Preventing Help Desk/Call Center Burnout: Ideas for Managers and Agents

Burnout, stress, and anxiety are at epidemic proportions, and it's a serious problem in IT, ITSM help desk, and call center functions across the US and worldwide.

Burnout "is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."

Help Desk/Call Center Burnout & Stress

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Although not technically a medical diagnosis, occupational burnout is something that anyone in a high-stress job needs to watch out for. IT, help desk, and call center managers face these challenges and need to be on the lookout for signs of burnout at work and take preventative action whenever possible.

Anxiety, depression, and other diagnosable mental health issues all contribute to burnout, and when staff are overworked, the main underlying catalysts are the workloads, workplace culture, processes, procedures, and targets.

Burnout symptoms can cause extensive problems in workplaces, including employee sickness, absence, more mistakes, presenteeism, increased staff turnover, and even serious mental and physical health issues.

IT or call center staff might need to go on long-term sickness leave. You could lose valuable members of staff, either to the competition or they might retire. All of this negatively impacts IT operations and those affected and their loved ones.

One report in 2022 shocked the IT sector, showing how bad the problem is, with "65% of IT help desk teams dealing with excessive stress, burnout."

Let's take a closer look at what this means, the cost to businesses and organizations, and how managers and IT staff can prevent burnout.

Why Are Help Desk and Call Center Jobs Stressful?

Burnout isn't a modern phenomenon. Being overworked and feeling undervalued, stressed about work, anxious, and without enough support in difficult roles (e.g., those that are mentally taxing and tiring) has been a part of the working world for generations.

However, in our digital, hyper-connected age, the speed at which professionals are expected to solve complex problems has accelerated. Between reaching key performance indicators (KPIs) and maintaining customer satisfaction scores (CSAT), doing good doesn't ever feel like it's good enough.

Even with numerous tools and software applications to help IT staff, too many feel overworked, constantly stressed, and approaching burnout.

Combine that with more modern challenges, such as the post-pandemic trend of working from home (WFH), leading to feeling isolated, as well as staff shortages because of the Great Resignation, and managers can understand why staff are mentally and physically drained.

According to the report mentioned above:

  • 94% of IT/ITSM and call center staff feel their job has been negatively impacted by staff shortages in the last 12 months
  • 94% equally feel completely overwhelmed by the volume of support tickets they're handling (including Live Chat and phone-based troubleshooting)
  • 67% reported difficulty maintaining expected and KPI-based service standards because of overwork, overwhelm, and sector-wide staff shortages

Another reason for IT burnout and high turnover is the average salaries offered. According to, only "47% of Help Desk Analysts in the United States think their salaries are enough for the cost of living in their area."

ICONIQ's future of work report also paints a bleak picture in the IT sector:

    • 83% of tech employees, including IT and ITSM staff, are dissatisfied with the job role
    • 78% leave because they're unhappy with career growth and professional development
    • 75% leave because they're feeling underpaid (compounding many of the issues staff are facing)

    ICONIQ Resignation Reasons of Tech Employees

    Image courtesy of ICONIQ

    Why is Burnout Expensive for Businesses?

    Burnout is expensive for organizations for a number of reasons.

    When staff are underperforming at work because they're mentally and physically drained, that puts a strain on other team members. Any team is only as strong as those who are struggling the most.

    If staff need to take time off sick (because of stress and burnout), that puts further strain on the team picking up the slack. Overworked staff make mistakes. How close is your organization to a serious outage or cyberattack because of human error?

    Mistakes and errors cost time and money. Many are avoidable when staff are functioning at their best. In most cases, human error occurs when people aren't able to perform as well as they and managers want.

    Burnout contributes to staff turnover too. When exhausted and overworked, team members can only take so much until they quit. And to compound things, they take IT knowledge and experience with them in many cases and sometimes switch over to the competition.

    According to LinkedIn, employee turnover in the IT, help desk, and cell center sectors is the highest compared to any other industry, currently at 13.2%. Although Xpert HR says this is actually 18.3%, employment data shows that turnover rose 50% year-on-year.

