Managing Emotional Labor in the Contact Center

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Managing Emotional Labor in the Contact Center

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Managing Emotional Labor in the Contact Center

Are your agents “surface acting” their way toward emotional exhaustion and burnout?

The phone beeps in my ear; I answer with, “Thank you for calling Hoosier Healthwise. This is Mark. How can I help you today?”

I pause to allow the other person on the line to speak. He says, “Well, I hope you can,” and he says that he needs help selecting a health plan.

I reply, “Sure, I can help you with that. Could you please tell me your doctor’s name so I can identify which plan he accepts?”

The caller responds, “I have several doctors that I see in a month. I have a cardiologist, a pain specialist…” and the list goes on.

I say, “I see. Could you please let me know who is your family practitioner? That way, I can locate which plan he accepts, as your family practitioner would give you a referral or already has the referrals to your other doctors.”

At this moment, the caller provides me with his doctor’s name, and I use the system to locate the doctor, identify the health plan, and then verify the identity of the caller according to HIPAA regulations.

However, just before enrolling the caller with the necessary health plan, the call takes a turn for the worse, and I find myself on the receiving end of abuses and insults. I stay calm, make attempts to get the caller’s attention, and ask how I can help, but my attempts are in vain.

I resort to using our call center’s disconnect policy. He stops for a second, but the downpour of insults starts again. He’s been hurling insults at me for over a minute, and I’m not sure how long I can hold on. I disconnect the call.

This was my first month working at my first call center job. Getting off that call felt like the aftereffects of a car wreck.

What Is Emotional Labor?

When we regulate our emotions to perform our job, it’s called emotional labor.

Research conducted by Dr. Anya Johnson and Dr. Helena Nguyen at the University of Sydney found that workers have two approaches to emotional labor: surface acting and deep acting.

Surface acting has been defined as when we fake emotions to adhere to “organizational display rules,” which are the formal and informal norms that regulate the expression of workplace emotion. An example would be staying calm and courteous during a challenging situation with a caller, but deep down, you want to give him a piece of your mind.

Deep acting is where we embrace the desired emotion, like walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. For example, a customer service agent empathizing with a caller who wants to return a mattress because it hurts his back.

So now we know about the two main ways to regulate emotional labor, how does each impact agent performance in a contact center environment?

Surface Acting Vs. Deep Acting

Research titled, “A Review and an Integration of Research on Job Burnout,” by Cynthia Cordes and Thomas Dougherty, states that surface acting is emotionally exhausting for workers, which leads to job dissatisfaction, increased absenteeism, and eventually burnout. How does a person get to this point? It’s the cost of the internal conflict that takes place between our genuine emotions and the emotions we must display.

Deep acting, however, has positive effects on our daily well-being at work and our need for recovery after work, according to “The Bright Side of Emotional Labor,” by Ronald Humphrey, Blake Ashforth and James Diefendorff. For example, a customer service agent smiling to greet a customer because they look at every customer’s interaction as an opportunity to help.

Further research found that, when frontline employees use deep acting to interact with customers, absenteeism and turnover are reduced (from “A Predictive Study of Emotional Labor and Turnover,” by Samantha Chau, Jason Dahling, Paul Levy and James Diefendorff).

Since emotions are internal to a person, we can’t always determine if a team member is surface acting or deep acting, but the following are a few tips that can help reduce their emotional exhaustion:

  • Keep an eye out for triggers of emotional exhaustion. If I notice an agent on a challenging call, I will ask the agent to take a quick break after they finish. I make myself available so that, if they want to, we can talk about it.
  • Provide soft skills training. During training classes, we emphasize the importance of our agents’ emotional well-being and provide tips to help them get through a challenging day. We also provide agents with tools to de-escalate challenging callers, and ask them to consider: “Why is your caller upset? Based on the situation, how would you feel and react?” As part of the training, we discuss the importance of what our agents do and how they help callers.
  • Set a call center disconnect policy. It’s good to have one in place. Make it known to agents. The steps to disconnect could start by making the caller aware of their behavior a few times, preferably at least three times, before letting them know that the call will be disconnected due to their behavior, and appropriately documenting the call.
  • A little humor goes a long way. Call center work and life can be stressful, so I try to add humor to our call center newsletters or send out an email to my team on Monday mornings with funny work-appropriate jokes or quotes.

The call center can be a demanding work environment—a place where some folks strive while others don’t make it. Hopefully, the above suggestions can enhance your agents’ daily work experience and overall job satisfaction.

Mark Pereira

Mark Pereira

Mark Pereira is a Trainer and On-Site Supervisor at Briljent LLC. He is a Certified Professional Trainer (CPT), Certified Customer Service Professional (CCSP), and Modern Classroom Certified Trainer (MCCT). Mark is a learning leader who applies what he learns to continuously add value to his team while also implementing proven teaching methods to improve retention while taking calls, effective coaching, engaging agents for increased productivity, and leading with empathy. Mark has a bachelor's degree in Commerce (BCom), and currently lives in Indianapolis.

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