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Surviving the winter

When the cold wind blows and leaves fall to the ground, the natural instinct is to hunker down and hibernate. But in a cruel irony, winter is often the busiest time of the year for contact centres. Sarah Putt attended a breakfast presentation on wellness to find out how to survive – and thrive – in bad weather. Ruth Turnbull is the contact centre manager for Mercury Energy and she understands only too well the impact that cold weather can have on her staff. That’s because when the temperature drops, customers turn up the heat and get a nasty surprise when their electricity bill also rises. So what do they do? They phone the contact centre to complain.“The energy sector had a shocking winter (in 2009). People do not realise that if you turn the heater on, your power bill will go up. So we got 10,000 more calls than the year before,” she says.Turnbull was speaking at a breakfast organised by the Contact Centre Institute of New Zealand. Her topic was ‘wellness’, which she says is just another term for absenteeism, and counting the costs associated of that is a major issue for many companies.  Turnbull has reduced absenteeism rates from 15-20% to 5-9% with a combination of measures that can best be described as ‘carrot and stick’. At Mercury Energy, in addition to the five statutory sick days, staff are allotted five ‘My Days’ – so-called mental health days, which they have to give a bit of notice before taking, but which aren’t part of their annual leave. However 10 days is the cut-off point. “After 10 days we start a formal process and start talking to people in a way that will offer opportunities to have a look at their health,” Turnbull says. “Over that period of time we’ve managed to reduce it (absenteeism) by awareness, because what I found was that often people don’t realise those odd Mondays they take off – with about 10 other people – really impact them, so that when they are genuinely sick, they’ve got no sick leave.”This year Turnbull has decided to be more proactive and tackle the issue of wellness upfront. Although Mercury Energy’s offices boast a gym and a tennis court, she knows in reality most of her staff don’t use them. In addition to which, many have fallen into bad eating habits “I sometimes think that my guys have shares in two-minute noodle companies because that is the staple diet,” she says.So Turnbull spoke to her personal trainer – the owner of neighbouring gym CO2 Greg Olver – and together with life coach Hayley Nicholls they designed a Wellness programme for the contact centre. Every agent will be introduced to the programme during a short 15-20 minute team meeting. They will be asked to buddy up with another agent. Each of them will be expected to come up with five health and fitness goals – it could be something as simple as taking the stairs and not the lift every morning, or something as involved as training for a half-marathon. “What is their mountain to climb – for some people it’s being more active with their children,” says Nicholls.Olver stresses that it’s easier to accomplish things when you break them into small steps, so agents will be encouraged to choose achievable health and fitness goals. For example, as exercise and healthy eating need go hand in hand, some may choose to cut down sugar and caffeine intake during the day.Olver says the key to the programme’s success will be the buddy system and they will use personal matching to pair up agents. “Just like a marriage, you are there for the other person and the other person is there for you. If you are selfish within the relationship, it’s not going to work,” he says.After six weeks, agents will report on their progress. This will be done in small weekly team meetings with up to 20 people present. Turnbull is hoping that the outcome will not only be good for individual agents but for the contact centre as well. She has her eye on avoiding that nine-percent monthly absenteeism rate which occurred towards the end of the winter last year. Which is why, in addition to the Wellbeing programme, she is encouraging staff to book a holiday before the winter so they are rested and ready to deal with the stress.“We have to say, ‘what can we do to be a bit more proactive in the contact centre’ because let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a gateway role. You get a percentage that really want to move in the company, most who want to do a fantastic job but it’s actually not their life. They work to live, they don’t live to work,” she says.