Author: Stanislava Zapryanova-King
Organizational psychologist with a focus on mental health and building organizational cultures for wellness in the workplace. Qualified Mindfulness MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT, (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) teacher; ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) practitioner
Chatbots are employees’ best friends
They are already everywhere.
Want to ask about available hotel rooms but want to bring a dog? You would write or even talk to a chatbot. Want to reserve a ticket for a show, but only at certain times? The chatbot shows you how. Want to change an order, delivery address, reconfirm a plane ticket? The chatbot guides you and then performs the action you approved. We are getting used to them.
Some are simply an enhanced version of the site’s FAQ feature; others provide more sophisticated information by filtering the most prioritized knowledge for you on a given question. And thirds are really smart, self-learning, using huge databases and live web searches to provide an answer to a user’s question – instantly. Siri (of Apple) and Alexa (of Amazon), the so-called virtual assistants with artificial intelligence, can hold conversations with users on various topics. You remember how Raj, from “The Big Bang Theory”, buying a new phone, started an interesting “relationship” with Siri. One of these AI chatbots, Alice (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity), inspired the creators of the movie Her (2013).
Chatbots are programs, most often called digital assistants, that use text, audio and other media to carry out the routine and also important communication with individual or groups of customers. They provide answers to frequently asked questions and help with routine requests, but also personalize them according to the specific needs of the user, multiplying productivity in companies and saving time for essential aspects of work.
However, this article is not about the day-to-day benefits we all have as consumers or as businesses from the variety of chatbots in the digital space. It is not about the direct relationship between a quickly served customer – a satisfied customer – a profitable business. This connection is clear and repeatedly described, and the market itself shows the growth that automation and digitized processes bring to every business.
Here we will talk about people whose work is supported by chatbots and how “machine colleagues” contribute to the creation of a more human working environment. About how chatbots – well trained – become employees’ best friends.
In addition to services such as banks, insurance, online stores, tourism, health and other services, chatbots are also being implemented in some mental health and wellness applications. It was found that as a result of the Covid pandemic in 2020, some people, especially those who live alone, used their personal assistants – chatbots, many times more than previous years, (2016-2018), even just for short conversations. So that they do not feel lonely! In some applications, chatbots are starting to replace the personal coach who would set daily challenges for the client to move and maintain an active life, in others the bot organizes the daily regime and nutrition, and in others it helps against depression and other common psychological problems.
Are chatbots impacting the psychological and emotional health of employees of a business?
The routine makes employees sick
The year is 2003. Just two years after the appearance of SmarterChild – the first chatbot to enter the lives of users on a large scale, used in AOL and MSN Messenger. There are still 7 years until Siri is created. A call center of one of the fastest growing mobile operators in Bulgaria. The team works in shifts, 24/7, with 30+ employees per shift taking all kinds of customer calls. Each of the operators is trained on how to conduct the calls, how to take notes, how to operate the several different programs with which the systems and personal phones of the customers communicate.
Despite the good pay, the flexible shifts, and the opportunities for development in the company, the work is by no means easy. Operators are required to take short breaks, but for this purpose there must be a sufficient number of other operators in the hall so that there is no overload of waiting calls. Breaks are planned and time is allocated to the second. Even this fact alone does not help young employees – usually students, to feel good in this work environment.
Some are overtired, others tense. Some take frequent sick leave. And the turnover is more than expected. As these employees joke around, when they work, they are “on the plantation” non-stop. As soldiers on guard.
Although they have heavy folders with structured answers to common customer questions, their voice on the phone sometimes doesn’t sound enthusiastic or neither shows personal attention to the caller: for them, the customer question and its answer has become a tedious routine, something they want to finish quickly in order to take a long-awaited 5-minute break. Some confided in me how they dream up their answers to the client, others could recite by heart all the possible answers to a simple question like “What are your current prepaid plans?”
I could see how people gradually became “robots”. Their goal was for their day to pass without much turmoil and conflict on the phone with angry customers, and to be able to return to the human world. Yes, some had a burnout, (before this became a widely used term). Some left the job saying, “I can’t stand the pressure“. The tension was not noticeable looking from aside. After all, they weren’t Emergency Room or air traffic control. But they somehow got lost in a sea of routine calls about how to set up my new phone, what my new account was, and my camera wouldn’t take pictures… Apart from these seemingly small and insignificant questions that ate up the employees’ time, they had to deal with other activities as well – answering emails, keeping track of their schedule, reading instructions from other departments directly affecting their work. Everyday life full of various factors interrupting their main function – to help customers in using the service.
