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When Too Much Becomes Too Much: The Impact of Cognitive Overload at Work

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Skyler Place

We’re facing an epidemic in the workplace. With work weeks reaching an average of 47 hours and employee stress levels up nearly 20% over the past few decades, according to a 2018 survey by The Korn Ferry Institute, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on employee behaviors associated with prolonged occupational stress.

In call centers specifically, front line customer service agents experience intense time restrictions, supervisor call monitoring, and intense pressure to meet performance thresholds. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to focus in such an environment, let alone maintain a consistent level of positivity with customers throughout the day. It’s no surprise that call center agents are becoming skeptical of their ability to provide quality service to customers (Little and Dean, 2006).

Unfortunately, the stress that agents face each day can gradually build up and lead to more serious, chronic concerns. In fact, long-term stress causes disruption in brain processes and physical anatomy. 

In this first part of a three-part “wellness in the workplace” series, we’ll look at the impact of cognitive overload. Future entries will focus on compassion fatigue and the effects of burnout on the brain. Throughout this series, we’ll discuss ways to promote wellness in the workplace.


What Is Cognitive Overload?


Occurring when a person is mentally overwhelmed, cognitive overload is the point at which one’s memory and decision-making abilities begin to decrease. 

Imagine being an agent, sitting inside your cubicle, in a noisy office on a Tuesday afternoon. You’ve been working at a call center for two months, you’ve completed your training and your desk is covered with notes on call tips, phone numbers, performance goals, and resources. You’ve started to feel more comfortable with the role, but each call still requires your complete focus and attention. You’re looking forward to relaxing during your 10-minute break in two hours. But then, a customer calls.

You take a deep breath and begin your scripted introduction. The customer immediately interrupts you and angrily rants about the reason for their call. You haven’t dealt with a customer issue like this before, but you know you wrote down the process on a note somewhere. As you take time to look around your desk and click through the windows on your computer, the customer tells you that you’re incompetent and threatens to end their business with your company. You stutter through an apology and can’t help but remember the staff meeting last week on the importance of post-call survey scores and first call resolution. Just as you finally find the right software, the customer hangs up the phone in frustration. You look nervously over to your supervisor, hoping they weren’t listening in on the call, and then you type up your call notes.

Under these circumstances, how ready would you be to connect with a new customer in the next 60 seconds? How easy would it be to remember to speak slowly or respond with empathy in the next call? 

This is an unfortunate experience, but it’s not uncommon for agents to speak with difficult customers like this on a daily basis. As you can see, a hectic call center environment makes it nearly impossible for an agent to retain information and problem-solve to their fullest potential.

We can look at the Information Processing Theory to understand how our brains react in a moment like this. Essentially, we take in sensory information and encode it in our memory through a multi-step process. We can then retrieve this info from our long-term memory as needed. However, if we’re exposed to too much information, then our brain doesn’t get a chance to encode and the information is lost. And if we don’t have time to recover, we’ll continue to lose information. It is at this stage that we reach cognitive overload.

Think of it like taking notes on a lecture. If you don’t take notes to look back on, you won’t recall all of the details. Similarly, when you’re mentally overwhelmed, you don’t fully process what’s happening around you. Therefore, you aren’t able to recall key pieces of information to make good decisions. 

But cognitive overload doesn’t just impact the way we think or process information – there are also physiological reactions that can happen. Because it’s a form of stress, people experience sweating, increased heart rate, headaches, an upset stomach, etc. One interesting reaction is pupil dilation. This is so reliable that psychologists often use pupil dilation to measure cognitive load in research studies. When a subject becomes cognitively engaged, the pupils grow larger. If a subject hits a point where their information processing abilities begin to diminish (cognitive overload), their pupils shrink (Van Gerven, Paas, et. al 2004).

As you can imagine, cognitive overload heavily affects an agent’s quality of work and, consequently, how your customers perceive your brand. 


My Employees Are at Risk for Cognitive Overload! What Can I Do to Help?


The best way to help is to encourage stress reduction and minimize overwhelming job tasks. As a supervisor or executive, it’s important to encourage a work-life balance in your employees. In order to perform to their fullest potential, even your most resilient agents will need ways to unwind from work stressors. Potential workplace improvements may include reasonable breaks, regular hours, sufficient PTO, and making sure supervisors are available as a source of support. If you notice that one of your employees is overwhelmed, make a point to ask them about their workload and how they’re managing stress. It’s important to offer quality benefits and a positive workplace culture, but what if there was also a way to make every call a little bit easier?

Here at Cogito, we help reduce cognitive overload by allowing agents to focus on what’s important – relating to the customer and solving problems. We offer real-time, actionable feedback to help coach agents through the most difficult parts of their days. Our intuitive and discreet notifications provide in the moment guidance throughout the call, so agents don’t have to constantly monitor their own performance and speaking habits. As a result, agents don’t face the negative consequences of cognitive overload and see positive improvements across their key performance metrics. 

Cognitive overload is just one type of stress that a call center agent may experience. In Part 2 of Wellness In The Workplace, we’ll discuss how emotional stress manifests as compassion fatigue, and what you can do to help. 

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