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  • Writer's pictureSharon Oatway

Strategies for Managing Stress in Customer Service

Updated: May 30

A Guide for Frontline Customer Service Representatives and the People Who Supervise Them

Customer service rep under stress

Pressure. Tension. Stress. Anxiety. Burnout. No matter what you call it, every job has some type of pressure. This is particularly true in customer service.

Stress means different things to different people. What causes one person to feel pressure may be of little concern to another. Some people are better able to handle pressure than others. In fact, some people thrive when under pressure. You may feel pressure when there are a lot of calls in the queue, but another team member may not. Rather they feel pressure when they are in a coaching session. Still, another person may become very anxious when trying to get to work on time. That is why it is critical that you do not assume everyone is affected by stress in the same way.

The physical feeling of pressure or stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations, whether real or perceived. It acts as a vital warning system, producing the fight-or-flight response. When your brain perceives some kind of stress, it starts flooding the body with chemicals like epinephrine or adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. As a result, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You are ready to act! This is how you protect yourself.

Pressure itself is not the problem. Having too MUCH pressure is the problem.

Too much stress can wear you down and make you mentally and physically sick. Being under constant pressure for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and even heart disease.

Have you noticed a change in your mental health now that you work from home? What about your team? How are they doing? Do you feel more stressed despite not having a commute? Are you battling feelings of isolation even though you have way more flexibility? Are you finding it difficult to balance work and life? Although you do not have the distraction of an office around you, everyone misses the social aspect of chatting and venting about work and life when you are remote. This camaraderie does not translate the same way over Zoom. And that commute you used to dread may have been the only time you had to yourself to listen to music or your favorite podcast. Time to unwind.

Research tells us that those who work from home are more likely to experience loneliness, isolation, anxiety, stress, and depression. Working from home can turn optimistic, productive worker bees into tired, unmotivated, irritable people. And then, of course, there's COVID.

So, before you hit rock bottom, learn how to spot the signs of declining mental health so you can address your next steps AND recognize issues within your team to help them navigate the additional pressure.

Stress can affect all aspects of our lives, including our emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary and be challenging to detect in yourself and your team members – particularly those working from home. Here are some things to watch for:

How to recognize symptoms of stress in customer service
How to recognize symptoms of stress in customer service

I don't know about you, but I feel I tick a few boxes on this list – and from all the categories! I read a quote the other day - "Name it, don't numb it." You can pop 2 Tylenol for your headache to make it disappear, or you can look at what is causing it.

Like many things, your ability to manage pressure is a learned skill. For example, many people feel enormous pressure speaking in public. However, we can learn to deal with this pressure and reduce its impact through practice. In fact, if we speak in public often enough, we will probably feel very little tension and may even begin to enjoy it. It is within our power to step out of our comfort zone by making a few adjustments.

As we mentioned, everybody reacts differently to pressure. The good news is that you can do things to relieve pressure and tips you can provide to your team. With that in mind, we are going to cover our TOP 10 strategies for managing stress at work:

#1. It’s okay not to be okay.

First things first: it’s okay not to be okay. Honor exactly where you are, wherever that may be. The same is true for your team. As a coach, you must let your team know you are open to help – without judgment.

#2. Give yourself a break.

When things feel overwhelming, consciously take one thought at a time, one task at a time, and one day at a time.

Now, if you are like me, you are a good multi-tasker and wonder why that is a problem. Normally it is not, but if you are feeling pressure or stress, then your focus is being divided too much, and you risk having a bunch of uncompleted tasks – which adds to the pressure. By limiting the number of tasks you focus on at once, you complete more tasks, leaving you with a greater feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day.

#3. Create a routine & stick to it.

Research tells us that over 40% of people say their flexible work/life schedule is the best part of working remotely. But it is how you organize those hours in your day that makes all the difference. Do you have a daily schedule or set routine you follow? Are you trying to multi-task, like doing the laundry or preparing dinner while working? Having a regular routine to follow helps manage pressure. Avoid trying to bring your home life into the hours you have set aside for work.

#4. Get up and move!

When you take a break, fight the urge to stay sedentary and schedule an active time to get your heart pumping. Go for a walk, bike ride, stretch, or do yoga, whatever floats your boat. The key is to leave your cell phone and your work behind. Exercising 20 to 30 minutes daily can significantly lower anxiety levels. You will also boost endorphins and serotonin to flood your brain with happiness.

"Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less filled with worry. “

If you are not into exercise, a walk in the park or the forest will work equally well for managing stress. Time in the woods has been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It has a host of positive mood effects, including reduced hostility and depression. It also decreases fatigue, anxiety, and confusion and generally has a strong relaxing effect.

#5. Upgrade your physical work-from-home environment.

If you have not already done so, consider upgrading your physical environment. Where are you working from home? Are you comfortable? Or are you barely able to walk at the end of the day? If you do not have a dedicated workspace, make that priority number one. Bonus points if you have an office with a door, you can close to mentally and physically separate work and home life.

Invest in a comfortable, ergonomic chair that supports your back. Long work hours require a supportive chair for your back, neck, and spine. Look for strong lumbar support for the curve of your lower back. Swap out a narrow desk for one that provides support for your wrists, arms, and elbows. This will keep carpal tunnel away while you use your mouse and keyboard. Make sure you have good air circulation. Open a window, invest in an air purifier, and add an air-cleaning plant on your desk.

