Every contact centre professional knows the buzzing of voices at the workplace. Dozens of voices talk at the same time – now just imagine those voices breaking down. Straining of the voice is a risk and can lead to personnel falling away.

By Erik Bouwer

Stress and stress factors

Everyone experiences work stress from time to time. Stress is the result of stress factors and strains. Stress factors are factors that lead to stress and straining; there are physical and psychosocial stress factors like work pressure or poor working conditions. Strains are people’s physical and psychic reactions to stress and straining; going from fear, insecurity and tension to physical complaints. The final effects of stress factors are not only determined by the intensity and duration of the stress source, but also by the way the person deals with the stress factors, the so-called coping style. An ineffective coping style can result in different physical reactions, from headache to stomach ulcers.

Agents are professional speakers
At the contact centre, physical stress factors play an important part. There is for instance the matter of alignment with the workplace as a result of which employees get less exercise. A wrong sitting position or wrong adjustments of furniture and computer screens can cause physical complaints. Very important for the contact centre is that the agents are professional speakers: the better part of their job consists of communicating verbally with clients. The voice is often overlooked when dealing with work related risk factors and dysphonia (poor or wrong vocalisation). Research has shown that contact centre agents often complain about a dry throat and coughing, about air that’s too warm or too dry or about too much environmental noise.

Speaking requires straining
Speaking asks for muscle activity and is thus related to notions like energy, ability, power and duration. The fact that the pressure on the voice and stress level of the voice need to be in balance, sounds obvious. In accordance with European legislation, the employer is obliged to take prevention actions and he needs to do his best to judge, avoid and suppress employees’ health and safety risks.

There are different situations in the contact centre that can cause voice problems with agents and this can lead to absenteeism and permanent damage.

Laryngological phenomena

  • closing defect of the vocal folds (posterior, full length, oval glottis constellation)
  • “bowing” of the vocal folds
  • more or less explicit irritated condition of the mucosa (hyperaemia)
  • depending on the phase: discreet or explicit morphological defects, in particular oedema, vocal cord lumps, polyp, chronic laryngitis

Risk factors
The most important risk factors for the voice are work climate, environmental noise, speech duration, headsets and work pressure.

Air quality Voice problems can be caused by for instance a bad air quality resulting from dysfunctional air treatment systems (air currents or draught; too cold, too warm, to dry or polluted air)

Warmth and aridity Especially the multitude of electronic devices that are used in the call centre produce an enormous warmth production. Another thing that is often overrated, is the air quality; workstations are often placed too close to the printers or Xerox machines or there are no separate and sealable smokers’ rooms.

Noise When in an noisy environment, for instance because of bad soundproofing, a lot of agents turn the volume of their headset up or they will start talking louder. This creates a vicious circle, called the Lombard-effect, where one starts talking louder to make oneself heard and uses a higher-pitched voice as a result of straining. Bad headsets can also be the cause of this.

The situations listed above can lead to various complaints (see symptoms).

Symptoms to pay attention to

  • (varying) hoarseness that’s often already present for a long time
  • increasingly tired voice because of speaking
  • a need to clear one’s throat, a need to cough
  • “frog in the throat”-feeling, feeling of dryness
  • pain in the mouth, cervix and throat
  • loss of delight of speaking
  • losing one’s voice (phonic collapse), breaking of the voice

Solutions and tips
They are different ways to prevent voice problems.
Work environment A good work environment where attention is paid to the noise level and the climate (temperature and humidity level) is the best way to start. Make sure that the climate control systems are maintained and cleaned regularly and pay attention to the placement of devices as well as to air currents.

Devices The communicational devices of the agent need to be in working order: the microphone of the headset needs to function well and the wearing comfort needs to be good. The headset needs to deliver a good sound. Wearing comfort and sound quality (volume, suppressed noise) need to be adjustable.

Consciousness-raising Alerting agents about the risks of straining is very important. The use of the voice and recognizing problems as well as executing solutions belong to training, but also to coaching, monitoring and assessment. When organising trainings, point out the noise pollution and create rules of conduct. Improve coping styles by regularly paying attention, in group, to situations that cause stress: discuss the sources of stress, such as conflicts between client and agent, or a high work pressure. Promote quit smoking programs and support those agents wanting to attend such programs.

Organise work differently In the organisation of the contact centre one can – in general or only in those situations where needed –work with extra short breaks. One can also choose for task circulation where voice-related work can be alternated by administrative work. Consider offering sports facilities during the breaks or at the end of the working day: stimulate employees to go outside during the breaks. Forbid taking breaks in the workplace.

Offer water A lot of speaking is done in the call centre as a result of which a lot of coffee is consumed. Install water machines in the workplace, they are better for the throat.

Solve problems immediately Taking actions on time can prevent a long-term loss of voice. The risk for vocal straining can be reduced with (precautionary or curative) the help of voice trainings, but also with frequent examinations and analysis’s, for instance by a speech therapist.

Erik Bouwer is partner of Essentials publishers in Rotterdam, Netherlands (www.essentials-media.nl). Erik is chief editor of Outsource Magazine and editor of Customer Contact Center Magazine.