Episode 740: Burnout : Planet Money All types of companies are struggling with burnout. Many try to fix it. Most of them fail. One exception: A 26-year-old call center manager, with stress balls and costumes in her arsenal.
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Episode 740: Burnout

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Episode 740: Burnout

Episode 740: Burnout

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UNIDENTIFIED CUSTOMER SERVICE REP: This is SpotHero, how can I help you?


Working in a call center is a tough job.


It's true. We visited one in Chicago, the call center for this company called SpotHero. And it was basically just a bunch of people sitting in a row at a long table, sort of anonymous workspaces. And they were just taking call after call after call after call.

KING: Yeah. Phone up, phone down, phone up, phone down. And even just hearing their side of the calls, you can tell that a lot of people calling in are not happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let me ask you this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Is there some sort of obscene joke that goes on?

VANEK SMITH: SpotHero is a startup. It's this online company that rents out parking spaces. And people get very emotional about parking.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I went yesterday to the store. I parked my car, get the ticket, wait for the manager to get validated. I was late for my appointment. All I'm asking, I just want a refund of my $20.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What a comical thing this is, that this 60-year-old man is having to talk to you for now over a half an hour and doesn't have a sticker.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I really want to give you my number and have somebody to somebody to call me back. That's all I want. I'm the customer and that's it.

VANEK SMITH: I would have a nervous breakdown. I would cry all the time.

KING: (Laughter) Every once in a while, one of the calls is truly, memorably terrible. There's one at SpotHero that people still talk about today, it's like a legend.

VANEK SMITH: Megan Bubley took the call. It was from a guy who had reserved a parking spot, but when he got there someone else was parked in it. Megan gave her standard response, I am so sorry, we're a young company. We have some glitches, but I'm here to help.

MEGAN BUBLEY: That was not the right answer. I don't know what the right answer was, but it was not that.

VANEK SMITH: The customer started screaming.

BUBLEY: And then he called me a word that is not appropriate (laughter) for any podcast or TV show.

VANEK SMITH: (Unintelligible).

BUBLEY: The C-word.

VANEK SMITH: You still seem upset while you're telling the story.


VANEK SMITH: You still look like your hands are shaking a little bit.


KING: Megan says she kind of went into shock. She put the phone down, walked out of the office and started running down the sidewalk. She ran 13 blocks to Lake Michigan.

BUBLEY: I had to verbally, like, scream at the lake and just get it out. It's a great place to scream.

VANEK SMITH: When Megan got back, she went to talk to her manager, this woman named Leah Potkin. They went into a little conference room and Leah asked her what happened.

LEAH POTKIN: She started crying and just said it's so much. And I knew how she felt.

KING: Call centers have really high turnover, which makes sense. You're dealing with people who are anxious and angry and frustrated all day, every day. You don't get paid a lot of money. And at most companies, you're at the bottom of the totem pole. You're the person taking customer complaints.

POTKIN: There's so many times when you just want to throw your headset off and just say, I'm done. And that's when I realized I can't let my team feel this way.


KING: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Noel King.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Burnout - it is not just a problem for call centers. Hospitals, tech companies, schools - they're all struggling with burnout. And it is really hard to fix. Companies try and most of them fail. Today on the show, the 26-year-old call center manager who tried to beat burnout.


KING: The idea of burnout is not that old. The term wasn't even coined until the 1970s by a guy named Herbert Freudenberger. He was a psychologist in Manhattan. And he had a practice in a really ritzy area on the Upper East Side. His practice was doing well, it was thriving. But Herbert wasn't satisfied. He was a very serious, driven man. He was a Holocaust survivor. He fled Germany for the U.S. when he was still just a kid.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: His childhood kind of stopped at 7 or 8. So he really didn't learn how to play 'cause he then had to grow up pretty quickly and survive in a new country.

VANEK SMITH: That's Herbert's daughter, Lisa Freudenberger. Herbert died in 1999. We met with Lisa in Herbert's old office. She has her own psychology practice there now. In the States, Herbert was taken in by his aunt. She made him sleep in the attic, sitting upright in a chair. Herbert ran away and when he was a teenager, he lived on the streets for a while.

