Psychology in the Service Desk: Firefighting and Burn-out

by Martin Stewart, on 10-Jul-2020 15:00:00

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For most service desk agents, the average day is unpredictable. The phone can ring at any time, about any type of issue. It could be a minor issue. It could be a catastrophic system failure which is impacting business revenue by the minute (Gartner estimates the average cost of network downtime at $5,600 per minute). The stakes are high and analysts know it.

 

Being in a constant state of emergency preparation saps physical and mental energy. Firefighting is not like other kinds of work (e.g. creative work). Stress levels are elevated when under pressure.

 

Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline have evolved as an “alarm button”, helping you get through stressful situations by putting your body and mind on high alert. The pulse quickens. Blood flow increases. Carbohydrates are released into the bloodstream to prepare for “fight or flight”. Brain function is boosted to enable heightened perception and faster reaction speeds.

 

But this "ready" status comes at a price. In the long term, sustained release of stress hormones can disrupt sleep patterns, cause anxiety, depression, headaches, concentration issues, eating disorders, weight gain, and even heart disease.

 

Stress is a situation which is not physically or mentally sustainable. This is one of the main causes for high turnover of service desk staff. Analysts can develop physical and mental issues, more commonly known as “burn-out”.

 

In May 2019, the World Health Organization included burn-out as an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases:

 

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

Young depressed businessman sitting with smoking head

 

What causes people to burn out? 

There are intrinsic and extrinsic causes for burn-out to happen. Intrinsic motivations come from within the individual. Extrinsic motivations originate from outside the individual.

 

The most obvious extrinsic cause is the pressure of problems that need to be solved; the job of the service desk needs to be done. If it doesn’t get done, somebody is going to be in trouble. Somebody will be held accountable.

 

The intrinsic causes are more complex. Firefighting satisfies the human compulsion for activity (to be doing something) and for significance (to play a part in a bigger mission). These intrinsic motivators combine to satisfy an age-old narrative: to solve the problem is to be the “hero”.

 

Young confident super businessman in mask and cape

 

Here’s how it goes: The service desk hero encounters chaos and instead of falling apart, he or she rises to the challenge and battles to restore order. That’s an admirable thing. Heroism gets noticed. Solving somebody’s problem earns you social currency and status as a “fixer”. Having dealt with chaos many times before, the analyst is enabled by conditioning to handle stress in the short term and get on with the job. They can cope—for a while at least. Until they can’t anymore. They burn out.

 

The nature of firefighting 

Preventing burn-out on the service desk means breaking out of the cycle of firefighting. But to do so, you must understand the nature of firefighting and how it comes to be the status quo.

 

According to an old Chinese story, a nobleman asked his physician—one of a family of doctors—which one of his family was the most skilled in healing. The physician, who was known across the land as a great healer replied: “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and cures it before it takes form, so his name does not get out of the house. My elder brother cures sickness when it is small, so his name does not become known outside of the village. I prescribe potions and puncture veins, so my name is heard among the lords.”

 

The message is this: the more advanced the disease (and the more painful the symptoms), the more the solution is both extreme and heroic. The hero—whether that is a doctor or a service desk agent—is applauded for solving a great problem.

 

People enjoy the adulation they get from being the hero. They can become addicted to it; even though this addiction is slowly destroying them. Then they burn-out and leave the organization.

 

This has two serious consequences for the organization:

 

  • First, this reduces the organizational knowledge pool. The firefighting is still going on, but an experienced problem-solver has now left the organization. 
  • Second, it sends a negative message across the service desk. People think “If our biggest hero is gone, how are we going to cope without him/her? One of our top people! They say, And if he/she—of all people---couldn’t cope, how are we going to cope?” 

 

There is always a demoralizing effect when a hero burns out and walks away.

 

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But in most cases the whole situation is avoidable. Hindsight always tells us this.

 

It is common to hear “If we had only understood the problem and acted sooner this would never have happened!” The moral of the story is that it is better to see and avoid the chaos before it happens. It must be prevented at its source.

 

Avoiding all chaos is impossible; in the real world there are too many variables. In the world of IT this could mean an unexpected server failure, hard drive crash, a fire in the datacenter, or a new kind of cyberattack.

 

However, the majority of work the service desk does is predictable. The guys on the service desk will see the same issue, again and again. Often, they relate to known problems: “If we could only get this solved, once and for all…I could get back a couple of hours every week. It’s like a thorn in my side!”

 

At Axios, when we talk to prospective customers, we often find that they are suffering from a stack of these issues which dominate the service desk to-do list. They know what’s causing them, and often how to fix them, but there’s never enough time to do so. They even know how much time they are losing. But in each instance—every time the phone rings—it’s just faster to apply a crude workaround than solve the root cause.

 

For the people at the coal-face, they have to respond in the only way they can at the time. They are not empowered to solve the root cause because doing so requires coordinating with others—and that takes more time than they have. For the service desk, the clock is always ticking. They must scramble to do what they can before time runs out.

 

It is only when you zoom out that you see how much time is being wasted—and will continue to be wasted—as the root cause is still there. It’s frustrating. Every day, service desk heroes are handling avoidable situations (and suffering avoidable stress).

 

How to put out the fires and remove the conditions that cause burnout

At Axios Systems, when we engage with a new customer, we help them assess their firefighting situation. We work with them to understand where their service desk analysts are spending time, and how much. Then we look at how the avoidable problems can be solved—permanently—through ITSM automation, so that they are forever taken off the service desk’s plate.

 

For example, through the application of detect-and-correct automation, incidents caused by infrastructure error conditions can be spotted and resolved by monitoring bots—long before they cause a disruption to a service: the calls to the service desk never happen.

 

An AI-driven service desk chatbot can give people on the service desk back 30% of their time by looking after the high-volume, low-level issues and requests without human intervention.

 

In most service desks, service requests represent a large chunk of calls. We help our customers define their service portfolio and present it to the organization via a web service catalog. With a seamless connection between service request and service fulfilment, all human involvement is eliminated from the servicing of a request—returning a significant number of hours to the service desk and further reducing the pressure on service desk agents.

 

Likewise with password reset calls: through automation, end users are empowered to reset their own passwords, taking yet another category of high-volume call away from the service desk.

 

Of course, for each of our customers, the profile of calls coming into the service desk is different, so we work with them to take pragmatic steps in priority order to deliver the greatest benefits first. Typically, we find that by applying automation and self-service strategies to just a handful of different types of issue, customers can cut their inbound call volumes in half.

 

After that, the service desk has created the necessary slack to do three things which have a further transformative effect:

 

  • Apply an effective problem management process to seek out and solve more of the infrastructure problems that are the root cause of avoidable incidents.
  • Capture proper documentation as part of the incident management process to boost knowledge management within the IT organization, driving a step-change in support productivity and enabling enhanced self-service for end users.
  • Have more time to deal with the sort of “higher order” issues which demand human assistance—helping to ensure issues are solved quickly and decisively for customers and improving the IT customer experience.

 

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In this new environment, service desk analysts are still heroes—but with much of the unnecessary pressure taken off them, it’s sustainable.

 

Sustainability eliminates burn-out. Staff churn is reduced. The “brain drain” ends and the organization grows its knowledge base.

 

In turn, the service desk develops an increasing capacity to solve issues without people suffering burn-out. 

 

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Topics:Knowledge ManagementService CatalogService Deskit customer experienceWell-beingService PortfolioFirefightingPassword Reset

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