In the shared environment in which service employees and customers interact, service employees are “boundary spanners” who have to meet the demands of the organisation and of their customers.

Given the substantial costs involved in human resources management, it is critical that service organisations understand how to help the employees better manage their roles.

Understanding the role’s stress factors — role ambiguity, role conflict and role overload — will improve managers’ understanding of their service employees and their work environment and, enable them to develop appropriate strategies for their staff.

Role ambiguity

Role ambiguity occurs when a service employee is uncertain about the duties he is expected to perform and lacks the information needed to effectively perform his role.

This information is about role expectations, responsibilities, authority, tasks, behaviours and the effective performance of a role.

When service employees who act as “boundary spanners” are given a number of tasks without clear directives, they may experience stress.

Service employees spend much of their time interacting with customers and addressing their often highly variable, complex and distinctive needs.

They have to meet the demands of the organisation — managers, policies and rules — and customers.

When dealing with the stress created by a lack of role clarity, service employees can feel drained and overwhelmed by their work. As a result, they may avoid work requests or withdraw, leading to absenteeism.

Role conflict

Role conflict results when a service employee feels that some job requirements are incompatible with his other job requirements.

Service employees must satisfy the needs and expectations of both their organisation and its customers, which makes their job prone to role conflict.

For example, a customer may ask for a cash refund to be given without a receipt when this is contrary to company policy, resulting in role conflict. This situation becomes worse when service employees are not given the authority needed to provide the required level of service.

Role conflict can also occur when customers place incompatible demands on service employees. This will exacerbate service employees’ stress levels as they try to fulfil their service role expectations.

A downward spiral in energy loss can occur when resources are perceived as inadequate to meet ongoing demands. Service employees who experience considerable role conflict are less likely to be motivated in their service delivery.

Role overload

A role overload occurs when service employees perceive the demands of their job to be overwhelming, given the available resources.

These demands and the lack of resources result in stress and emotional exhaustion. Role overload forces employees to stretch their attention, effort and resources thinly to meet overwhelming demands.

Service employees who experience role overload are less likely to find the support provided by co-workers and training a viable solution.

Reduce role stress

Managers must not wait for service employees to feel unmotivated or disengaged before taking corrective measures.

They need to find ways to help their service employees manage their stress caused by role ambiguity, role conflict and role overload. Motivated and recharged employees are likely to serve customers more effectively.

When service employees are unsure about how they should perform their service tasks, their confidence declines. It is crucial for service employees to know what they can or cannot do for their customers and when to direct issues to their management team when they are outside their role boundary.

Here are some suggestions for managers:

* Ensure role clarity for service employees. Jobs and roles should be designed and clearly communicated. Provide boundary-spanning service employees with clear and salient information that allows them to effectively deliver quality service.

* Create a positive work environment. You are responsible for promoting your service employees’ motivation by creating a work environment that increases their confidence to serve. Mitigate the adverse effects of role conflict and role overload as much as possible.

* Don’t reward good work with more work. Resist the temptation to assign capable service employees with heavier workload because doing so may negate the very advantages that makes them confident and productive.

* Watch out for tell-tale stress signals. Be alert for signs that employees are suffering from role overload. These include missing deadlines, being late for appointments or frequent absence.

* Establish regular communication. Clarifying the demands that service roles place on employees by different stakeholders (such as customers, other departments, supervisors and co-workers) is beneficial.

Talk about service task demands and procedures and help service employees to prioritise tasks. This will reduce their perceptions of overload and conflict and make them more confident of their ability to provide good quality service.