UPDATE: Since writing this post I’ve successfully pivoted from hospitality into a career in freelancing. My book Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss is an Amazon bestseller and the perfect guide for anyone who craves a more flexible work life. Learn more about my journey from barista to book deal in this podcast episode.

Mental health is a difficult subject in customer service. In fact it’s MORE than just difficult… it’s awkward as hell, but it shouldn’t be.

“Do we have any spare till roll downstairs in the office Boss?”

I turned to Deb, stared her straight in the eye and quietly whispered, “I haven’t got a fucking clue. I’ve got a million and one things on my to-do list today Deb and it’s NOT MY JOB to find the till roll now, is it?”

Her eyes widened and her weight slowly shifted onto her back foot as she stepped away. “Sorry, Fiona” she said.

I didn’t fly off the handle often, and Deb was one of my best workers when I was managing a big cafeteria in a well-known Scottish tourist attraction, so it’s no wonder she was taken aback when I escalated so quickly over a simple stationery related inquiry.

Over the years (13 years to be exact) I’ve held down a variety of jobs. A local bakery, late-night coffee shop, cafeteria, student lunch hotspot and sandwich deli to name a few. The tasks have often been different but the one thread so painfully piercing its way through every career move has been customer service.

The customer is always right. The phrase which gave Joe Public license to complain about everything and forced minimum wage workers to accept the inevitability of being emotionally trampled on 12 hours a day, 5 days a week.

From my first after-school job when I spent one day a week in my local cafe sweeping, mopping floors and scrubbing crusty coffee cups, I was told to be polite, courteous and to accommodate any customer requests with a smile.

When I moved to the capital city, the job of keeping customers happy became a trickier. I was bombarded with requests for very particular orders such as decaf, half-calf, extra hot, wet, frothy, dairy-free and fair-trade. These are just a few beverage related demands I encountered on an hourly basis.

The mind numbing concentration required to process these orders for umpteen hours a day was considerable. Human error always fell into the mix and meant some customers were served half-fat milk instead of full-fat. They may even have enjoyed an extra shot of caffeine on me, or a shot less if my sloppiness didn’t go in their favour.

customer service mental illness

Making chat with customers became like torture, especially when the red flags of my declining mental health began to pop up uninvited. Lying awake until 3am fantasizing about falling down the stairs and breaking a leg was the norm, as was a sudden death in the family; anything to avoid going back to the painstaking task of pretending to be happy in front from strangers.

Around the same time when till roll-gate was kicking off, I found myself unable to cope on a daily basis. I was religiously painting on a full face of designer make up, determined to appear the picture of success whilst my love for life was slowly fading into the abyss. I filled my diary up with hourly slots of management tasks e.g. order stock, check invoices, staff training, meeting with finance department, stock take. I was adding more and more skills into my repertoire and mastering none of them. Updating my CV for future employers seemed the only way to skim some minor benefits off the top of this stinking mess I’d created for myself.

The repetitive nature of the job was soul-sucking. The most difficult aspect was that the overall goal of my job (other than making money) was to keep the customer happy. I was finding this concept increasingly harder to digest as my hatred for everyone and everything became overwhelming.

Why was I such a failure? How come everyone else I knew could serve the public and not want to end their life after a day at work? I couldn’t understand. I’d worked for so long to secure a career and now the entire industry seemed off-limits to me as I despised every single milk-frothing moment of it. From the moment I swiped in, turned on the coffee machine and reset the tables to the moment I stocked up the drinks fridge and mopped that same patch of floor for the 10th time that week. Every. Single. Moment.

I looked into other jobs but I didn’t want to start again. I felt entitled to this career path that I’d forged for myself, and I wasn’t willing to hand it back. The result was a mental breakdown. There are no two ways about that. I fell apart. On the end, I felt I had to quit my job to focus on taking care of my mental health. I won’t go into that here, as I’ve written a lot about why I had to lose my career to save my mental health already. You might want to read this later to get a bit more background.

So what can you do to change it? Can you try and save your mental health before it all gets too much? I really believe you can.

Change industry if you can

I feel like anyone should have the right to do any job they’re qualified to do, regardless of their mental health. Unfortunately working in retail is a high-pressure, past-paced environment that requires employees to maintain good composure in stressful situations. Not everyone is qualified to do this to a standard that companies expect. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

On top of that, many companies are ill-equipped to deal with staff who have a mental illness which affects their ability to work. This might leave you with little support when you need it most. I’m not 100% sure what the best industry is for people with mental illness as I’m still experimenting myself, but my advice to you would be to try something new if you feel up to it. I currently divide my time between freelance writing, blogging and working part-time in a sandwich shop. It’s worth mentioning that retail and catering work is a varied industry, and so you might find one form of customer service that is slightly easier on your mental state than others.

If you’re a waitress and multi-tasking stresses you out, then maybe doing a more focused job – like checkout work – sounds more appealing to you. Maybe it’s your level of responsibility that’s making you uneasy. I spent years as a catering manager and I know I’m more comfortable in a server role, where I don’t have to worry about so many things. Check out my free mini worksheet below which will help you brainstorm some ideas for new industries you’d like to work in.

Move around

My current role has a few plus points that make is particularly good. It’s mostly takeaway food which I find easier as I only have to concentrate on one order at a time, as opposed to the panic-inducing practice of waiting 5 tables at once, taking orders, making drinks and running everything over with a smile.

I’ve found that larger organisations often have better systems in place for dealing with employees who have mental illnesses that need accommodating. With that said, some of the most sympathetic bosses I’ve had are people who own their own businesses. Sometimes having that face-to-face connection and a closer relationship with your employer will be the extra thing that helps your open up about your situation and get the assistance you need to work happily.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s quite possible for you to continue working in customer service if you’re given the proper environment to do it in. That means the right amount of hours, enough staff to make the job enjoyable and an honest discussion with your employer about what you’re comfortable doing. Don’t underestimate the power of simply trying somewhere new.

Find an outlet

This might sound a bit vague, but I can only explain it in the way that it’s helped me in my daily life. I have this blog and I work on it everyday. I write posts, create images, design the website, send out newsletters, do live broadcasts and manage all the social media outlets that go along with it.

I spend every spare moment I have working on building this concept that I have and it gives me a reason to get up in the morning. It even makes me get up earlier than I need to just to get stuff done. I even look forward to going to work with the public now as a welcome break from staring at a computer screen. It helps me get that human contact that is so often lacking from a job which is desk-based. Working on my blog on the other hand, fills the intellectual and creative void that working in the shop can’t provide.

My other outlet is exercising. I go to the gym between 3-5 times a week and I find it’s a great physical release for emotions that I can’t express verbally. It’s great for a digital detox (leave your phone in your locker) and gives me time to think through anything that’s on my mind. A good yoga session is phenomenal at releasing tension you never even knew you had.

That’s the two hobbies that really get me motivated, and I’m rarely not in the mood to do either of those things so I feel like I’ve always got somewhere to turn when I’m frustrated after another draining day of pointless conversations with customers. I’ve even complied this list of hobbies for depression so you should check it out for some inspiration.

Flipping burgers or stacking shelves might be your day job, but it doesn’t define you. If you enjoy doing that everyday then congratulations, you’ve cracked it. Rock on. But if like me you find yourself cursing customers under your breath, hiding in the store cupboard because you’re having a panic attack or crying on the bus home because you can’t do it any more then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your situation.

You don’t NEED to quit your job in retail to improve your mental health, but it is worth considering; could it make your life a hell of a lot easier?