Employee Engagement

Why your employees suffer from call center burnout and what you can do about it

Stefan Nievelstein 9 min read Download as PDF
Why your employees suffer from call center burnout and what you can do about it

Call centers traditionally suffer from high staff turnover. One of the reasons for this is excessive workload, which leads to stress and burnout. Multiple surveys confirm this: 76% of employees already experience symptoms of burnout some of the time. 59% of all call center employees are at risk of burnout. And 28% are on the verge of acute burnout syndrome. These are alarming figures. Let’s take a closer look at the causes of burnout in contact centers and explore some possible solutions.

What is burnout syndrome?

In its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (International Classification of Diseases - ICD 11), the World Health Organization lists burnout as a "phenomenon in the workplace" defined as “a syndrome resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that has not been successfully managed.”

Those affected describe the syndrome as a strong feeling of exhaustion, which is accompanied by a reduced ability to perform. They also notice an increasing disconnection and a negative attitude towards their job.

We have probably all experienced these signs at some point. But when these feelings become a constant companion at work, alarm bells should start to ring. It's a good idea to start by looking for the signs of burnout. This will enable you to be more vigilant with yourself and your employees and hopefully recognize problems early on.

Signs of burnout

The following three symptoms are considered characteristic:

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Increased irritability and interpersonal distancing
  3. Personal perception of low performance

There are other signs, such as

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Not enjoying the job
  • Persistent tiredness
  • Sleep disorders
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Tendency to become emotional

As well as mental signs of burnout, there are physical signs:

  • More frequent colds
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Tinnitus

In the service-oriented environment of a contact center, burnout can lead to a downward spiral of cynicism and bitterness. Burned-out employees lack empathy and become indifferent to customer concerns. Customer experience suffers. Ultimately this reflects badly on the employee and further increases stress. Burnout is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

But why do call center employees seem to be particularly susceptible to developing burnout syndrome? Let's take a look at the typical triggers in a contact center.

What are typical triggers of burnout syndrome in call centers?

Before we explore call center-specific triggers, let’s look at some general ones. Burnout is not caused solely by problems in the work environment. Some employees are more prone to burnout than others, and that has a lot to do with influences outside the workplace.

Here are some examples:

Personal characteristics that promote burnout

  • Perfectionist tendencies
  • The need to be in control
  • Performance-oriented personality
  • Pessimistic view of oneself and the world

Lifestyle characteristics that promote burnout

  • Hardly any social contact or relaxation
  • Lack of close, supportive relationships
  • Too many commitments, without enough help
  • Insufficient sleep

General work-related causes of burnout

  • Little or no control over one’s own work
  • Lack of recognition
  • Excessively high expectations of work
  • Monotonous or unchallenging work
  • Chaotic and/or high-pressure environment

Many of these triggers can be observed in the contact center environment. There are, however, burnout triggers that are contact center-specific.

Typical work-related causes of burnout in call centers

Customers' emotions

Unfortunately, customers often make contact because something has gone wrong. It is therefore not surprising that customers often exhibit negative emotions such as disappointment, anger, and even rage. It is not uncommon for agents to be shouted at and insulted on the phone. Having to process these emotions every day, and also manage them effectively, can be a considerable burden.

Little variety

Certainly, every call is in some way unique. However, the process is often repetitive. Input forms and call guidelines leave little room for the employee's personality to shine through. This can make working with customers feel like monotonous assembly line work.

High occupancy

Unfortunately, contact centers are still very often seen as a cost center rather than a profit center or revenue generator. This is why high efficiency is the be-all and end-all in many call centers. One way to maximize efficiency is to ensure a high workload for employees in customer contact. This is good for the contact center and the bottom line, but less so for the employees. This is because they barely have time to catch their breath between calls.

Unrealistic performance targets

Call centers have to constantly balance the conflicting priorities of efficiency and customer satisfaction. This tension is passed on to the employees on the front line. They are expected to resolve customer issues in the shortest possible time and to the customer's complete satisfaction. Ambitious targets for both net promoter score (NPS) and average handling time (AHT) put employees under pressure from two directions simultaneously.

The feeling of being at the mercy of planners

Schedules in contact centers are usually created based on the peaks and valleys of customer demand, staff availability, skills, and contract terms, all while striving to avoid periods of over-staffing. It is often a feat for the planner to reconcile all the requirements. Unfortunately, customer-facing employees often still have too little say in shift planning. This leads to a feeling of being at the mercy of others.

The feeling of being treated unfairly

The perception of injustice in everyday working life is another common problem in call centers. Employees may perceive they are repeatedly given the most unpopular shifts in the contact center. They may feel they are singled out to be asked to work overtime more than others. They may form the impression that they are not put in a position to reach their performance potential. If these perceptions persist, a feeling of unfairness quickly arises.

Little self-determination

Call center work offers little scope for self-determination, and that’s not limited to the assignment of shifts. You have little influence over when you are in contact with customers - they are presented in a constant stream. The flow of the conversation may even be determined by a guide. This feeling of only being able to carry out predetermined tasks can lead to identification with the work being lost.

