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.
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.
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?
Yes! Yes! Yes! I can relate to this sooooo much, Fiona! It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who felt like this. I’ve been in customer service for far too long and my tipping point came earlier this year when I had a major depressive episode and ending up quitting my job. I think I’m finally ready to go back to work but the thought of working with customers again terrifies me. I worry it will trigger another episode. Problem is, I am highly skilled in customer service and not much else…waiting patiently for the ‘perfect’ job.
Thanks for another wonderful post x
Omg Sarah I could talk to you for hours about this. If you’re looking for a new job try and find somewhere that’s quiet, it will make your life easier. You might also want to consider finding somewhere that you’ve worked before, maybe with a boss that you’re comfortable talking to about your mental health. Also, working part-time of possible is a great way to start back. I should actually write an accomplishment post about going back to work after sickness because it’s a really big deal! Thanks for reading and I’m glad it resonated with you ❤️
Sorry, I can’t relate. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for all my life (at least 45years of it), and have never done well dealing with people. But, I found a place to work that made it so easy to do well. I am a cashier/guest service at Target. I love my job and what I do. I think about all those years wasted worrying about the anxiety and cringe. It is just a matter of finding a job that you can feel comfortable in, not easy, to be sure. But then you can settle in. When I had fist started out, I never would have thought I would love a customer service job. Given time and patience it has worked out. But, you have to be willing to fight through. You CAN do it!
That’s great, I love your message! I wish I was more suited to it but like you say, you’ve got to find what’s right for you. I find writing at home is the perfect job for me x
This is fabulously written, I can relate to you so much. Even with only 3 months retail experience it was exhausting and amazing at the same time but my mental health suffered for it.
Thanks for sharing this, it’s really brilliant!
This a really insightful read and very relatable. I tried to change but previous skills meant I fell back in to a service management role.
It surely needs more awareness and a support process for people in certain roles!
Retail is killing me. It’s even draining away my love for medicine (student too), as I no longer see these people as worth saving. Just a mass of hate and anger and bitterness. I have to find a new job before this one kills me. I came close to jumping from one of the taller buildings at the school. I don’t know what to do, I have a family to support. I can’t just quit. Most other employers that will take me without any degrees yet don’t pay what I make and I can’t take a cut. I am barely scraping by now. I spend my solitude petrified in my depressive state. I haven’t a clue what to do.
Hi cat you really need to see a doctor ASAP xx
Same. I’m stuck in a dead end call center job living paycheck to paycheck and I can’t afford to quit. I don’t have money for a therapist and I don’t have health insurance because the company is small enough that they don’t have to offer benefits. People constantly take their anger out on me and it poisons my heart and mind a little more every day. I’m a human but they don’t seem to understand that just because to them I’m just a voice. I can’t defend myself even a little bit because that’s being rude to a customer and the customer is always right. Just absorb the insults and prostrate myself until they calm down and we can get on with the call. I can’t believe this is my life. This can’t be my life.
Hello T and Cat,
I am so sorry to hear about the struggles you two are dealing with. I came across this blog because I have repeatedly worked in and dealt with the monstrosities of the retail environment. I used to fantasize about any other job than the one I was in as well, but I also could not find a different job to accomodate my hours for school. I too felt like an emotional punching bag for people who did not care about the feelings of others and everyday going in to work felt like I had to put on my game face to take the abuse. I feel like there are people who are better suited for the “retail hell” profession, as I worked with my good friend and she did not seem to take the insults and depression of the job as seriously as I did. I could not wait to graduate and get out of there (Dollar Tree). My first job I had gotten was actually even worse for me (it was behavioral therapy for kids with emotional disorders who could not be in a normal classroom. Now my bachelor’s degree is in speech therapy so I figured this may help me on my way to achieving my master’s degree but I was totally wrong. I did not have the personality to control these kids and I ended up getting fired because after being attacked several times by a kid and having to stand there getting kicked and punched until the kid stopped (true story) I was locked out the classroom while the kid sprayed all sorts of disinfectant and completely ruined the classroom we were teaching in. I ended up finding a job I was more comfortable with but I am still on my journey to discovering myself. I definitely feel much happier when I am writing, drawing, painting, creating, ect. I think this is the path that I should continue in. I strongly encourage you two to quit the jobs you are unhappy with and have faith that something better will come along. As one door closes, another opens. Good luck!