KING: Herbert grew up to become someone who was always pushing himself to help people and also to do more. In addition to his practice on the Upper East Side, he opened up a storefront clinic on the Bowery - which was New York's Skid Row - and he worked with drug addicts.

FREUDENBERGER: These young people were really struggling.

KING: Heroin, cocaine, acid - they were all becoming big problems back then. A lot of the kids he was working with were just fried.

FREUDENBERGER: He would see them literally holding cigarettes and watch the cigarettes burn out.

VANEK SMITH: Herbert would work from 8 in the morning until 7 at night on the Upper East Side. Then he'd go down to the Bowery and work until 2 a.m. with thousands of drug addicts in a filthy little free clinic.

FREUDENBERGER: He began to get more and more fatigued. And he began to get stressed and he was not that pleasant to live with. (Laughter) He was...

KING: What was that? Like, was he a yeller? Was he a...

FREUDENBERGER: ...He was a - yeah.

KING: Yeah.

FREUDENBERGER: He had - he didn't use his inside voice, shall we say? So...

VANEK SMITH: So his kids tried to stay out of his way. His wife would say, you look tired. And he'd say, what do you want me to do, abandon these people? When Lisa was about 5, her mom finally said, enough is enough, we are taking the family on vacation to California. They booked plane tickets, made hotel reservations. Herbert got home at 2 a.m. the day of the flight. And when it came time to wake up...

FREUDENBERGER: He couldn't move. He couldn't get out of bed.

KING: He was in bed for three days. He never took that vacation. And that was the moment he started to realize that something was really wrong. But he was a therapist, he thought maybe he could figure out what was going on with him. So he took a cue from Freud and he started self-analysis.

FREUDENBERGER: He would speak into a tape recorder for an hour or two. And then he'd take a little break and then analyzed himself as if he was his own doctor.


HERBERT FREUDENBERGER: I don't know how to have fun. I don't know how to be really joyful.

VANEK SMITH: This is Herbert Freudenberger in an interview he did with the Shoah Foundation.


FREUDENBERGER: I'm often very on the sad side. Play has not gotten me through. It's something that I've avoided. I've never known how to do it. That's been a hurtful. That's hurt me.

VANEK SMITH: Herbert realized what he was feeling wasn't just exhaustion. And it was not exactly depression. It was something else. It had to do with how hard he was working, how much he cared about his job, and the fact he didn't always feel like he was making a difference.

KING: He was diagnosing something new and he needed a word for it. So his mind went to those drug addicts that he worked with down on the Bowery, with their blank looks and their cigarettes burning out. He called his illness burnout, the same word that drug addicts use to describe themselves.

VANEK SMITH: He wrote a book about it, "Burnout: The High Cost Of High Achievement." And the concept totally took off. All of these stressed out social workers and doctors and housewives and lawyers were like, I have that. They felt like he was talking to them.

FREUDENBERGER: He was doing these radio shows around the country. He was doing TV shows. One day he asked me how to wear makeup. I was a little worried (laughter). I'm like, what do you need makeup for, Dad? (Laughter). He was like, well, I think the rings under my eye's a little dark. I'm like, so you need under-eye cover?

KING: Over TV?


KING: Herbert went on "Oprah," Phil Donahue. He met with President Jimmy Carter about burnout. He even came on NPR in 1981.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you forgetting appointments and deadlines? Are you increasingly irritable, depressed, fatigued? You may be suffering from burnout.

KING: NPR was going through, like, a psychedelic phase at that time (laughter).


FREUDENBERGER: Burnout really is a response to stress. It's a response to frustration. It's a response to a demand that an individual may make upon them self in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.

VANEK SMITH: Herbert became a burnout guru and his book was a hit. Burnout was officially a thing.

KING: But also not officially a thing, because burnout never made it into the DSM. That's the official listing of mental disorders from the American Psychiatric Association. And so 40 years later, companies are struggling with that. If I go to HR and say I'm burned out, there's no protocol. They'll treat it like an individual problem, like, oh, Noel's burned out. She should take a personal day, not like there's a problem with the workplace. And so people are left alone. They get depressed, they start missing work.