    IT staff turnover, with burnout responsible for the majority of the attrition the tech sector is experiencing, is higher than in any other industry.

    Another study noted in the LinkedIn article above says that "the cost of replacing an employee averages around 6 to 9 months of their salary. Apart from revenue lost, you must also factor in the time required to replace your developer" (IT team member).

    Based on average hourly rates for entry-level (e.g., Tier 1, sometimes Tier 2) ITSM staff noted in the Indeed article above, salaries are usually in the region of $39,600. Every time you lose an IT team member, they could cost as much as $29,700 to replace!

    There is no doubt about it; burnout costs businesses money.

    Signs and Symptoms of ITSM and Call Center Staff Burnout

    Psychology Today describes burnout as: "a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress."

    Signs and symptoms of burnout include the following:

    • Excess or constant stress
    • Fatigue, tiredness, trouble sleeping (insomnia)
    • Or sleeping too much and yet still being tired
    • Sadness, anger, being irritable
    • Making mistakes, being clumsy
    • Heart disease and even heart attacks
    • High blood pressure
    • Alcohol or substance misuse
    • Weakened immunity and being off sick more

    Burnout appears in numerous forms. It's unlikely that someone suffering from it will only exhibit one symptom. Most people will exhibit several, and these will impact them at work and at home.

    How Managers Can Prevent Burnout

    Managers can play a huge role in preventing burnout across IT help desks and call centers.

    Even if managers don't feel like they have the autonomy, C-suite support, or budget to make changes, these are things they can fight for by demonstrating the cost of failing to act.

    As we've outlined in this article, burnout is expensive. Productivity, employee, and customer satisfaction goes down. Turnover increases. Costs go up.

    IT leaders and managers can make positive changes to improve the working lives, workloads, and working environment of their teams.

    The LinkedIn article above also included advice from "Dr. Craig Beach, psychiatrist & workplace mental health Expert & CEO of Open Mind Health, what IT workplaces need is a roadmap that balances the 3 big workplace Ps: Purpose, Positivity, AND Productivity." Here's how IT leaders can implement this:

    • Lead from a place of empathy instead of legacy leadership styles. Motivate and create meaning in the workplace so that ITSM staff feel valued.
    • Promote authentic and engaged conversations on topics such as workloads, mental health, burnout, stress, anxiety, and even money.
    • Bring in specialists, train staff in roles such as becoming mental health first aiders (MHFAs), and get senior leadership support to overcome challenges contributing to burnout and high turnover.
    • Promote mental health services and support and reduce the stigma around getting help, especially among male staff (who are less likely to have a strong support network) and remote workers who are feeling more isolated from office-based employees.
    • Develop productivity benchmarks and a rewards system that empowers mental health and well-being while staying aligned with KPIs and other goals.

    Other positive actions that managers can take include:

    • Increasing salaries and benefits to attract new recruits and invest more in training to ensure they're better supported from day one.
    • Getting corporate subscriptions to mental health and well-being apps, such as Headspace and Calm.
    • Ensuring that IT is connected to any other corporate mental health, well-being, peer-to-peer, and even financial support schemes.
    • Adjusting targets and goals to align with what's possible instead of pushing staff so hard they burn out.
    • Increasing the amount of self-serve and self-help resources customers can access to reduce the number of support tickets.
    • Making sure IT staff have sufficient knowledge-base resources to serve customers more effectively.

    How Staff Can Manage Feelings of Burnout

    Any IT help desk or call center staff feeling burned out or exhibiting any of the mental health and physical symptoms outlined in this article can take action to minimize the impact. Your actions could benefit yourself and the whole team if it leads to a culture change.

    Here are a few ways you can try to reduce the impact of workplace burnout:

    • Discuss specific concerns and worries with your manager. Try to reach compromises and enact solutions that will make a positive difference to your workloads.
    • Talk to colleagues. Get support for yourself and support the team and one another, as that will also show management that more formal support programs could make a big difference.
    • Outside of work: numerous activities from yoga to running, mindfulness to a better night's sleep will also help to combat the effects of burnout.