Thanks for this post. I can totally relate. I have social anxiety and depression. I have a lot of customer service experience so those are the roles I get hired for….but I spend all day feeling anxious and on edge and panic every time a customer comes in. I also love writing so I’d love to work on this more and spend less time with customers. I feel that my mental health would be a million times better.
It isn’t just retail, service of any kind can produce the same results. I’ve spent 10 years in the automotive industry, mostly as a technician. Those customers who complain all the time and want everything free, try working on their personal vehicle…I’m self employed now because of the stress.
Your writing has really resonated with me. I’m 28 years old and I work as a salesperson at a high end jewelry store. I have a college degree in fine arts that I worked so hard for, and now I don’t use it at all. That thought alone kills me. Working in retail has filled me with so much hatred, anger, and sadness. I have never worked in a more degrading position in my life. Even restaurant work is better, in my opinion, because there’s less responsibility and expectation from management that you’ll treat your restaurant job as a career. No matter your level of education, if you work in retail, people will see you as a failure, and I feel like one. I’ve worked in this position for 3 years. In the past year I’ve started looking for other jobs, and I’ve applied to a handful but haven’t heard back. I work full time—and I’ve had difficulty motivating myself to keep applying, due to feeling utterly drained and despairing after a full week of work. I am trying to help myself, but I’m having trouble resisting the urge to just sink into despair at this point. I take medication for anxiety, but after reading your post I may make an appointment to address the possibility of depression. I feel stuck in a deep dark hole that I can’t get out of, now matter how hard I try. I wish people understood that working retail or customer service in 2018 is practically the equivalent of being a servant in the early 1900’s—many people truly see you as a lesser being, and it is unbearable degrading.
Its so hard. It sounds like you could really benefit from some sick leave. Maybe that would give you the rest you need to apply for new jobs?
Hello, I related to your post so much, Im working on customer service for more than a year, but also I practily run a company because my boss is very busy to run her company for herself. I saw myself in the part that you keep adding skills to your resume, it’s the only thing that confort me but every day im feeling less and less productive, sensitive to every complain and every customer that comes. I’m just exhausted and I don’t know what to do, but when I read post like yours, I feel not alone.
Thank you for sharing your history and helping in a certain way to people like me.
I felt exactly the same way working in retail. I wasn’t in retail for very long, and I worked in it part-time. It was when I did a 50 hour week that it really hit me. Of course, once you’ve done overtime in a job, they always want you to do overtime. My brain felt like it was turning to mush after having to deal with rude customers that actually tried to make me feel bad. Some customers were nice, but there were a lot that were very nasty towards me. That was when I worked in a supermarket. I worked as a sales rep in another store for a while, focusing on a topic I loved – cameras. I managed to do that for much longer, but even that took its toll. I had customers that didn’t believe I knew anything about cameras because I was a woman, who insisted on talking to a ‘young man’. I had a man come up to me and ask a question, only to interrupt my answer with, “You do actually know about cameras, right? You’re not just going to go blank when I ask questions about how to actually use the camera?” I was taken aback by this – I was wearing a uniform with this particular camera brand all over it! After 2 years the camera section in that shop got very quiet and I had nobody to talk to at all. All I did was switch off the alarms that set themselves off all day. That became very mind-numbing and I eventually quit to follow the career I was actually interested in. Retail has pros and cons, and it really does depend on each individual person and what they’re like, I think. Honestly, I think one of the worst things about it is getting customers that look down at you because you work in a shop. I personally think it’s awful that people are that up themselves that they’d judge somebody for having a retail job.
