Australia’s workplace health and safety (WHS) legislation is undergoing a metamorphosis, leaving the old rules in the dust and ushering in a new era of occupational caution. It’s not just a makeover; it’s a legislative glow-up that has businesses scrambling to update their safety dance routines. As the legal landscape shifts, employers are trading in their old WHS handbooks for the latest edition, trying to navigate a maze of regulatory changes that aren’t straightforward or easily understood. So, buckle up your steel-toed boots because the only constant is change, and it’s knocking on the office door like a safety inspector with a bone to pick.
2023 might become known as the year we got serious about psychosocial hazards in the workplace, recognising their impact on the mental health and well-being of employees and clarifying our obligation to not just manage but mitigate them under this new legislation. Whilst in the past, a great corporate HR team could manage WHS from a cosy room in head office, the drivers that challenge these new hazards are not so easy to manage from an arm’s length and the impact this has on the humble contact centre environment is profound.
Psychosocial risks, from a technical standpoint, refer to the potential for harm to employees’ mental health and well-being arising from the interactions between job design, work content, organisation, management, and the social and environmental context of work. These risks encompass various factors such as high job demands, low job control, inadequate support, unclear roles, interpersonal conflict, and organisational culture, which may contribute to stress, anxiety, burnout, depression, and other adverse psychological outcomes.
In the high-octane world of contact centres, where ringing phones harmonise with the caffeine-fuelled hum of busy agents, psychosocial safety isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a crucial consideration that organisations need to get serious about. The relentless cadence of customer interactions, coupled with the pressure to meet performance metrics amidst reducing budgets, can turn the dial up on pressure, stress, and burnout. Add to this the changing external landscape where vulnerable customers are on the increase and the emotional impact of the job on contact centre agents is getting harder to navigate. Forget juggling calls; it’s a delicate act of managing the mental gymnastics of a team navigating through an ocean of customer emotions. Neglecting psychosocial safety is no longer an option given the stakes have just gotten higher, with employers and ultimately directors, facing severe penalties.
WHS regulations now demand a more detailed consideration of psychosocial hazards, with specific scenarios tailored to various industries, including contact centres. Under these new regulations, employers bear the explicit responsibility of identifying, eliminating, or mitigating these risks, emphasizing the need for proactive measures to create psychological safety and ensure employee well-being.
So, what does this mean for the contact centre industry? Organisations must treat psychosocial hazards the same way they treat physical hazards in the workplace. That is, we need to identify, assess, and proactively manage these psychosocial hazards to create a healthier and more supportive work environment.
The top 10 psychosocial hazards in contact centres have been identified as:
- High Workload: The pressure of excessive workloads, characterized by high call volumes and demanding targets, can lead to stress, burnout, and fatigue among employees.
- Emotional Demands: Daily interactions with upset or irate customers can take an emotional toll on employees, increasing the risk of emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.
- Time Pressure: Strict call handling times and limited breaks can create a constant sense of time pressure, leading to heightened stress levels and reduced job satisfaction.
- Monotonous Tasks: Repetitive tasks, such as reading from scripts or handling similar customer inquiries, can lead to monotony and reduced job satisfaction over time.
- Lack of Control: Limited autonomy and decision-making power over work-related matters can contribute to a sense of disempowerment and job dissatisfaction.
- Unclear Role Expectations: Ambiguity regarding job roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations can cause stress and frustration among contact centre employees.
- Lack of Support: Insufficient support from supervisors or colleagues, including inadequate feedback, training, and guidance, can hinder performance and increase stress levels.
- Shift Work and Irregular Hours: Irregular working hours, including night shifts and rotating schedules, can disrupt sleep patterns and negatively affect employees’ overall well-being.
- Work-Life Imbalance: Demanding work schedules, long hours, and limited flexibility can make it challenging for contact centre employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance, leading to increased stress and strain.
- Lack of Recognition: Insufficient recognition and rewards for job performance can reduce motivation, job satisfaction, and overall engagement among contact centre employees.