Infographic: Contact Center Burnout and What You Can Do

Download this handy, digestible infographic packed with essential tips and insights to combat contact center burnout. Elevate your team's well-being and productivity with actionable strategies at your fingertips, specifically for contact center managers!

How burnout in your call center affects the bottom line

Call centers usually have to operate within tight budgets. Employees experience the pressure to control costs in the form of strict performance targets and heavy workload. Call centers should not ignore the fact that a single-minded focus on cost control leads to burnout, which has a significant impact on business performance and paradoxically can lead to increased costs.

The direct and indirect effects of employee burnout on the operation of a contact center are:

  • Increased post-processing time or after-call work (ACW)
    If employees are not officially given time to pause for breath between calls, they will take it anyway, for example by extending their time in ACW. That means that the forecast AHT is no longer correct. This may make the forecast obsolete and increase the staffing requirement. But instead of either accepting higher staffing levels or building up even greater pressure on employees, we recommend analyzing the situation and finding out why ACW is increasing.
  • Low productivity
    Employees will find ways to get much-needed breaks, for example by returning late from lunch. This unplanned unproductive time increases shrinkage. It may be detected by monitoring schedule adherence, but again it is important to identify the reasons for non-adherence.
  • Low customer satisfaction and customer churn
    If your employees are stressed, customers will notice. A lack of empathy and cynicism are not part of the recipe for a great customer experience. If customer satisfaction drops, this also indirectly leads to a drop in sales revenue and reduced customer loyalty.
  • Bad employer reputation and recruitment challenges
    If employees resign due to excessively stressful working conditions, they are likely to express their dissatisfaction on relevant employer review platforms such as Glassdoor or Kununu. A bad reputation therefore reduces the chances of successfully recruiting employees.
  • Accumulation of mistakes
    Stressed employees inevitably make mistakes. This can lead to fewer customer concerns being resolved at the first point of contact. Customers have to call back, wait in the queue again, and are in an even worse mood than when they first called. This means more stress for the employee and more errors. This is a perfect example of a vicious circle.
  • The cost of employee turnover
    When employees suffer burnout, they eventually become unable to work. Lengthy periods of sick leave or resignations are the result. For the contact center, this means excessive shrinkage and expensive recruitment, onboarding, and training. According to Call Centre Helper, the average cost of replacing a frontline agent is 20% of their annual salary.

How to prevent burnout in your call center

Burnout is not a fad, but a chronic problem for many companies, especially call centers. It is also financially worthwhile for contact centers to address this problem. But how exactly should you do this?

1. Recognize burnout

Be observant. For some employees, the stress may be obvious, whereas others are better at hiding their inner feelings. This is why empathic conversations are particularly important. Try to recognize signs and symptoms early on. Data can also help. Is AHT particularly high for certain employees, while FCR (First Call Resolution) is particularly low? What about the occupancy rate of employees? Is shrinkage higher than usual? These are all indications of an increased stress level.

2. Avoid micromanagement

When things don't go according to plan, it can be tempting to control everything more tightly. But rather than micromanaging, which often reinforces negative attitudes towards work in employees, it's more effective to give them freedom and psychological safety. Combined with a tight feedback loop, this not only boosts self-confidence but also helps to increase job satisfaction.

3. Address unfair treatment

If you recognize that employees are being treated unfairly, speak up. This may lead to unpleasant discussions with other departments. But if you turn a blind eye, the problem will only get worse.

4. Set realistic goals

Are the goals in your contact center truly realistic or are they driven by ambition or a desire to align with a perceived industry standard? If your call center only works if your employees have to work themselves into the ground, then something needs to be fundamentally changed. Achievable goals, on the other hand, promote employee motivation and productivity.

5. Clarify roles and improve communication

Even small changes can often improve the overall situation. Clear role descriptions alone help your employees to understand the scope of their responsibilities and help them deliver against them. Clear and unambiguous communication also helps them to better understand their tasks and roles.

6. Be deliberate about workforce management

Workforce management (WFM) is about finding the optimum balance between customer service, business efficiency, and employee satisfaction. Do you already accurately forecast the peaks and valleys in contact volumes? Do you calculate how many staff members you need with a realistic occupancy rate? Do you schedule your staff efficiently around the peaks and valleys? Are you great at real-time management, so that you don’t stress out your staff when reality deviates from the plan? Are you engaging your employees in the process of managing their working time, so they achieve better work/life balance without impacting business efficiency or customer experience?  If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, you are sitting on a burnout time bomb. You need to take workforce management to the next level. If you don't do that, you’re putting your organization at a competitive disadvantage in terms of efficiency, customer satisfaction, recruitment, and retention.


Burnout in call centers is sadly not uncommon. Unfortunately, the working environment in contact centers is almost a perfect recipe for creating employee stress. It's almost part of the job description. But managers should be aware that they themselves have it within their gift to increase or reduce this stress. The well-being of employees is not at odds with the company's performance. If employees are unwell, this harms the company's bottom line. Focus on employee well-being isn't altruism.

Recognizing burnout symptoms, being empathetic to employees' concerns, using professional WFM software, and reacting early are key to preventing burnout in call centers.

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