3 Tips for Reducing Burnout Among Frontline Employees

November 9, 2016

3 Tips for Reducing Burnout Among Frontline Employees

Although job burnout is an often-discussed issue among managers and HR professionals, a true definition of the phenomenon eludes even the most seasoned professionals. Perhaps this is due to the fact that burnout can be caused by numerous things: boredom, stress, exhaustion, etc. Regardless of the cause, burnout has an acute impact on companies, causing unhappy employees—and ultimately—turnover.

Frontline employees are distinctly prone to burnout. Considering customer service is the number one factor in consumer loyalty, it is clear that frontline employees can make or break a company. While the data shows the importance of building an engaged front-line workforce, there seems to be a disconnect between upper management and frontline staff. According to Mckinsey & Company, only 10 percent of frontline managers felt they received the right training to effectively lead their teams.

Having supportive, well-trained front line managers can help create a more effective front-line workforce, with not only less turnover but more engaged employees. Frontline employees must confront demanding and difficult customers with a smile, regardless of the given circumstances. Often, they receive complaints about an error that is out of their control or made by other employees. Although it is not their fault, employees, must learn to understand where the unhappy customer is coming from. Empathizing with customers all day can be emotionally taxing. To help reduce job-related stress and burnout, frontline employees and managers can implement the following tactics:


1. Build “deep acting” skills. Simply put, deep acting pertains to employees displaying friendly gestures and genuine emotions to positively influence the customers. By putting themselves in the customers’ shoes, employees remove their internal, unpleasant emotions from the situation and instead, offer solutions in order to please the customers. Embracing this skill creates a mutually beneficial relationship between the employee, the company and the customer. An angry customer is more likely to be satisfied with the outcome if the employee is apologetic and sincere, ultimately diminishing the stress embedded in the confrontation.


2. Implement “positive display rules.” How employees display their emotions and present themselves directly correlates to how customers will react. To encourage deep acting, companies must implement positive display rules such as smiling, being polite and being engaged in conversations. Display rules are the fundamental social pillars that can determine the reaction of a customer. For example, a negative display rule pushes employees to never show negative emotions such as anger or frustration. Negative display rules often make people cynical and can lead to “surface acting,” displaying false or unauthentic emotions, while positive display rules can encourage employees to use deep acting.


3. Empower frontline employees. To raise morale and instill a sense of community, frontline employees must feel they are a part of the bigger network. Research conducted at the Washington State University Carson College of Business suggests that frontline employees who are empowered at work are more likely to succeed in a stressful environment. Training employees and giving them the ability to make quick decisions to resolve customer problems has a positive correlation with deep acting. The research also suggests that employees empowered with more autonomy are less likely to experience job stress and more likely to treat customers more personally and feel proud of their job.


For companies to succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplace, reinforcing training with deep acting and positive display rules is helpful to guide frontline employees in the right direction. Providing frontline employees with these practices can help employees provide top-quality service to customers and avoid cynicism and eventual job burnout.

The Authors: 

Jenny Kim, Ph.D., is a professor and the Craig Schafer Fellow in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University. Her research interests include service quality, employees’ service orientation, job burnout/ job engagement, and emotional labor. She is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at international conferences. She is the co-editor of Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Education.