#WorldMentalHealthDay 1 : How working in customer service ruined my mental health and how I fixed it

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 canteen in Lagos sweeping, mopping floors and scrubbing crusty coffee cups, attending to customers 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, anything to avoid going back to the painstaking task of pretending to be happy in front from strangers.

Somehow 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 even though I was a secondary school graduate? 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 because my boss decided to go into entertainment industry and still keep the local canteen, yet 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.

Check the next post to see what I did and how I managed it.

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