The point here is to make sure your workspace makes you feel good.

If you cannot create a dedicated workspace, at least get organized. They say a clean desk leads to a clear mind, so remove anything distracting from your desk. Organize any offline resources so they are within easy reach: Know where to find the information you may need; do not put undue pressure on yourself to memorize everything. Know when something falls outside your skillset and who to escalate to. Know when it is time to ask for help proactively.

The feeling of ‘pressure’ or ‘stress’ can often be caused by the perception that there are too many things to be done in too little time. Being organized and prepared can help.

#6. Curb caffeine & sugar intake.

Curb your caffeine and sugar intake. Caffeine might help you in the short term, but it interrupts sleep and makes you more anxious, tense, and jittery, which obviously ups your stress level. And while that cookie or piece of cake may give you lots of joy in the moment, dozens of studies show how sugar can impede the body's natural ability to deal with stress and anxiety.

#7. Set realistic goals for yourself.

Goals or targets are often a key source of stress in a business environment. There are goals we set for ourselves and those that are job-related. Sometimes we set personal goals that are not realistic, and this creates a lot of pressure. If you tend to do this, take the time to re-evaluate your goals. Do not give up on them but consider setting more realistic timelines. Or set smaller goals that build up to your ultimate goal over time.

Remember to do this for your team members as well. Instead of asking for a 180-turnaround overnight, give them interim goals to meet. The key to performance improvement, after all, is consistency.

#8. Laugh often.

Find a good reason to laugh often. A good, hardy laugh has great short-term effects. When you start to laugh, it does not just lighten your load mentally; it induces positive physical changes in your body.

Everyone finds different things funny. We don't all laugh at the same jokes, and if you find what tickles your team's funny bone, then maybe use laughter to bring you together. One of our coaches, Amy, still laughs out loud at a Facebook thread she was part of – it went on for weeks – where everyone had to list three things that they found funny: Trousers, Pickle, and Shenanigans.

#9. Meditate.

Decades of research have demonstrated the many health benefits of meditation – from promoting better sleep to reducing anxiety. Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. Anyone can practice meditation. It is simple, inexpensive, and requires no special equipment. There are numerous free apps out there to choose from.

You can practice meditation wherever you are—whether you are out for a walk, riding the bus, in between calls, or even in the middle of a difficult meeting.

#10. Ask for help.

Our last tip is about asking for help. If you check out the best-selling “self-help” books section of your local bookstore, you might be surprised to find that experts agree -- if you want to improve your performance at almost anything, your odds of success improve considerably the moment you enlist someone else to help you! Take the time now to identify the people and resources that you can access to help you or your team members when you need them:

• Direct Manager, Supervisor, Team Lead, Coach

• Co-worker

• Human Resources

• Friends / Family

• Medical Professional

• Books, publications

• Corporate mental health resources

When you ask for help from an individual you work with, here are some important reminders:

  1. Do not interrupt your manager or a colleague while they are working. Schedule some time in advance so they can be truly ‘present’ for you if you can. (e.g., “Do you have a few minutes at lunch to speak with me?”)

  2. Always be polite and respectful. This can be difficult if you are upset or overly stressed, so allow your emotions to cool before the meeting.

  3. Use positive language to present your situation as an opportunity – rather than a complaint. For example, instead of saying, “I hate all the noise in the office. It is driving me crazy. Do something about it!” try saying, “I am having a real problem concentrating on all the noise in the office. If it were quieter, I believe I would be more productive. Would it be possible to ask people to keep their voices down when they are in the hallway?”

  4. If the situation is sensitive, be sure to speak in private.

  5. And last but not least, be prepared. It is critical that you know what you want.

Managing Stress at Work is all about Planning.

Most people experience pressure at some point in their personal or professional lives. By acting proactively and taking measures NOW to reduce pressure, you will be better able to cope with stress when it inevitably arrives.

Try thinking of a situation that you may find stressful and describe how you believe you will feel in the moment. Then describe what you are going to do to manage the pressure. For example:

When I have to present information at a meeting… I feel overwhelmed. I don't like it when everyone is looking at me. So, I will ensure my facts are clear and organized and prepare a graphic or two to emphasize my point.

When an upset customer is angry and starts to yell at me... I get defensive. I didn't do anything wrong, so why are they yelling at me? So, I will remember that I have been an angry customer before and think about what I want to hear – acknowledgment and empathy.

When there are too many calls in queue… I feel anxious and have an overwhelming need to rush through my calls as quickly as possible (which is not good for anyone). So, I will pay less attention to the number of calls in the queue and focus on helping the customer I am speaking with.

Remember, pressure or stress in the workplace can be beneficial in small doses. It can help motivate you to reach your goals and accomplish tasks more efficiently. It has also been known to boost memory. As a coach, it is your responsibility to not only identify and manage your own levels of stress but also help your team members do the same.

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For access to this course in an e-learning format for your agents and coaches/team leads, get in touch!

Sharon Oatway is a Customer Service, Sales, and Marketing professional with more than three decades of hands-on experience elevating the overall customer experience and multi-channel contact center performance. As President + Chief Experience Officer of VereQuest, Sharon and her team have listened to/read, analyzed, and provided coaching for several million customer interactions for some of North America’s leading brands and contact centers. As a result, Sharon is a recognized thought leader in what it takes to deliver superior customer experiences and sustain great customer relationships.


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