11 Tips For Reducing Service Desk Agent Stress

GFI IT Stress Survey, of 410 US and UK IT professionals, has shown a rise in IT admin/ service desk agent stress for the second year running.

It was identified that:

  •  “In the UK alone, there was an increase of more than 20% in the affirmative answer to the question ‘Is your job as an IT admin stressful?’
  • In the US, only a 1% increase was registered, but 2014 levels were already quite high and currently stand at 78%.” [Source: GFI]

The latter in particular is a great statistic to know, but sadly not a great statistic for those who work in a corporate IT organization.

So what should IT senior management be doing about employee stress and its cause? However before answering this, we need to quickly look at why they should be concerned about stress. In my opinion, management, IT or otherwise, should be focused on the fallout from stress: a high employee churn rate and the cost of training replacements, dwindling performance levels and then the lower performance levels of new replacement staff, or the adverse effect of “unhappy” or unmotivated staff on the customer experience.

Starting to dealing with service desk stress

service desk agent stress
Source: The Sysadman Diaries

For me, like dealing with an addiction or anti-social behavior (and no, I’m not admitting to anything), the first step is to recognize that there is (potentially) an issue. That IT service desks in particular can be a stressful work environment. The second is to look at the root cause, or causes, of the issue, i.e. to look beyond the symptoms themselves. It sounds a little like problem management and the 12 tips expand upon this thinking.

As to the root causes of stress, the GFI survey has kindly already done some of the initial legwork but don’t assume that the causes will be the same for your IT organization. It could quite easily be something else such as the physical work environment or interdepartmental inefficiencies and friction.

GFI survey results: the main sources of IT worker stress

Interestingly the usual “holy trinity” of generic IT-pain and stress – insufficient budget, not enough staff to do the work, and unrealistic timeframes for both IT support and projects – aren’t the main culprits here. Instead the top two causes are:

1. Management

2. End users


Source: GFI
Source: GFI

I assume that there was no choice related to the adequacy of IT processes or the technology used to support IT operations – two other commonly-quoted barriers to IT efficiency and effectiveness, and consequently to IT worker stress.

So people, not process or technology, are the main cause of IT worker stress

Again, there could have also been another option here, this time to flag co-workers as a cause of stress. Nonetheless the fact that management is the largest factor, followed by end-users is interesting. In some ways it’s surprising, but in others it’s not.

If you think about the aforementioned causes of stress – such as insufficient budget, not enough people, and unrealistic timeframes – these are most likely highly-influenced, if not directly influenced, by management, i.e. management decision making and the level of support are a big factor in successful service desk operations. And of course, end users drive volumes and the general workplace experience. As per my previous blog – Service Desk Improvement: 7 Tips For Managing Customer Expectations Better – end users might arrive at the service desk with a less-than-positive impression of IT. And who likes dealing with upset or angry customers?

So working on a service desk can be a tough job anyway – high volumes, which might lead to long days, and potentially less-than-friendly interactions – before we start to look at the root causes of stress.

Some other key findings from the GFI survey worth noting

The GFI survey also reported the following:

  •  In the US, the number of respondents experiencing stress-related illnesses increased slightly, to 27% from 25% in 2014
  • 38% of US IT staff regularly lose sleep due to work pressures; this goes down to 30 percent in the UK
  •  In the US, almost 50% of those surveyed said they work between 8 to 20 hours unpaid overtime per week. In the UK, the number rose from 25% in 2014 to 28% in 2015
  • In the UK, when asked if a career change was being considered, 68% of UK IT pros replied “yes” in 2014. In 2015 this number shot up to an incredible 89%. In the US the number went from 78% in 2014 to 81% in 2015
  • In the UK, 26% of respondents said that their work has strained or ended a relationship with a loved one or a close friend

This is enough bad news, so what can corporate IT organizations actually do about it?

11 tips for reducing service desk agent stress

There’s nothing new or innovative here – there doesn’t need to be. Instead these tips are logical and grounded in common sense. The important thing is to use them to do something tangible about service desk stress levels or the service desk working environment per se:

11 tips for reducing service desk agent stress from Freshservice

1. Recognize that stress could be an issue

Either for you as an individual or your service desk team. If you aren’t in a position (of power) to deal with this yourself, flag it to someone in IT who is (or your HR department).

2.  Find an internal owner for the issue

An owner who can ultimately bring about the required change. There’s no point in doing all of the necessary groundwork for positive change if whatever is planned fails in execution.

3.  Look to existing employee measurements for evidence of stress

This could be the regular corporate employee satisfaction survey, sick absence levels, or the service desk staff “churn” level. Compare the service desk statistics to the rest of IT and to the company as a whole. The last time I looked the average corporate employee-churn level was 7% but ask your HR department what it should be for your organization’s industry sector and for specific IT functions including the service desk (of course this figure will also ebb and flow with the economy).

4. Look for obvious, and less obvious, signs of stress with individual employees

While your service desk’s overall stress levels might be considered okay, some individuals might be suffering in silence. Ask your HR department to share, or advise on, the latest HR research on the signs of stress. This might include things like a drop in personal performance, increased sick absence, increased anger or emotional upset, or complaints about an individual from colleagues and customers (so also look to the text-based responses to low-scoring customer feedback responses).

5. Recognize that different people handle stress, or stressful situations, differently

Again employ HR experts to offer insight and maybe also to help create, manage, and review any assessment activities.

6. Conduct additional, anonymous service desk agent surveys

Try to get a true picture of the service desk working environment, stress levels, and possible causes. Also allow people to name themselves if they wish to be open and/or to get help.

7. Conduct formal exit interviews

The employees leaving your organization are a great source of free consultancy (with caveats around the reasons for leaving, e.g. if they were underperforming). So don’t let that free consultancy escape your organization unheard.

8. Don’t assume that all the issues are people-related

Service desk agent feedback might highlight that the service desk processes, or the IT service management (ITSM) tools that support them, are a cause of frustration, delay, rework, or the other reasons for people leaving work later than they should in an evening.

9. Don’t assume that you know the root cause or causes of employee issues

Before creating multiple choice options in a survey, speak to a number of “open” employees about what makes their job harder than it needs to be – you don’t even have to mention the word “stress,” just look for their ideas on opportunities to make their work life easier.

10. Act on the survey!

It seems a silly thing to state but I imagine that many employees think that internal surveys are often something that “seems to be the right thing to do” but rarely leads to real change. I know I’ve completed my fair share of these doomed surveys in the past and plus it’s difficult to get busy people to complete any form of survey these days.

11. Realize that this isn’t a one-time thing

Once you address the main key causes of stress, or discontent, no doubt others will rise, or be born, to take their place.

So, there you have it – My 11 tips for reducing service desk agent stress.

Wait, we are not done yet.  You have come this far. You deserve a bonus tip.

#Share the GFI survey as needed

The survey might not reflect your organization’s stress levels but it’s at least a good launchpad for a related conversation. If you subscribe to industry analyst firm content and advisory – firms such as Gartner, Forrester Research, etc. – download their “happy workers = happy customers”-related research to add to the cause. Reducing employee stress might not only benefit the affected employees.

Remember that I’m in no way an expert in the “matters of HR,” so please don’t take all my points to heart without consulting, or even better involving, your company’s HR professionals. And who’s to say whether your organization will eventually do anything about it, but it’s worth a try rather than suffering in silence. Especially if your best service desk agents are leaving, taking their skills and knowledge with them.

There you go – What would you add and what would you disagree with?