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Startled Birds

Have you noticed how the silence of four o’clock in the morning

instills in one the same kind of disquiet that inhabits the trees before the wind comes….

– From, The Land at the End of the World

On the heels of a May speaking engagement in Lisbon, I’ve been reading The Land at the End of the World, a book that evokes an almost desperate anxiousness. In it, the great Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes describes a stressed-out, shell-shocked soul caught up in Portugal’s colonial war in Angola back in the early 1970s.

And it occurred to me that maybe we’re all a little shell-shocked these days, in strange and unfamiliar ways. The general mood seems fraught. The sense of disquiet is palpable. I was struck by one particular image in The New York Times, reporting from Shanghai:

“Li Houchen, a blogger and podcaster, compared Shanghai residents to easily startled birds, on edge because they had exhausted their ability to cope with stress.”

A similar sense of unease seems to have seized us here in the United States, even during this year’s July 4th celebrations. Just consider this from The Washington Post:

In deadly assaults and harmless bursts of celebratory explosives, a divided nation demonstrated this holiday weekend just how anxious and jittery it has become, as the perennial flare of fireworks saluting American freedom reminded all too many people instead of the anger, violence, and social isolation of the past few years…. the edginess in the crowds was palpable in one city after another.

According to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum and a former official with the Boston Police Department, “we’re in uncharted territory in terms of anxiety.”

That sounds about right. From the stubborn persistence of Covid in its many forms… to headlines featuring a spreading monkeypox contagion… an avian influenza that’s devastating wild bird populations globally… extreme heat melting pavement from the UK to Pakistan… the war in Ukraine… tensions in the Taiwan Strait... and gun violence in the United States (a situation now spawning armed kindergarten teachers)… we’re all a bit shell-shocked, like a global flock of startled birds.

Waiting on the Line…

As I’ve surmised before, things are going too fast for our frazzled nerves to process. While I’ve focused that theme on the markets and tech specifically, it also holds true for society at-large. And it has wide implications, including within the customer experience (CX) realm.

Just think how quickly inflation waylaid consumers this summer, especially at the gas pump. Or what about breakdowns across the airline industry? Many stressed and anxious customers are seeking quality support for issues related to countless products and services; all too often, however, today’s support systems seem unable to respond effectively.

One of the most dramatic examples of broken systems hit me when Sean Goforth posted a piece on LinkedIN discussing issues related to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from The Wall Street Journal. Callers to the line aren’t customers, they’re human beings; this isn’t about consumerism, it’s about desperate people seeking help. And just as too often happens in the world of industry, it seems that the network of 200 NSPL call centers across the U.S. are overstretched.

You see, while anxiety and suffering associated with the pandemic has worsened many people’s mental health and annual NSPL call volumes increased by 92% from 2016 to 2021, “Some 1.5 million of 9.2 million calls between 2016 and 2021 were abandoned by callers or disconnected before a counselor could respond, according to data provided by Vibrant and analyzed by the Journal. In 11 states, a majority of calls were routed to one of 13 national backup centers from local centers too overtaxed to answer.”

It might seem like an extreme example, but too many anxious individuals aren’t receiving the kind of support they need in today’s frenetic and troubled world.

“Extreme Humanism”

We should think too about our collective state of frayed nerves in the context of the future of work. The above example is instructive; the contact center industry has always been a demanding environment, but the issue has gained new prominence these past couple of years as Covid continues to confound expectations. So too is the workplace writ large undergoing fundamental disruption.

On May 3, 2022, Poly released results from its “Hybrid Performance Review,” a survey of 5,000 U.S. employees and employers seeking to reveal how workspaces, technology, and personality traits impact performance, and how employers are responding.

While 65% of employers are pushing for a return to the office, 63% of employees are resisting such a return. It seems a majority of employees (72%) are urging employers to do more to create a uniform experience between those in the office and those working remotely. “While workers surveyed cite factors such as heavy workloads (30%) and personal pressures (30%) as ‘stress triggers,’ several factors that are more easily solved through technology also cause frustrations like out-of-date or clunky video conferencing technology (17%) and faulty headsets/poor audio (16%).”

And it turns out worker personality traits matter too. Employees who consider themselves to be introverted are almost twice as likely (48% vs. 25%) to claim hybrid or remote work is better suited to them compared to working in the office full-time. And a greater number of introverted workers feel their productivity has increased since the pandemic (64%) than extroverted workers (51%). This is attributed to a better work-life balance (38%) and remote work increasing their confidence (35%).

Nonetheless, both introverted and extroverted employees favor hybrid or remote work over working full-time in an office. Even those who consider themselves to be more extroverted are more likely to say hybrid or remote work is better suited to them than working full-time in the office (41% vs. 30%).

Everything seems to have changed in ways we’re still processing. And management guru Tom Peters has been speaking out more and more of late on the importance of changing the nature of the workplace. As one of his recent tweets put it, “Never again: ‘best companies to work for.’ Hereinafter: ‘healthiest companies to work for.’ E.g.: foster radical employee growth; exceptional engagement with communities they interact with; offer products aiming to make the world a bit better; paragons of integrity.”

It's what Peters, in a recent manifesto of sorts, is calling, “extreme humanism.”

From the U.S. to China, stressed mental health and our response to it has become a global issue.

Toward the end of The Land at the End of the World, the frazzled narrator observes that, “The muscular energy of the day is pushing us, like owls, into the last folds of darkness, where we anxiously, restlessly shake our damp feathers, huddled together in search of a nonexistent safety.”

As for us, there’s nowhere to hide from the vicissitudes of life.

It will be up to organizations to chart new ways forward for employees and customers alike.

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