What It's Like To Work In Customer Service When You Have Social Anxiety Disorder

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Work and mental health issues rarely mix well. Perhaps that's why it feels so inspiring when employees are open about their difficulties.
Earlier this year, the CEO of software company Olark earned kudos for encouraging his employees to use their mental health days. But positive outcomes like that aren't really the norm.
In late October, writer Ayahna Hamilton gained a lot of attention on Twitter when she started tweeting about her past experiences negotiating a mental illness — social anxiety — while doing low-wage, highly interactive work.
In lower-wage jobs, which tend to be less regulated, benefits like mental-health days — or even paid sick days for that matter — are nonexistent. Ahead, we talk to Hamilton about the impact of working in the service industry with a mental health concerns, and what employers and employees can do.
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What prompted you to write the thread?
"Honestly, I wish there was a grander reasoning, but the inspiration simply stemmed from a random bout of self-reflection. Something triggered a thought that brought me back to the days I absolutely hated going to work. I recalled how I much I struggled mentally trying to get through each day, and I began to wonder if others felt the same as I did/do. So, like I usually do, I tweeted about it, hoping to relate with and/or confide in someone who's been in that situation. I was not aware that this had been a topic of discussion before in the disabled community, but they kindly let me partake in the discourse. I did not expect for so many people, from so many different walks of life, to engage with us as well."
What was your job?
"My job was primarily cashier, but often they would use me as a cleaner, prepper, stocker, and on the occasion of a promotion, a fill-in salesperson. I can truly attest that food service workers — service workers in general — do not get paid enough for the things we do. Some days, depending on the shift, I would come in two hours before opening or stay [over] two hours after close to clean out the bathrooms, take out the trash, mop the floors, etc. We were our own janitorial staff."
Why did you seek out this job opportunity?
"Solely based on accessibility. I was high school junior who needed a job, they paid a dollar more than others, it was down the street from my school, and I had no car."
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Did you think your social anxiety would impact the way you work?
"I always knew that I had social anxiety/phobia, but I never thought it bad enough to hinder me in the workplace. Being in food service and retail proved me completely wrong.
"For me, social anxiety disorder manifests in many ways. I can't even make phone calls on a whim. I have to plan out exactly what I'm going to say, and even then, by the end of the conversation, my voice is shaky and my body is trembling. Having social phobia is like having a muzzle on 24/7. It's wanting to speak up [even though] physically, mentally, and emotionally, I cannot risk it. It's suffocating. It's isolating. I've missed out on so much because of my disorder. Things I can never get back."
What do you think people misunderstand about having social phobia?
"People think it's just an extreme case of social awkwardness. It's not. It's overthinking everything said to and by you. It's not being able to look people in the eyes when talking. It's having to mentally prepare yourself to say a simple greeting to a customer. It's your body shaking when a customer tries to start a conversation with you. It's a depressive episode when you feel like a failure for not being able to hold a simple conversation. It's anxiety when you're asked a question by a customer that you don't know the answer to.
"What most [people] don't understand is that, usually, one mental illness can trigger another, which can trigger another, and so on. As I said in my [Twitter] thread, my phobia triggered my anxiety, and my anxiety triggered depression, which then exacerbated my phobia. It was a never-ending cycle."
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What do you think people misunderstand about what it's like to work in food service?
"There are a plethora of things that get misconstrued when talking about service work, particularly food service. The biggest thing being that keeps people from trying to understand is classism. There's a superiority complex that plays into the way people interact with service workers. Many people see them as less-than and undeserving of compassion; as objects simply there to serve them how they see fit — never taking into consideration mental health and/or any other factors that affect peoples' lives.
"I've heard on multiple occasions from people who receive 'bad service' that 'if you don't want to be here, find another job,' which is upsetting. It's not always about whether or not someone wants to be there. Trust me: If we had a choice, we wouldn't be. But, for many, this is their only option. Some of us are exhausted and working here is deteriorating to our mental state. Some of us cry in the bathroom on break in order not to have a breakdown in front of customers. All of us have bills to pay."
Did coworkers or family and friends understand what was going on?
"Nobody knew what I was going through. I'm sure [some people] were curious, but I'm good at pretending everything is going smoothly. I don't like feeling like a burden, and that's what I saw my phobia as — a burden. There are obvious stigmas surrounding mental illness, and at the time, I thought it was something to be ashamed of. I was content to live out this hell alone."
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How was your situation resolved?
"Things have gotten better now that I no longer work in such toxic environment; thanks to this thread I have a community of people as a support system."
What would you say to workers still dealing with this?
"You are not alone. You deserve better, and you are trying. Keep your head up. Under my original thread, there are many resources shared by many respondents that serve as alternate options for people with social anxiety/disabilities; please check them out.
"As for employers, I hope that reading and seeing how many people do suffer from social phobia helps you to better accommodate your employees. Be kind to them. If you see a customer being verbally abusive to one of us, control the situation and check up on them afterward. If they need time alone, let them have it. Please do not abuse your power either. As for everyone else, please be nice to service workers."
This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity. If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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