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Keeping call center voices healthy

October 10, 2013

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If you work in a call center, your job depends on your voice, and you are considered an occupational voice user.

Your voice is the only tool you have to convey your company’s message.

Whether your call center is in retail, finance, technical support, bill collecting, or you schedule appointments in health care, your voice is your only link with the customer.

In this environment, a healthy, pleasing voice is critical for building trust with customers.

Just as neat professional attire is essential for face-to-face interactions with clients, successful phone interactions depend on the clarity of the voice.

A hoarse voice from a call center agent (CCA) carries the same negative impression as a worn-out suit, and can detract from building credibility and trust with clients.

So a healthy voice is crucial, but because you are talking on the phone nearly 40 hours a week, you are at risk for damaging your voice and developing hoarseness. A 2002 study on voice problems among CCAs reported voice problems in 31 percent of CCAs, with several negative outcomes, including:

  • Increased sick days
  • Fewer calls per hour
  • More breaks away from the phone
  • Needing to repeat themselves
  • Needing to force the voice out

Overall, CCAs with voice problems were less enthusiastic about selling the product. Voice problems are bad for CCAs, and they are bad for business.

Voice experts now think of voice problems in CCAs as a form of repetitive motion injury, because the vocal cords are being injured by overuse, similar to the way data entry personnel may develop carpal tunnel syndrome.

When we talk, the vocal cords vibrate about 200 times a second for women and about half that for men. That can add up to more than a million cycles of vibration during a work day at a call center.

Multiply that by five days a week, and this kind of repetitive motion causes excessive impact on the tissues of the vocal cords and can lead to vocal injury.

Voice pacing

Taking frequent breaks from repetitive motion (in this case, vocal fold vibration) is a key to avoiding a voice injury. Voice scientists advise CCAs to think of voice pacing on three levels:

  • Breaks within phone calls
  • Breaks between phone calls during the work day
  • Breaks between work days

Breaks within phone calls

In a typical phone call, there are quick breath pauses between sentences, and longer pauses when we listen to the client speaking. Voice scientists tell us that even those very short breaks are important, since the vocal folds take a “micro break” from vibrating.

For CCAs, building in frequent “micro breaks” during  the phone call is essential. This means that phone scripts for CCAs should be written as dialogues rather than monologues, taking advantage of pauses for client response to give the CCAs a mini break.

In addition, any script that is frequently repeated word-for-word by the CCA should be pre-recorded if possible, again allowing a brief voice break during the call.

Breaks between phone calls

Between phone calls, CCAs also need to find time for longer breaks of being silent, and switching to a work task that doesn’t require talking.

A good rule of thumb is to take a five-minute break every hour away from phone use. And don’t forget your regular shift breaks, which are ideal times to rest your voice.

These longer breaks are even more important if you are not able to structure your phone calls to include “micro breaks.”

Breaks between work days

Finally, your time off between work days is crucial for getting longer rest breaks for your voice. CCAs may need to limit extra voice use outside of work (during the voice recovery period).

If your voice is tired after a day of work, you may risk injury if you yell at a sports event, talk loudly at a party, or sing at the church choir rehearsal -- all activities involving more vocal-fold vibration.

Vocal hygiene

Besides vocal pacing, CCAs must also practice good voice hygiene. These strategies help keep the throat moist and free from irritation, so the vocal cords are less likely to be injured:

  • Drink 64 ounces of water (or non-caffeinated liquid) during the day.
  • Keep water at your workstation.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which are drying to the throat.
  • Avoid excess coughing and throat clearing.
  • Don’t smoke! Smoking causes irritation and can lead to cancer.
  • Don’t work on the phone if you are hoarse due to a cold or upper respiratory infection.
  • Work with you doctor to manage any medical conditions that can cause throat irritation including acid reflux, postnasal drainage, allergies, asthma, and endocrine conditions.

Work environment

The call center work environment should support healthy voice habits for CCAs. Any environmental factor that causes you to raise your voice is detrimental, since the vocal folds vibrate together with even greater force when you use a louder voice.

Loud voice use can lead to injury more quickly. Monitor your vocal loudness, and turn down the volume on your voice whenever possible.

Tips to manage vocal loudness:

  • Headsets should not force you to be louder.
  • Background noise should be kept to a minimum.
  • Use cubicles or partitions for better acoustical protection from background noise.
  • Humidity should not be below 40 percent.
  • Temperature should be well controlled.
  • Chairs, desks, headsets, lighting, and keyboards should all promote good ergonomics to help you maintain good posture and avoid excess tension.

Get help early

Don’t wait until you have lost your voice to seek medical help.

Pay attention to subtle signs that your voice is getting tired -- dry throat, raw or tired feeling in the throat, increased mucus in the throat, feeling like talking takes more effort, feeling throat strain -- in addition to a raspy or hoarse voice.

If you notice voice fatigue or hoarseness, you should have a voice evaluation with a laryngologist (ENT doctor who specializes in voice) and voice-trained speech-language pathologist (SLP), who can provide a diagnosis and a plan to help you get your voice back.

Our voice specialists can help you achieve optimal management of medical, environmental and vocal use factors relative to your voice problem.

Often, resolution of the voice problem involves working with a trained voice therapist (SLP) to show you how to use your voice in the most relaxed, efficient, healthy manner to recover from injury and avoid injury in the future.

Learn more about voice disorder treatments at Duke

Voice care at Duke
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