“I think I’ve hit my limit.”
“I hate the stress of this job when things don’t go right, and feel like I’m never appreciated.”
“Between the stupid people, the angry people and the rude people, it all just starts feeling trivial and beneath you. You eventually stop caring.”
How are your help desk agents doing? You might not know it, but some of them may have hit their limit as well.
IT help desk burnout, always a problem in this high-pressure role, has not been helped by the additional stressors placed on them (and users) by the pandemic.
Read on to discover what help desk burnout is, how it happens, why it’s a problem for IT departments, how it affects other people inside your company, and practical steps you can take to avoid the human and dollar costs of burnout.
IT Help Desk Burnout, Defined
Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” It is often caused by high amounts of stress, little control, lack of support or clear expectations, and a lack of work-life balance.
And make no mistake: Being an IT help desk agent is an extremely stressful, high-pressure job.
Not only are they dealing with frustrating or rude users, thorny problems to solve, and even five-alarm fires like a down server … they’re doing all this while being made well aware that the clock is ticking and that they’re being graded for every second.
After a while, it’s unsurprising that many IT help desk workers would start exhibiting symptoms of burnout, namely:
Exhaustion: They feel drained and emotionally exhausted. They lack energy. They may even have physical symptoms, such as stomach or bowel problems.
Alienation: They find IT help desk activities and tasks increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may manifest this alienation with cynical remarks about their working conditions or sarcasm about their colleagues. They also distance themselves emotionally from those around them at work, and start feeling numb about their duties.
Reduced performance: Their work suffers. They have trouble concentrating, grow increasingly listless, and lack creativity and initiative. They may also start resisting change by not responding well to new things happening in the company or in the help desk, when in the past they would have easily accommodated the changes.
If you suspect that some of your agents or analysts in your help desk are burned out, look for the above three symptoms. If you are in doubt, talk to them in a quiet moment about how their role is incredibly tough, and that if they’re feeling burned out, it’s totally understandable and you’re there to help them. At that point, if you’ve fostered good communication all along, the employee may open up. Don’t expect or demand it, though – many employees may try to hide their burnout, out of fear for their job security. (Their role may be crushing them, but that doesn’t mean they wish to be unemployed.)
The Cost of IT Help Desk Burnout
“OK,” you say. “But burnout happens in every industry. Why is help desk burnout something I need to worry about?”
Good question. Let’s look at it from a few angles.
- Help Desk Performance: For one thing, agents who are exhausted, not performing up to standard and feeling alienated from the workplace are more likely to arrive late for work, take extra-long breaks, want to leave early, or call in sick more often. This reduces the performance level of your entire help desk, wreaking havoc on your KPIs.
- Customer Satisfaction: Then you have the cost of dropping customer satisfaction scores. Burned out help desk agents may struggle to be as patient and helpful as before, and are highly unlikely to go the extra mile for a user (especially a less-than-friendly one). Callers to your help desk who deal with these burned-out agents may report low customer satisfaction scores.
- Team Morale: Then also the contagion factor. An employee (or 10) suffering from burnout can act as a dark cloud, spreading negativity and cynicism among the rest of the staff. Unfortunately, employees like this often tend to get labeled as having “a bad attitude,” when in reality, they’re just so exhausted by the stress that it’s impossible for them to muster up enthusiasm anymore.
- Employee Turnover: Last (and worst), high levels of burnout typically produce high levels of help desk employee turnover. Burned out help desk agents feel hopeless, thinking nothing at their workplace is going to change and that they have absolutely no control over the work they do there. So, they quit. In fact, in 2018, HDI benchmarked the average agent turnover rate at 40.6%, with the average service desk agent staying only 2 ½ years before leaving for greener pastures.
High staff turnover caused by staff burnout, of course, comes with a host of costs, including searching for, interviewing, screening, onboarding and training replacement candidates. Not cheap. Plus, there is the price of losing all that expertise.
In short, burnout in your help desk can easily turn into a massive drain on your productivity and resources.
How to Prevent Help Desk Burnout
Curing burnout is incredibly difficult. Once an employee has reached that level of exhaustion, they’re going to need a serious change of scenery to get back to normal.
Preventing IT help desk burnout, however, is possible. Here are some of the best practices we use to keep our agents thriving:
- Give agents other duties: One cause of burnout is high stress without relief. Make sure to mix things up every so often, giving agents a mix of duties that involve varying levels of stress and responsibility.
- Recognize your staff: Make sure your agents know that you appreciate them not just for the role they fill, but for who they are as individuals. Let them know about positive feedback. Reward them when they meet or exceed goals. Encourage “shout-outs” among staff during team meetings, so team members can recognize and thank each other. When you create an atmosphere where agents lift each other up, that support and positivity will provide powerful armor against burnout.
- Lighten up: Fielding calls all day from users who make Oscar the Grouch look downright pleasant is stressful for the agents on the other end of the phone, email exchange or chat session. One way to reduce this stress is to lighten things up. Inside jokes and irreverent humor can help stressed-out teams during stressful times. Encourage your employees to not take things personally, for one thing. Help them understand that irate users are irate with their issue, not with your help desk agent.
- Get talking: Burnout usually happens in silence. To prevent burnout, encourage frequent and honest feedback. That is, speak often with your agents to sound out how they are doing and how they are feeling. And encourage them to be open and frank—even blunt if that helps—when describing their issues and feelings.
- Show them the ladder: Help desk agents burn out because they lose hope. They see no change to their situation. To help them see beyond the stress, make sure all your employees are aware of upward mobility opportunities and career paths. Make them aware of horizontal opportunities, too, for that matter. In other words, show them all the places they can move to within your organization in order to fulfil their goals—and yours.
- Give them the tools: Sometimes the only thing standing between your help desk agents and burnout is a good fire extinguisher. We’re talking about the information, training, coaching, mentoring, software, hardware, technology and other tools that they need to do their jobs successfully. And don’t forget the most important tool: managerial support.
If you have a problem with help desk burnout, you also have a problem with customer satisfaction, staff turnover, scalability and more. You can avoid these problems by outsourcing all or part of your help desk function to Global Help Desk Services, Inc. We become the first point of contact for your employees and customers when they need tech support. We manage their technical issues, resolve their problems, and escalate only the issues that you prefer to resolve in-house. Learn more about the benefits of IT help desk outsourcing.