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(Last updated 11/2/05)



COLUMBUS , Ohio – Dealing with customer complaints and issues can be exhausting for workers who deal with the public, but new research reveals how supervisors can make the job even more difficult.

A study found that telephone call center workers were more likely to feel “emotionally exhausted” by their jobs when supervisors strictly regulated how they responded emotionally toward customers.

Employees suffered symptoms of job burnout when their supervisors emphasized rules such as always reacting warmly and friendly toward customers on the phone, even if the customers are being rude and derogatory.

“In a lot of different jobs, managers push people to meet certain demands. But in some cases, this could backfire, creating so much pressure and strain that employees can't cope.”

“When supervisors demand that workers act in a certain way toward customers, that can create emotional exhaustion, which actually undermines performance,” said Steffanie Wilk, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University 's Fisher College of Business.

Wilk, who did this work while she was at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, co-authored the study with Lisa Moynihan of the London Business School. The findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Emotional exhaustion occurs when workers are forced to express emotions that they don't feel, and this can result in workers feeling drained and overwhelmed by their work. Emotional exhaustion is one component of burnout, which contributes to high employee turnover, Wilk said.

This study involved workers at a variety of different call centers for one large telecommunications company. These centers included workers who handled calls from both residential and business customers, as well as telephone operators. The researchers surveyed 940 supervisors and 1,236 of their workers for this study.

Among the questions on the survey, supervisors were asked how much importance they placed on their employees behaving in certain ways toward customers on the phone.

Workers were asked questions measuring emotional exhaustion, such as how often they felt “burned out from my work.”

The results showed that some supervisors were more likely than others to have employees who felt symptoms of job burnout, Wilk said. And those were the supervisors who placed the most importance on how their workers presented themselves on the phone.

Obviously, Wilk said, all supervisors expected employees to treat callers with a certain level of respect and courtesy.

“But some supervisors were much more protective of their workers than were others,” she said. “Some supervisors say their workers don't have to take abuse. But others don't give their employees any leeway and are very nitpicky about how they can react to even the rudest of customers.”

That adds stress to an already stressful job. These employees continually take very different calls, talking to customers who may be in quick succession, polite, angry, upset, frustrated, or friendly and chatty. “And they do it all with about six seconds or so between each call,” Wilk said.

One of the interesting results of this study, she said, was that neither the amount of time supervisors spent monitoring workers nor supervisor demands in general contributed to worker stress and exhaustion.

“It's not about whether your supervisor is always looking over your shoulder,” she said. Supervisors also demand, for example, that employees know the company's products and services. However, these types of demands did not affect burnout. Only demands related to how employees interacted with customers had an impact on burnout.

The findings showed that certain characteristics helped employees fight burnout. Specifically, employees who identified closely with their job were less likely to feel emotional exhaustion.

That suggests companies could help prevent burnout by helping foster or develop employees' feelings of pride and ownership in their work, so they identify their jobs as a worthwhile career.

But companies also need to realize that supervisors can be a source of stress for their workers, and their demands can actually make workers less productive, according to Wilk. These results may be applicable to any employees who deal with the public, not just those in call centers.

“In a lot of different jobs, managers push people to meet certain demands. But in some cases, this could backfire, creating so much pressure and strain that employees can't cope.”

And while these results may have wider applicability, Wilk said the findings have particular importance for what they say about the jobs of telephone call center workers. Although explicit data do not exist, some sources report that the number of call center workers grew at a rate of 20 percent annually during the 1990s, with some estimates that call centers now employ at least 3 percent of the U.S. workforce.

That's one reason why Wilk and her colleagues are continuing their research on call center workers. In upcoming studies, they will examine if the mood of these workers is affected by callers, and if this has an impact on performance. They will also examine call center workers in India, who are taught to talk and act like Americans, to determine if this adds extra stress to their jobs.

The study was supported by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation/Rockefeller Foundation's Future of Work program.


Contact: Steffanie Wilk, Wilk@cob.osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu