“There’s nothing I can do, sir. Please feel free to write in to our Customer Care Department and they will further address your concern.”
For anyone who has worked in customer service, these words likely sound pretty familiar. There is always the constant stress of catering to other people’s needs while also adhering to company policy in an attempt to make everyone happy. Unfortunately, it is impossible to satisfy everyone and it is easy for the stress of the job to consume you, especially if you’re getting yelled at all day.
I have worked in customer service since graduating from university in 2007, and while some days are enjoyable and the interaction with people is stimulating, there are other days when it is a real challenge. My roles have mainly been call-center based and there are very strict guidelines as to how to manage your time. On very busy days, you might desire a break after a difficult call to de-stress, but there is minimal time allotted before you need to assist the next person. It is a very intense ‘work, work, work’ environment. When I look back over the last seven years since I graduated I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it. The customer service industry was something I thought was a stepping stone towards higher opportunities but the advanced job market is incredibly competitive and it’s been a real challenge to apply my degree to anything else. There are a lot more people than jobs available, and the customer service industry is where many people end up. Call centers in particular are a great way of employing a massive amount of people at low wages. Everyone hired is told it is a great foot-in-the-door to the company and with good performance there will be higher opportunities within the company available . However, the reality is that some people who start as a call center employee may continue in this role for several years before any other major job opportunities present themselves.
Personally, I have suffered a lot of unnecessary mental stress from working in a call center for so long. I am not saying I do not enjoy helping people, far from it. During some calls I know I have really made a difference in someone’s day, and that feels amazing, but there are so many other times in customer service where my power to make decisions is limited and I need to ask a superior for permission. This is partly what separates customer service from other industries. In many professional positions, whether it be teaching or law, there is a sense of self-validation that permits you to work with autonomy and the ability to make proper decisions, which are self-rewarding and allow you to feel you are making a positive difference. When an individual has a limited say in what can be done, such as in customer service roles, it causes many people to question their own decision making abilities and feel inadequate as an independent employee. Customer service would be a lot less stressful if employees had more ability to say “yes” or “no” and feel confident that the company will support them and have faith that the right decision will be made. A sense of trust is a much stronger relationship between an employer and employee than one of a superior and an inferior.
There is also the de-humanizing feeling that you are only a number and are easily replaceable. My own obsessive thought over time has sometimes made me think, “Mark, they really don’t care about your stress, so work hard and don’t stop because someone else could easily replace you.”
In a previous blog entry I mentioned correlation between the fast-changing world and the increase of mental illness in the coming years, and I believe this will also be exacerbated by the continuing pressures of the customer service industry. Research has found that highly stressful customer service jobs are actually worse for a person’s mental health than struggling to find employment*. While a person is job hunting, at least they still have a sense of autonomy and are making life decisions for themselves, but once someone is working in customer service that feeling slowly fades. Customer service is not going away anytime soon, considering it is one of the most primary forms of employment and has great value to society. But as the job market get tougher, and there are more people who need jobs as well as people who require the services that the industry provides, the demands seem to be becoming more stressful and less manageable. It’s possible to keep up appearances at work, appearing to be happy and that everything is okay, but often the mental strain of customer service jobs go unnoticed and untreated. Everyone has a breaking point when it comes to handling stress, and with an industry that employs so many, it would make much more sense to have more done to help reduce these problems. I definitely do a lot for myself to help me cope with the stress internally but there are still some days at work where I am screaming inside my head.
About Mark Rob
Mark Fraser is a 30 year old man who has lived with depression, anxiety and obsessive thought for much of his adult life. Since coming out as gay in high school he's had difficulty relating to others in his community and has experienced self-doubt and a pensive outlook for his future. Mark moved to Toronto in 2012 and has become involved in Second City Improvisation classes as well as personal training in order to maintain his physical and mental health. He has expressed interest in blogging with Healthy Minds as a means of reaching out to others who feel isolated and as a way to express himself in a positive space. You can connect with Mark on Twitter or Facebook.