It was the mental tension, the stress caused by the same type of work, by the pressure of time, by the dozens of tasks that must be done at the same time. Constant communication with customers on all kinds of topics, some having nothing to do with the operator’s work, repeating the same information 6 hours a day or night, changed these young people, some came to work in a prestigious company to grow with it.
The routine crushes the mood, the motivation for development, the desire to work and, in the long term, literally makes the employees sick. Do you recognize in your company the elements of the routine from the written story?
Every 3rd employee in large companies is affected at some point in their life by chronic stress and the diseases associated with it:
- depressive states,
- burnout with all the physical symptoms – insomnia, headaches, stomach complications, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems.
There are many reasons for such conditions. If we leave aside the most frequently mentioned relations with the employer and direct supervisor and the toxic culture – of negativity, conflicts and accusations, the perceived impossibility of development and full realization, the lack of balance between work and personal life come on the top.
A common denominator of 3 psychological factors is behind them all.
These factors are:
- the perception of time – do we have it, or it is not enough, how do we spend it, who or what steals it from us
- the sense of development, movement, purpose and meaning – when everything is the same and does not develop, stagnation occurs, and
- the perception of internal control over what is happening around us, (the so-called internal localization of control, the belief that “things depend on me” – I’ve got this) and that others help me, not hinder.
The control in corporations is perceived by employees as not theirs – they are dependent on other people’s decisions and are not free, and this is the so-called learned helplessness directly leading to negative stress, according to the father of this concept, Hans Selye (Stress without Distress, Hans Selye, 1974). The more monotonous activities and tasks people do, the more this subjective feeling is experienced as helplessness.
Today, at companies like the one above, almost every initial interaction with a customer is done through some kind of chatbot. Chatbots can handle up to 80% of routine communication and inquiries. In a minimal number of cases, the customer also needs to speak with a human operator. When this happens, the operator uses entirely different ways of thinking and his human skills of a higher nature.
What chatbots cannot help with are more complex actions and thinking that require making a number of important decisions. In this kind of communication, operators are more motivated to participate because they solve difficulties and see the direct connection between their skills and customer satisfaction.
For example, a 2017 study by Aspect on the use of chatbots for customer support found that in a team where employees work together with a chatbot that handles routine questions and front-line support:
– 79% of employees feel that handling more complex customer problems improves their professional skills,
– 72% of employees feel that they have a bigger impact in the company,
– For 64% of employees, using a chatbot allows them to provide a more personalized experience and customer service,
– 59% of employees feel more satisfied with their work and more loyal to the company.
Indeed, what is the secret to the success of AI chatbots in improving a number of mental, psychological, and subsequently physical characteristics of staff? Does the removing of the routine from their job through automation and digitization of frequently asked questions and routine requests really have such an effect?
Here is an incomplete list of the benefits of AI chatbots for the business team – from micro to corporate, as practice shows:
- Reduction of routine leads to more interesting work and higher motivation for development of team members, opens up time and mood for innovation;
- Less stress and distraction at work from unexpected calls, conversations, e-mails, messages, and others leads to greater focus on task performance, better employee performance, better and calmer relationships in the team and more high sense of usefulness. Work-life balance and quality of life also improve, because negative emotions and the chain of their consequences in everyday life are reduced;
- More time for more complex tasks (effect on the development of the business itself and the quality of service) and professional development for the same work time
- Contactless communication with customers with the chatbot increases the feeling of employees’ physical safety (from angry and aggressive customers to invisible viruses)
- Introverts, more insecure and new colleagues feel more comfortable, and thus also belonging to the team and having work satisfaction – the chatbot “steals” the routine communication, which is perceived as annoying and burdensome, and is at hand as a personal digital assistant to suggest responses to staff when they communicate with customers
- The possibility of better performance in the team leads to higher chances of promotion, respectively, motivation to develop, higher loyalty to the company and less turnover. And therefore, to greater cohesion in the team, a better atmosphere at the workplace, a better corporate culture.
And small businesses suffer from the same problems
If you think that everything said so far sounds very corporate and has no place in micro and small businesses, let’s look at another case – that of Ana**, owner of a family hotel business.
Anna’s hotel and restaurant are doing very well. The number of visitors is increasing, and with that, of course, comes more requests to the receptionist – Anna herself. In addition to the day-to-day administrative tasks, Anna has to answer the phone and make reservations on the phone, she also has to read emails that come in with new requests, and of course answer routine questions about what rooms are available or at what time you have to leave the room… And there are sometimes queues with people waiting to be accommodated or to request other services. Who to pay attention to first, what to finish first?
