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How Unmanaged Overload and Fatigue Reach The Peak of Burnout

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Skyler Place

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Dr. Skyler Place, Chief Behavioral Science Officer at Cogito, explored the dangers of prolonged mental stress (cognitive overload) and emotional stress (compassion fatigue).

With two-thirds of U.S. employees reporting that their work stress is higher than five years ago and 78% stating that work stress is negatively impacting their personal relationships, it’s clear that employers need to address stress as a growing epidemic. This systematic increase in stress may be impacting your company’s turnover rates, employee satisfaction, and general productivity. 

Both mental and emotional stress are serious threats to the workplace. If left unmanaged, these states can escalate to a more serious concern: burnout.

Burnout occurs as a result of long-term, work-related stress that hasn’t been properly managed. In many cases, this stress is sustained cognitive overload or compassion fatigue. 

You’ve likely heard burnout mentioned more frequently in recent months, as earlier this year (May 2019) in a big step for workplace mental health, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as an official mental health syndrome. According to the ICD-11 – the WHO’s official classification resource – burnout is characterized by low energy; increased distance, negativity, or cynicism of one’s job, and inability to perform at work. The term “burnout” is often used colloquially at the end of a long, busy workday, but the syndrome is a much more serious concern. 

Do you ever find that some of your best frontline employees become uncharacteristically negative and ineffective at work? In many circumstances, this was not a mis-hire or poor judge of character, but an employee reaching burnout. In some work situations, symptoms of burnout decrease when projects are completed or deadlines are met. In a call center, however, the day-to-day stressors can feel constant, which can result in feelings of hopelessness and defeat. 

Mental health is often viewed as separate from physical health, but there are physical repercussions from prolonged feelings of burnout. For example, the amygdala is a small area of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotions. Research has found that those in burnout experience growth in the amygdala, as well as poor connectivity to other brain areas. A healthy amygdala with positive connectivity is key to healthy emotional expression. Those suffering from burnout may have trouble controlling their emotions and expressing themselves to others. In some circumstances, these effects are long-lasting and lead to a lower threshold for future stressors.


What can I do to help? 


As a leader, it’s important to recognize the signs of employee burnout as early as possible. If you notice that one of your employees is acting out of character (they may seem particularly tired, negative, and socially withdrawn), then it may be worth checking in and asking about work stress. Employers can help prevent these issues in three key ways:

  • Allow for autonomy. Research shows that not having control in the workplace is a strong factor in developing burnout. It’s important for managers to give their employee’s clarity by reviewing their tasks and expectations. It’s also key to provide new and exciting challenges so employees are encouraged to grow. Cogito allows agents to track their own performance, for example. Empowering them to make changes on their own.
  • Encourage a work-life balance. Employees need time to destress from work and maintain their personal lives. Employers can help by encouraging the use of PTO and discouraging evening and weekend work. It may also be helpful to provide a stress-reduction training so employees can identify ways to help them manage work-related stress.
  • Foster a supportive workplace. As we all know, the people you work with are instrumental to a positive work experience. If employees have strong ties with their coworkers, they have both a source of support and a distraction from stressors. It’s important to allow coworkers to bond and it may be useful to implement team-building activities, such as group lunches or after-work events. It’s also imperative to establish an open relationship between managers and direct reports so any serious workplace stress can be addressed early on.


Burnout is a serious issue, but developments in tech and artificial intelligence offer ways to help. Cogito’s aim is to provide a tool that understands the humanity of call center agents and assists them in making meaningful connections with customers. Cogito’s notifications guide behaviors such as speaking too quickly, talking over customers, and even detecting when customers are experiencing heightened emotions. Supervisors can track their agents’ metrics to identify dips in performance, helping them to detect possible signs of burnout.

When an agent uses Cogito, they can reduce cognitive overload and compassion fatigue, as well as boost key metrics, all of which result in improved customer experiences and employee performance, as well as a more positive outlook within the workplace. 

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