Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Overload and Retail (Part 2?)

I wrote here a long while ago, and it was about my job. Here's another post about my job. I'm doing this instead of other things I guess I need to do, like buying cat food and cleaning up, but maybe I just needed a down day after everything going on the last few days (work, informational interview about a new career, other important conversations with my husband..)

So, I work retail. I mainly do cashiering, but I also do sales and a bit of stocking, or I work in shipping and receiving. The majority of my days at work are in front of customers, however, servicing the line of people checking out.

It's become an increasing issue for me that when I leave work and get home after a full 8 hour day of Customer Service (CS), I am very overloaded. There are some mitigating factors, like if I've remembered to take anxiety med, if I have remembered my brimmed hat (for fluorescent lights), and how well I've eaten. Food plays a big part in how I function. So these factors can amplify (or not) the experiences I describe below.

I'm in general, not a very verbal person. Some people are surprised by that, because I can certainly have modes where I talk and talk and talk. The talkative mode(s) are often due to high anxiety or even sense of ungroundedness which leads me to think a bunch of things at once and have a hard time focusing. In these states I can often not do a very good job of matching the mood around me; so people might be stressed, or subdued, or whatever, and I'm bouncing happy. I can imagine this being annoying at times.

So as a not particularly verbal person, and one who, frankly, is depressive in general, when I work my job I have to put a great deal of effort towards the task of serving customers.


Sometimes I just don't feel like smiling. I can watch co-workers do their job without any particular amount of projected joy, even with some degree of outward disinterest; but I can't. If I'm not putting forward that positive, energetic persona, I feel utterly incapable at my job.

So I have something akin to a verbal smile. It's not that I'm always smiling outright, but there's this stance of smiling in the process of talking to someone that is possible even if I feel like crawling into a corner and covering myself with a blanket. It is something I picked up over time, I think, from listening to other people speak. I have learned it's possible to make certain inflections sound genuine even if what I feel inside is completely opposed to the happy, energetic persona I have to project.

Stick to the Script

"Hi, how are you today?"
"Did you find everything okay?"
"Are you a member?" "Okay, great, can I have your phone number?"
"Nick?" "Thank you" 
"Your total is 375.69"
"Is that debit or credit?"
"May I see the card to verify your signature?"
"Just hit the green button to confirm the amount"
"Thank you, have a great day"

"Thank you for calling _____, Karen speaking, how may I direct your call?"

I have scripts for all the different situations -- returns, selling memberships, special orders, phone calls, complaints, inquiries, bartering, etc.

Overload Heaven

It's hard to describe what it's like in the fifth hour of the day, after doing this with so many people. I would love to know how many transactions I process on an average day at work. how many times I have to go through the same thing.

Then, on a Saturday, it's not just the fact that the volume of customers goes up and I basically go non-stop (and have to turn someone back to the line in order to take breaks) -- the level of noise in the store goes up TENFOLD.  The number of cashiers doubles at least. During a sale, moreso. The level of noise affects my diagnosed Central Auditory Processing Disorder. I have to work harder to hear through the noise, and so my nervous system is on overdrive. So on a quiet Monday, I can basically deal with the radio background noise, and a bit of other ambient noise, sometimes another cashier's voice, but only one. On a Saturday, I may have a customer and cashier pair speaking on either side of me, the person I have to hear, and then a hundred other voices and children crying, bicycle bells dinging (by children), paper bags crinkling, beeps, printers printing, the smells of perfume and garlic and that new clothing smell. I do my best to dress comfortably so that I don't feel my clothes all day, and it took me a long time to find good shoes so that my body wouldn't hurt after a day on my feet.

Some of these things affect everyone, in the sense that it's always harder to hear in a noisy environment. I wish I could simulate what it sounds like to me when English turns into a mess (I can't hear words well or hang onto the words) because of my auditory issues.

In many other circumstances besides work, I think the equivalent level of stress on my system would shut me down. If I was in a noisy environment like that for hours on end with my husband and some other people, I probably would at some point just say I need to leave. But here I don't, or I can't, and so I stick it out. An interesting thing happens. I kind of go on autopilot, and push through the overload. 

I still use my scripts, and everything goes fine. But I feel a pressure at the front of my skull. I feel a fatigue underneath the verbal smile, and I am less and less inclined to do anything but the bare minimum of what I have to say. If there are enough other cashiers, I will find a task to do that doesn't involve talking, like go take a full rack of hangers back to the warehouse. Or I'll admit to even just ducking into the back room and turning my head upside down (when this happens), taking long breaths, and just hiding for a few moments.

Verbal Load

By the time I get home from work, I'm not in any shape to talk to my husband. I need a serious break from listening and speaking. The listening may be just as important as the speaking part, here. This really affects our relationship in negative ways; if we end up getting into something and I'm still trying to recover from the fallout of working, I may invariably be unresponsive, or just not really engage, or worse, be irritable and end up having a fight because I can't really glean all the subtext of what is happening in our interaction. CS is straightforward; and even if someone is difficult or especially taxing, chances are I won't see them again, or only seldom. 

In my marriage, it's important to me to be there with my husband but I feel like I've spent all my spoons. This happens over and over, and it's taking its toll on our relationship.

So while I'm lauded at work for being great, it comes at a price. A kind of invisible price.

I've considered asking for an accommodation like one extra ten minute break only if needed (Breaks PRN!), but haven't been able to really convince myself that this would be okay. Or that if I really need it.

I've written about accommodations before; it's a tricky thing, because, even like things with the hat, invisible disabilities mean that other people don't necessarily understand the reason for the accommodation and can perceive preferential treatment, and there's no graceful way of making that happen without "coming out" over and over, or being horribly cryptic about "medical reasons". 

This video is a decent sensory comparison for how it can feel.


Anonymous said...

Where you link to the Spoon Theory essay, please consider linking to the original author's page, rather than to an uncredited repost. The original essay is here:

Karen said...

I changed the link. When I wrote this post I had tried in earnest to find the original essay, and couldn't figure out how to discern that. It wasn't for not trying.
So thank you for calling that to my attention.
-- Karen

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