Most contact centre leaders will read that list and their mind will start racing – these hazards are business as usual in the contact centre environment. And indeed, this is taking a toll, with the industry known for high staff turnover, sick leave, and mental health impacts. Research conducted by Kleu* in 2021, revealed that 43% of over 1000 contact centre employees reported being rarely or never able to relax; the precursor to burnout and psychological injury. The good news is that we can build a better understanding of what psychosocial hazards are in our workplace, and with understanding comes the ability to make conscious decisions that set about minimising the risk to our people. The art will be getting the balance right between running the contact centre efficiently and maximising the wellbeing of your people, whilst complying with your obligations.
The Four Faces of Contact Centre Management
Amid these regulatory changes, contact centre managers often find themselves in one of four categories:
- Blissfully Unaware: Some managers may be unaware of the new regulations, potentially leaving their teams and organisations vulnerable to compliance issues.
- Delegating to HR: There is a misconception that HR departments handle all aspects of WHS compliance. However, it’s essential to recognize that compliance is a shared responsibility that extends to contact centre operating practices and leadership skills.
- Overly Concerned: Fearing staff turnover or legal ramifications, some managers may adopt overly accommodating practices, such as altering rosters completely so employees can go to the gym, or not working on Mondays due to anxiety bought on by typical high call volumes on Mondays, or even removal of adherence KPIs or rostered breaks for fear of being’ overly ‘controlling’. While well-intentioned, this reactive approach sets untenable precedents and can severely impact business performance and customer service.
- Proactive Risk Identifiers: The most effective managers actively identify and address risks. They invest in upskilling their Team Leaders to have competent proactive and supporting conversations, adapt operating practices including staff involvement in decisions and equip employees to manage the emotional labour component of their roles.
How to proactively address Psychological Safety in your contact centre
Navigating these WHS regulatory changes requires a proactive approach, and it all starts with assessing, identifying, and analysing your risks. Then doing something about it in the form of developing a mitigation plan. Just as you wouldn’t use a wood saw without protecting your eyes, you need to consciously review your operating model to ensure psychosocial hazards are minimised at every opportunity.
Focus on adjusting your operating practices and enhancing leadership skills, invest in specific training and coaching to assist your people to better manage their own responses to situations, and better leverage your WFM, KMS and sentiment analysis technology. Provide conversation tips to minimise emotional impacts and options to recover from highly emotive calls. Vigorously apply an engaged and structured approach to change, ensuring staff have genuine input to changes and know the ‘why’ that surrounds change decisions. Build the skills of your team leaders – ensure they’re equipped with the tools to manage challenging conversations, lead change, and support their teams. Revisit your contact centre metrics and consider ways that people can be empowered to easily swap shifts and adjust break times while still optimising service levels. Build strong and regular feedback and recognition into your operating model, increase side by side coaching and look for ways to personalise ways you validate the contributions your people are making for your organisation. Don’t forget you can seek external assistance if needed.
In the contact centre arena, where emotions can be dialled up and pressure rings like an incessant call load, managing psychosocial hazards is the unsung hero of sanity. Neglecting the mental well-being of your customer service agents isn’t just a gamble with turnover rates; it’s a ticket to burnout, dropped calls, and poor customer outcomes. The paradigm shift that is these WHS legislative changes require a conscious organisational awareness, deliberate and proactive steps within the environment to ensure compliance and employee well-being. Those organisations who create the work environment that nurtures both the physical and mental health of its people will come out on top, supporting the right employee experience that will drive customer service excellence.
Lyn Trewenack is a Contact Centre Executive with over 25 years of experience establishing and managing large and complex customer-facing operations in diverse industries. She’s a proven leader, consultant and trusted mentor who brings rigour and robustness to her project management, a capability to understand and interpret the direction of the customer contact industry and continues to influence the strategic direction of that industry.
BBB Advisory is proud to be the exclusive industry partner for Kleu; a scalable solution to build the emotional fitness of employees in contact centres, which is backed by science and has a proven ROI. Kleu closes the gap on psychosocial risks in contact centres, changing agent and leader behaviours to drive a culture of psychological safety at all levels.