pain points. Hearing new perspectives is refreshing, and agents gain the freedom to express their opinions.

Develop a good relationship with colleagues

Despite speaking to multiple customers each day, customer service can be a lonely job. At commission-based companies, there can even be unfriendly competition among service teams. It helps to have colleagues to lean on when emotions become heavy.

But becoming close with coworkers can be a slippery slope. A quick Google search about the subject will report back conflicting opinions and studies on the matter. But there is truth to all of it.

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You don’t have to hang out with your desk mates on the weekend, but you also should become more than acquaintances. There’s a balanced way of having a relationship without exchanging phone numbers.

Solution: Friendships usually form organically, but there’s a few simple ways to get them started. Having lunch together is the obvious approach, but it’s actually the little moments during the day that can have a great impact.

Services like Slack make it easy to get to know colleagues. Since agents are often tied to their service channels, they can just send a direct message to a colleague when they have a question or comment.

image of slack message that says hey, do you have a second

In live chat, like Userlike , agents can pause the chat when they’re not speaking to a customer. After a particularly demanding conversation, taking a second to get coffee with your teammate to let off a little steam can be helpful.

Talking to your colleagues is a valuable solution because they often have experienced the same kind of situation.

Kristina, Customer Success Agent at Userlike

This is not only a good way to build relationships with your colleagues, but it gets those nagging thoughts out of your mind. If you have someone at work who you trust to confide in, then sharing your concern or problem may help you gain a new perspective .

Practice mindfulness and meditation

According to the Association for Psychological Science , burnout can lead to emotional depletion and a resentfulness toward work and clients. Our social functioning takes a massive hit and our cognitive skills become overwhelmed.

Burnout is most commonly observed in people who work in caregiving, but also jobs that require too much of employees, like customer service. For even the most sound of characters, dealing with rude customers and working for high ratings takes an emotional toll on our psyche.

When experiencing pain, we want it to stop; when experiencing pleasure, we want it to last. When we’re dealing with an angry customer in the chat, we stress about solving the issue; when we’re dealing with a happy customer, we hope she’ll leave us a good rating. The problem isn’t the customer; the problem is our desire for a specific outcome.

Pascal van Opzeeland , CMO at Userlike

Detaching your desires from customer service situations is completely possible, but requires consistent practice.

Solution: Meditation and mindfulness. This doesn’t mean you need to sit cross-legged with your eyes closed in a zen’d out room. But these practices can reshape the way you perceive negative situations.

Mindfulness, unlike mindlessness, makes you more aware of what is around you. It forces you to pay attention to the small details you often ignore or overlook, like the taste of your coffee or the air on your skin. This tactic may sound silly, but mindful awareness trainer Daron Larson , who was once skeptical of mindfulness practices, explains what it achieves:

When a stressful customer conversation or work problem is weighing down on you, you may feel like you don’t have the capacity or time to focus on seemingly trivial moments throughout the day. But as Larson mentions near the end of his talk, you must acknowledge your messy life as your life so you can train your attention on “living.”

Try devoting 5 to 10 minutes of your day to noticing the sights, smells and feelings in and around you. The idea is to distract your mind from what’s bothering you, which can be beneficial for your overall well-being. Do it every time you feel like your mind needs a break. It’s meditation without the yoga mat and burning sage.

Establish regular break times when possible

Depending on your service team or support demands, taking a break outside of lunchtime can feel like a pipe dream.

Sometimes short breaks are perfectly acceptable at the workplace, but you may feel guilty for taking a personal beat or don’t want to attract attention. However, brief diversions from work can improve our ability to focus on tasks . By taking regular breathers, you replenish your energy and motivation to work, which is diminished by burnout.

The 8 Core Principles of Good Customer Service

Performance in any field is guided by a few core principles. These are the core principles governing the quality of customer service.

First principle thinking

Solution: Breaks should be beneficial, not poisonous. Try to mentally create a clear separation between the break and your work. It’s a good chance to practice mindfulness or talk to your coworkers.

First is knowing when to take a break. Feeling overwhelmed or annoyed by a customer conversation are good triggers. Non-emotional triggers work too, like taking a break after a meeting, a long phone call or a finished task. This could help prevent feeling overwhelmed or annoyed by taking on task after task.

Second, take breaks that boost positive emotions . This could be a short walk, cutting or peeling fruit to snack on (try an orange — the smell of citrus makes us happy ) or planning a weekend activity. Basically, anything beneficial that takes your mind off of work.

image of a bowl of fruit

Allowing for flexible breaks throughout the work day promotes healthy lifestyle practices. According to the World Health Organization , breaks are one way to enhance the workplace’s personal health resources. If you’re a manager, try sending reminders to your team or office to go for walks and take breaks when needed. Showing that breaks are acceptable may help someone suffering in silence.

Leave work at work

Bad feelings tend to follow us all the way home after a difficult day at work. Sometimes you can vent your frustrations to a partner, or convert it into anger-induced energy for a workout. But for most people, it’s like being haunted.

Burnout stems from chronic work stress and anxiety, which attaches itself to your thoughts and clouds your judgement. This is difficult to fight off if you don’t have a clear separation between work and your personal life.

Solution: You don’t need to be “on” all the time; it’s perfectly okay to unplug yourself mentally and physically from the day’s events in a way that works for you.

Don’t take it home! The difficult situation will not go anywhere and spending time away from it might open up new ideas for a solution the next day.

Bea, Customer Success Agent at Userlike

Try leaving your work at work and give yourself something to look forward to once you’re off the clock. Much like your breaks, fill your free time with healthy and beneficial activities.

This could include cooking a nice meal, trying a different workout or starting a new TV series. Try to avoid taking a nap or spending too much time on your phone; early naps can interfere with your nighttime sleep and your phone may tempt you into checking email or Slack.

Researchers at the University of Michigan even found that washing your hands as soon as you arrive home can help remove doubts about recent choices as a sort of moral cleansing. Doing something you’re good at or are currently learning can also make you feel in control, which will help fight off stress.

Managers can make this transition easier by promoting a healthy lifestyle among employees. Even if it’s a “do as I say, not as I do” situation, a simple reminder from a manager to rest and recharge after a challenging work day can put employees at ease .

Find your customer service burnout remedy

“That 70’s Show” had an episode called “Career Day” where the protagonist goes to work at the hospital with his mom for a day. While there, he sees the difficulties and reality of her work and doesn’t understand how she can sing during the car ride home. But really, it’s just how she copes:

To heal or prevent burnout, you have to look for the method that works for you. Singing 70’s hits at the top of your lungs may not cut it, but you can try putting one bit of advice in this post to test. The key is to be persistent and consistent — you can’t undue long-term damage in a week.

For managers, your voice and leadership can set the tone. If you promote an environment where people feel free to govern their own days and voice concerns, you may see a positive mood shift. A good place to start is by scheduling regular one-on-ones with your whole team. Making personal connections and creating long-term relationships shouldn’t be limited to customer conversations.