In our desire to do everything right, but also quickly, we try to do many things at the same time: read an email and talk on the phone, serve a person standing in front of us or sign the acceptance of a pile of supplies; to put an important deadline on the calendar and at the same time make an online payment and put new orders. This not only leads to exhaustion at the end of the working day. It is also accompanied by many emotions – confusion, lack of control and missing the important because of the many unimportant but urgent things, self-blame in some cases. Feeling like I’m not “up for this job after letting myself get bogged down like this”… In two words: a sense of chaos. Stress.
For small or medium business owners, this is already a setback. Not only will they fail to grow their business, but it will prove detrimental to their health and well-being.
New scientific studies of brain activity prove that the human brain can focus the energy of its attention only on performing one action, i.e. a person cannot distribute his attention on different topics, places, activities at the same time. The so-called “multitasking” is just a word, a concept for poorly performed work. For that matter, you can’t be a parent while you’re writing a financial report on your laptop, never mind that your child is drawing sitting next to you. Even if you succeed at times, you are neither 100% with your child nor 100% committed to your work. The likelihood of making a mistake doubles, (if not triples – using a phone while driving for example – a 400% increase in the likelihood of crashing while looking away from the road). Fatigue and the stress of not coping also increase, and these negative experiences turn into a vicious cycle.
The ability to properly allocate our attention and time when doing different activities – starting with the awareness of what we are doing at the given moment and how we use our minutes and hours – is in the basis of reducing stress, anxiety and even burnout. The saving use of brain energy through conscious directing of attention leads to:
- faster learning of new skills,
- the inclusion of the imagination – the most creative function of the mind,
- satisfaction with the activity and
- a sense of happiness in the workplace.
All this proves that it would be better for Anna to do her tasks one after the other, prioritizing them rather than doing them at the same time, and if possible, to delegate the tasks. How can she do it when she’s alone? How does she predict which customers will ask something meaningful that they need her for, and which ones will waste her time asking where the nearest pharmacy is when they can find it themselves on Google Maps?
One of the best and affordable solutions even for small and medium-sized businesses is to use an AI chatbot – the assistant that will help Anna save and organize her time better, reduce customer support costs and increase her sales – by not missing calls and responding instantly to inquiries.
If you need proof, it’s not far. See the case study for hotel complex “Izgreva”. In the first 10 months, the new chatbot of Izgreva – a small family hotel in the mountains, managed to process more than 700 requests for reservations and services, while at the same time more than 12,600 customers had interactions with the chatbot. Over 41% of these conversations happened outside of staff and the manager’s working hours, who personally answered the phone for every request before the chatbot was implemented.
The chatbot reduces stress and restores healthy sleep. And with it – the feeling of more control over the business, and the desire for its development. With the time and resources savings from the chatbot, Anna can focus on her strategic goals and hire another person to help her with everything else.
In an age where time is the most expensive asset both in business and in one’s personal life, and the attention we devote to various tasks – a convertible “currency”, AI chatbots that help and complete routine tasks and activities, give us time, calmness, clarity in priorities, confidence in what we do and as a result: they support our health.
Today, having already survived a global financial crisis, entering a new global recession, experiencing the serious economic and psychological domino effect of the COVID pandemic, and breathing air affected by climatic changes in our nature, we are beginning to consider new factors that will determine the future of organizations, including technologies.
The health of employees and the conscious concern of their managers for it are already at the heart of the global conversation about the future of the workplace.
The introduction of AI chatbots is one of these concrete improvements, the step that any employer – family or global business – could do: “invite” the good friend – the AI chatbot, to give a breath of fresh air to the workplace and save time to himself and to his people.
Stassie King has over 15 years of experience advising and consulting teams and their leaders from organizations undergoing change, cultural transformation, or global growth.
Stassie’s clients are diverse – leaders from the top management of pharma and IT corporations, through the community of expats and their families working in Great Britain and the EU, to the EU institutions or the owners of small and medium-sized businesses in England and Bulgaria.
Her portfolio includes the development of global, multicultural, or geographically dispersed teams, training, coaching and emotional support. She is an expert trainer for EC and EP.
Stassie holds two MAs in Clinical Psychology and in Psychological Research in Education, from Sofia University and the Free University of Brussels.
Since 2017, Stassie has been volunteering in emotional support groups with EU citizens in pre-Brexit Britain, as well as working with disadvantaged groups in some communities in England using stress and anxiety reduction techniques informed by trauma theory, mindfulness practices, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Since the beginning of the pandemic, Stassie has also volunteered with the most affected groups – the elderly, people who care for the chronically ill, and nurses, helping them cope with workload, burnout, and stress.
Consultant: Elitza Stoilova, CEO of Umni
** The name of the hotel owner has been changed