I know this is a late post, but I just wanted to say that this was so comforting to read. I am currently sitting here contemplating quitting my waitressing job, not because the money is bad, but because I do not think I can handle the emotional and psychological distress it take to fake a smile and take the belittling comments from my managers. I am actually writing my first college english final that I will be presenting in front of class on the negative effects customer service jobs have on mental health. Thank you so much for sharing and I will definitely be using this as a reference for my paper!
Just read this article and many others like it, i work in customer service, i work in a department close to the top of the company whereas if a customer or business has a problem and they have exhausted any resolution customer service can offer etc they come to me, i honestly can’t tell you how badly this has affected my mental health, customers upon customers, screaming, shouting, moaning, swearing at me, sometimes personal, sometimes not, but it all takes it toll, i can feel myself physically shaking before i start my day and all the way through it at the dread of speaking to people who dont even know me who seem to think its ok to talk to me how they please and i should just accept it with a smile, if i dare ask them not to speak to me like that, thats cause for another complaint, from them, i do nothing after work but think of the next day and how miserable my job is gonna make me feel, its tougher and tougher as the days go on, i absolutely hate it but can see no way out, responsibilities etc i used to be such a positive, up for anything, happy person, and my job has just sucked it out of me, anyone who is tempted to work in customer service, dont! thats my advice! as far as mental health goes they really should be regulated, monitored more, because they are killing people out there, they really are! i could message about this for hours but i’ll leave it at this, thanks for reading! 🙂
oh Darren! I feel as though you have just written my story.I am in a similar position re:highest point of escalation within my company and I am exhausted. I find myself shaking before speaking to customer.I have been called very bad name you can think of and had customer threaten my family. I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression and I am looking for work however with COVID, its rejection after rejection. I have made the decision to go part time but I am building up the courage to ask. I hope you find a way out.Sending you light .x
Thank you for really sharing how you felt about working in retail. I feel like it’s something that is just glossed over. I actually started crying at one point while reading this post. I hope I can succeed at leaving this industry, because the thought of remaining makes me miserable. For now, it’s simply a comfort to know that I’m not alone.
Reading this post made me feel less alone.
I work in support for a big tech company and everyone seems so happy all the time even though they work us to the bone. And underpay us.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in a ‘you should be grateful’ themed cult.
Every time I try to get out, I get sucked under with the thought I won’t find a better job. Like I studied poetry and you can’t eat poems 🙄
Reading this made me feel a bit better about where I’m at…
I too have these same feelings. Having to put on a happy tone of voice over the phone when I feel desperately unhappy some days does no favors for my mental health. I do run a business on the side, well I did, but the pandemic shut that down. I since started something else, and this is my outlet and my investment into myself and my family for a future where I don’t need to pretend to be ok when I’m not. Customer service roles are awful for mental health.
I feel this. SO. MUCH. You really start to question whether we as a species are qualified to run the world because there are so many stupid people with their stupid fucking questions that you have to answer for the billionth time with a freakin’ smile on your face. It makes me long for The Purge so I have the ability to clap back with my actual thoughts/feelings with no repercussions. I feel like that would go a long way towards my mental health letting me actually call someone out if they’re being rude or absolutely dumb.
I am also a customer service agent and always face these types of problems. Earlier I also felt bad but presently I am habituated with this. Your article will be helpful for new comer in this profession. Thanks for sharing these information.
Thank you for this post. I have worked retail my entire life, now 50, i work as a gas station cashier at a high end casino. Lately, i am just feeling so angry and tired. Sick of rude customers who feel entitled. Sick of the casino employees thinking they don’t have to abide by our rules. I have been told multiple times im rude, and i am not liked. I don’t enjoy my job at all. I’m tired most of the time I am there. Emotionally drained from management not enforcing their own rules. I’ve looked into going back to school, but at my age, id be starting over at the bottom. Most companies, even with a degree want some type of experience. I don’t know what to do. All i know is i need to get a job NOT working face to face with people. Im just over it.