Mental Health

What’s the big deal about mental health anyway? What’s that got to do with complaints? Lots!

There’s no denying that not only are we facing the issues surrounding the virus and the huge impact on what we consider to be ‘normal’ life, but we’re now facing the prospect of an ongoing impact on mental health, not just individually, but at a societal level as well. According to the press stories we’ve seen this is something that experts are pressing for more research into.*

And this is a message we’ve seen across quite a few webinars between us of late. These webinars aren’t restricted to complaints handling either, they stretch across different industries. But, as time has gone on the emphasis of these various meetings has shifted to the huge elephant in the room – mental health.

Now you might question why two people that have a passion for complaints handling would want to look at mental health. Well, between you and I, we both have a passion for people and that means we’re also fascinated by what makes them tick and what tips them over the edge. Because mental health drives so much of what we do – how we behave, how we communicate, how we connect and what winds us up.

If, like us, you’ve been in complaints and customer service for ages, then you only have to look at the variety of complaints you’ve had come across your desk during your working life to realise how different we are. And you’ll know your ability to do the job and do it well, relies on your mental and emotional health being tip-top.

So, with this in mind we thought it would be interesting to look at how customer mental health and behaviour affects complaints and what’s going on now. Because, it’s been interesting to look at complaints and mental health, to notice that behaviour has been altered because of the context within which we’re working.

Survival anxiety

We’ve been hearing this phrase a lot, particularly in the first few weeks of lockdown and in various contexts, not just complaints. If you’ve not heard this phrase then let me just share with you what it means, because to understand the trends, means we need to understand the behaviour behind it.

We are all biological beings and we have a fight, flight, freeze response, which we engage when we feel threatened. The thing is we’re not being pursued across grassy savannahs by sabre-toothed tigers anymore. Instead, our survival depends on us being able to have food, a roof over our heads and provide for our families. When we can’t do that, because a Pandemic has come along and we don’t have a salary/we’ve been furloughed and need to make do with less etc, survival anxiety kicks in.

It reduces our focus to what’s important to help us feel secure and able to cope with things. It means people focus on what they need to feel OK, so focusing on them for now, and not on life’s irritations mean they’re a little more willing to accept not being able to contact you from 8am until 8pm, because in the scheme of things they have more important things to worry about.

However, if that person has very real concerns over money and comes to you for assistance, it means that they expect you to be able to help them, because you’re the expert and should be able to know what to do to support them. So, if you’re not able to provide that in the way they need and expect, then you’ll be facing a complaint there and then, because they feel their safety is being threatened by you, the business.

So, if you were a business that saw an initial dip in complaints it was likely due to survival anxiety and not because there had been a sudden epiphany about what’s important in life that meant complaints were a thing of the past. All the pandemic had initially done was really focus people on surviving and getting the absolute necessities sorted.

Things are changing

We know from speaking to businesses that things are starting to change though already. There’s a level of exasperation that people are still in lockdown and life hasn’t returned to normal, and dare we say it, there’s a low level anger starting to well up. Not just in complaints, but in the media where you can see the backlash is starting to occur, where people want answers.

This backlash is coming at a time when we’re all starting to feel a bit fatigued by things. We said in our podcast about training a couple of weeks ago, that we had Covid-19 fatigue. Not to diminish the seriousness of the situation, but we’ve both been limiting the exposure to the news and social media, because we couldn’t keep listening to it. And this seems to be rippling out across society, as people start to feel other fatigues too.

Now, with Sarah’s other hat on, as a trainee counsellor, she knows that people are starting to feel a bit of compassion fatigue. She has heard this said in a variety of contexts, and looking at what’s happening in the complaints world, there’s going to come a time when people aren’t able to accept the reduced accessibility to complaints and customer service teams.

Data we’ve seen from Resolver* (get on to their webinars if you can, they’re brilliant!) also seems to echo this feeling of running out of steam and patience with things, as they showed consistently that complaints about customer service and rude staff is on the up. Do we believe that staff have simply decided they can’t be bothered anymore? No, of course not. It’s a combination of customers starting to lose patience and staff having to work in difficult and different circumstances. They’re not connected to their team, they have no space to turn to a team member and let off a bit of steam about what you’ve just had to listen to, and so it can be utterly exhausting.

And behind exhaustion, comes a lack of patience, a lack of bandwidth to be able to listen to any more of this stuff and a general fraying of the edges. I know that when I worked in complaints that inability to feel someone else’s pain, is a total hinderance to being able to deal with a complaint and be able to resolve it for a customer. I had a couple of instances of this when I was having problems of my own, and so there was no space for someone else’s pain as well as my own.

So, as businesses what do you need to do to support your staff during this time?

  • Check in with your staff – not just to talk about business stuff, but to see how they’re doing. It’s not everyone that can thrive when working from home, and speaking from experience that first leap to working from home can be unnerving, especially if it’s thrust at you, rather than through choice.
  • Quality checking can be a real opportunity to view someone’s work through another lens. When I was a manager, it was very easy for me to become critical about someone else’s work, but when I took a step back and could see someone’s work standards starting to slip, it was time for a chat about what was going on.
  • Provide space for staff to talk openly if they are struggling to engage with their compassion, because chances are if one of them is, then others will be struggling as well. I remember talking about this to a friend on my team when I was still an adjudicator, and it was a relief to hear her echo my own fatigue with listening and needing to understand other people’s problems.

No doubt things will continue to change as the landscape continues to evolve, but mental health is too important to ignore and needs to remain upper most in people’s minds, because we know that even if this virus disappears, the very real health implications won’t.


If you’ve redeployed staff to cover your frontline at this time, use our downloads, full of tips to help them deal with interacting with customers. There are more coming so watch this space.

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