VANEK SMITH: But while Leah Potkin was talking to Megan Bubley about that terrible call she'd taken, Leah thought this is a workplace problem and I'm going to fix it.

KING: Yes, she did. Leah is like a mix of head cheerleader and class president. She radiates competence. She's always smiling.

VANEK SMITH: She's always taking spin classes.

KING: A lot of spin. And we should say Leah works her butt off. She will take calls on her days off.

POTKIN: I just remember an - wedding I was at a year and a half ago because I spent the better part of the wedding in the lobby on the phone with a customer who just couldn't remember where they parked. My date must have hated me.

KING: So the first thing she did was something actually a little obvious. She cut down the number of calls her people were taking.

POTKIN: It was not uncommon, seriously not uncommon to see someone doing over a hundred calls a day. I sat down with our CEO and let him know that if you're OK with people taking a hundred calls and feeling burnt out, you're going to have high attrition.

KING: Did you have to fight for that? Because I'm trying to imagine, like...

POTKIN: Yes, of course.

VANEK SMITH: Finally the CEO said, OK, you can have a few more employees. And that made a big difference. It took people's workloads down from 90, a hundred calls a day to more like 60 calls a day.

KING: But burnout is about more than workload. And research has proven this again and again and again. So Leah went into phase two of her beat burnout plan.

VANEK SMITH: Give people capes and call them heroes.

KING: That is not a metaphor.


VANEK SMITH: No, it's not.

POTKIN: When we did our very first hero day, we bought capes and had everyone wear capes. We really got into it.

KING: Capes.

VANEK SMITH: I know, where's our capes?

KING: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I want a cape. The call center workers at SpotHero are referred to as heroes. And in addition to hero appreciation day, Leah started organizing a whole bunch of social events - bowling, happy hours, pizza lunches, a talent show. Suddenly the people taking customer complaint calls were, like, the cool kids. They were doing all the fun stuff. They were the people having the best time.

KING: Leah also wanted a place where people could go after a hard call. So she took this corner of the office and she converted it into a de-stress area called the shake-it-off area, after Taylor Swift, of course.

POTKIN: It was stress balls. It was, of course, a picture of Taylor Swift. So walking over there was, you know, a signal to everyone else in the team, hey, I just got off a really hard call. I'm feeling it right now.

KING: So this sounds a little...


KING: ...Mumbo jumbo.

VANEK SMITH: A little cheesy, right? But it worked for employees like Megan Bubley, the woman who took that really terrible call.

BUBLEY: I think the biggest testament to why I want to be here, I have not had one day where I woke up and I was like, I can't go into the office today. I don't want to go into work today. Like, being able to wake up and not - and, like, not have those Sunday scaries (ph) that we always joke about, like, because all of my friends are at the office. Like, what am I going to do if I'm at home? It stinks.

VANEK SMITH: And once SpotHero moved to a new building, Leah got the CEO to take the shake-it-off area to the next level.

Can you tell me where are we right now?

POTKIN: So right now we're sitting in the SpotHero Zen Den.

VANEK SMITH: The Zen Den. Coloring books, little sand garden with a little scraper, big couch, sort of soothing colors everywhere.

KING: You got very into something called the Buddha board, which is just, like...

VANEK SMITH: The Buddha board was cool.

KING: ...Painting with water and then it vanishes.

VANEK SMITH: It's so...


VANEK SMITH: ...Get out of my Zen Den, Noel King.

KING: OK. But come on, we were both a little bit skeptical.

VANEK SMITH: But why the Zen Room, then? Like, why do you need the Zen Room? Why can't you just be like, OK, you're taking a hundred calls, we're going to have you take 70?

POTKIN: Well, where's the fun in that? Then maybe they won't be burnt out from how much work they have, but they'll be burnt out emotionally from just feeling kind of like empty and not really thinking their work matters, when the work they do is just so, so important.

KING: The work they do is just so, so important. And this seems to be the final key. Leah believes, like, actually believes that the people who work in the call center are making the world a better place. And she has somehow convinced everyone else at the company that this is the case.

