One Small Company Finds A Solution To Employee Burnout

Dec 9, 2016
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Burnout - you know what this is. If not from personal experience, then you've heard tell from friends or family who are just so stressed and emotionally spent they can't get through a workday anymore. Some employers admit it's a real problem. But Noel King from our Planet Money team has the story of one small company that might have figured it out.

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LEAH POTKIN: This is Leah with SpotHero. How can I help you?

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Leah Potkin manages a call center in Chicago. It's long hours, repetitive work, young people in headsets hunched over long tables, plus...

POTKIN: You're talking for eight or nine hours straight.

KING: Leah works for SpotHero. It's an app that connects people looking for parking with open parking spots. Leah's, like, head cheerleader meets class president - organized, optimistic, always smiling. Still, calls like this can get to her.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let me ask you this - is there some sort of obscene joke that goes on? What - what a comical thing this is that this 60-year-old man is having to talk to you for now over half an hour and doesn't have his sticker.

KING: There is one call at SpotHero that's legendary. Megan Bubley fielded it. A guy reserved a parking spot, and someone else parked in it. Megan apologized, said she was there to help.

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

KING: The customer screamed, called her a really ugly name. Megan put down the phone and walked out, went running down to Lake Michigan to scream. Fixing burnout is not easy. All kinds of industries are fighting it. And in many cases, they're failing. Christina Maslach is a professor of psychology at Berkeley. She's been studying burnout for years. She says companies often look at it wrong.

CHRISTINA MASLACH: To somehow characterize it as it's something within the person. All the research is pointing to the fact it's something about the situation, the social relationships, the job.

KING: Leah Potkin has never met Christina Maslach, didn't know her research, but that was her intuition - it wasn't the people; it was the job. She went to the CEO and said, look, my workers are taking a hundred calls a day.

POTKIN: If you're OK with people taking a hundred calls and feeling burnt out, you're going to have high attrition. It was so important to get everyone's minds wrapped around spending more money to be able to really save in the long run.

KING: It was a fight, but eventually the CEO agreed. He let her hire two more people. Today, the workload is around half of what it was. Leah's second move may make you roll your eyes a little. SpotHero calls its call center workers heroes. Leah instituted hero-appreciation day.

POTKIN: We bought capes and had everyone wear capes. We really got into it.

KING: Then more morale-building - free pizza, happy hours, a talent show, a room to de-stress. Leah's agitating did something else - it convinced SpotHero that the call center workers are invaluable. They make or break the place. Their colleagues genuinely admire them. We talked to one employee, Margo Kahnrose.

MARGO KAHNROSE: The customer heroes are on the frontlines making those - you know, those minute improvements to humanity all the time, all day, every day.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: 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 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 think of them as, you know, the heroes of the company because they're heroes for individual humans out there in the world.

KING: Today, SpotHero's call center, a classic burnout job, has zero turnover. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.