VANEK SMITH: Executives, the app developers, the marketing team, everybody at SpotHero is, like, obsessed with their call center, truly. We talked to one employee, Margo Kahnrose, and we tried to see if we could get her to crack.

MARGO KAHNROSE: It's absolute reverence. I mean, we call them heroes and we feel like they are the heroes. The rest of us are trying to make a good product and help our company grow. The Customer Heroes are on the front lines making those, you know, those minute improvements to humanity all the time, all day, every day.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, you guys are an app that sells parking spaces. You're talking about a department that. Is pretty minor in the grand scheme of your app. And - which I see headshaking but I'm just going to keep going - and which a lot of companies take care of with a website, like frequently asked questions. And you're talking about humanity. That is really weird.

KAHNROSE: I mean, we think of them as, you know, the heroes of the company because they're, you know, heroes for individual humans (laughter) out there in the world.

VANEK SMITH: Really? But they just take customer complaints.

KAHNROSE: Do they, though?

KING: She was not going to break (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: No. No, she was not going to break. And maybe she shouldn't. Because here's the thing, this culture that Leah created at SpotHero has had a pretty powerful result.

KING: SpotHero's call center has zero turnover. Nobody is quitting. And it's been this way for years.

POTKIN: We just really haven't had anyone full time leave. That's, you know, the - I actually honestly hadn't thought about it too much - that that actual number was really next to zero.

VANEK SMITH: And other companies are taking a similar approach to burnout. The Mayo Clinic has done a series of studies on burnout, it's a big problem for doctors. And now Mayo sponsors dinners where doctors can vent and bond. And it started workplace training that helps people deal with stress.

KING: The important thing is that companies are naming it. This is burnout. That also turned out to be the key for Herbert Freudenberger, the burnout guru who was so fried he couldn't get out of bed, that and recognition and respect that he got for his work. His daughter Lisa says he still worked around the clock, but he was able to enjoy his life more. When Lisa was about 9, he actually went on a family vacation. They went to Lake Carmel in upstate New York. And there's her dad, who was never not in a suit and tie, wearing swimming trunks. And she realized he was like a different person.

FREUDENBERGER: He says, come, let me show you how I swim. Let me show you how I swim. He then got into the lake and he proceeded to do a dead man's float. And I'm like waiting to see any flapping of the arms or flapping of the legs or something. Stayed there, got up with the biggest grin and I could see, like, this little boy, this inner child in him just flourished and he was so proud. Because - did you see me swimming? I'm like, yes, Dad. Fabulous.

VANEK SMITH: Fabulous.


VANEK SMITH: We want to hear a story about how your workplace is changing. Could be a great boss like Leah, could be something else, maybe a terrible boss. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Twitter or Facebook. This episode was produced by Sally Helm. Thanks, Sally. Special thanks also to Dr. Richard Chaifetz and Jennifer Hudson at ComPsych Corporation, Christina Maslach at Berkeley, Nate Peace in Whitney Biltz at SpotHero, Shauna Geraghty (ph) and Josh Grossberg from the Shoah Foundation. If you're looking for another podcast to listen to, check out Ask Me Another. It has puzzles, word games, trivia. It is very fun. You can find Ask Me Another on the NPR One app or go to npr.org/podcasts.

KING: Also. People sometimes ask us how they can support PLANET MONEY. And actually, there is something you can do. Donate to your local NPR station. Tell them PLANET MONEY sent you. Helping them helps us. I'm Noel King.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.


VANEK SMITH: So Leah Potkin put on a talent show for the call center workers. And when we visited SpotHero, everyone was talking about the song that one of the women there, Laura O'Neill, had performed. We got her to sing it.

LAURA O'NEILL: (Singing) You can tell me I saw a hundred times. I'll listen and never put you on hold. And I'm not just saying this for the dollars and the dimes. But solving your issues, it never gets old, never gets old because you're a parker and I'm a hero. My love for you is ten garages tall. Oh, to be stuck in a garage with you. Just think of all the things we could do. I would sit up on your lap and show you how to use your app. 'Cause you're a parker, and I'm a hero. You give purpose to my life, it's true. You might think that I'm a weirdo, but that's all right. I love you.

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