Returning to a retail job and feelings of social vulnerability after the UK pandemic lockdown – interview from England

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), Gerald Brazell, Flickr

A young woman living on the south coast of England shared some experiences of returning to working in a bookshop on April 12, 2021, as part of the phased re-opening of the country from a partial lockdown. She talks about difficulties with anxiety, depression, home life and early experiences.

Returning to work after 4 months in lock-down came as a shock. Everyone who had been shut away must have felt it, but when teamed with social anxiety and depression, it had an additional edge. However, perhaps surprisingly, the readjustment period was relatively quick. After only a couple of 9-5 days in the shop, it felt like I’d never been away, but not necessarily in a good way; not in the welcome-return-to-old-company sort of way. The joys of being back in public for me were weak at best, and the familiarity was that of an ache so persistent you come to forget its impact after a while. Its absence is alien. It becomes a painful part of you.

At first, it felt overwhelming to be faced with people again, and to have no choice but to deal with queries and issues as they arose, to look people in the eye, to attempt to effectively communicate, get the right tone and intonation, right expression, all through the barrier of a mask. Lock-down had acted as a cocoon, creating a situation in which you didn’t have to socialise or communicate, and you didn’t have to feel guilty or weird about not doing so. Suddenly, I had to be in public again, with no escape. No more enforced solitude. It was back to the reality of life with anxiety, and the tensions associated with this environment rapidly returned.

I had forgotten what it felt like to be talked down to. While tucked away inside, strangers really hadn’t had the opportunity to make me feel worthless for my position of status, and without even realising it, my self worth had risen through not being subjected to what is run-of-the-mill in customer service. It is considered part of the job to have customers angry about the benign, to be aggressive when you don’t have what they want, to treat you with casual contempt, to bark at you and demand things from you, a general rudeness that insidiously seeps into your everyday.

Social judgement was another sensation that had faded into obscurity over lockdown. How you presented yourself, what clothes you wore and how much they were worth, your posture and gait, your accent and your delivery, your vocabulary and projection. It had been so long since these elements came into play that, for a while, I forgot that mine were not ‘right’, and that peoples’ response to your mere existence could dehumanise so subtly yet so completely.

To be socially dismissed on sight was something I had come to forget the sensation of, and there was a strange resignation towards returning to such a dynamic. In this world, there are those who have the position and the authority to diminish others who exist on a different plain. They are the apex predators, and society offers no way of escaping this social hierarchy and no way of protecting yourself when you are the gazelle, your worth extending only as far as how you can serve them.

Of course, for the most part, people don’t intentionally set out to implicitly degrade or devalue, and for a lot of people these micro-expressions and aggressions are water off a ducks back. It is only when you read every movement of the brow, aversion of eyes, tightness of voice – a hypersensitivity that comes with anxiety – that they begin to choke a fragile sense of self like ivy on an oak. Society is not designed for us, people who drive through a storm with the windows open, no protective barrier between ourselves and the battering elements. We have no choice but to subdue the persistent onslaught that is everyday life with medication, both prescribed and self-prescribed. But this is no cause for complaint; as we are reminded everyday… that’s life.

~

I’ve found that looking after things other than yourself, be it plants or animals, can make it much easier to experience feelings of love, compassion and caring, which can so often get lost when focusing solely on yourself, when you don’t necessarily want to treat yourself with love. Self-care is something I’ve struggled with, often even feeling selfish to take time to look after myself mentally or physically. Plants and pets are dependent on you for their survival, to grow and thrive, and it is rewarding not only making other living things happy, but as they give a lot back.

Plants cheer up the environment, making it feel full of life when it might otherwise feel bleak or stale, but they also improve air quality (especially peace lilies, which remove toxins from the air). A lot of plants don’t need much tending to be happy, so they can be a great place to start if wanting to cultivate that ability to care for something outside of yourself. Also, seeing a beautiful plant wilt if you leave it without water for too long, and perk up once watered, is a great reminder of how little can really improve life in a major way. Gardening is great for mindfulness, being calming and grounding, but for those who don’t have an outside space like me, house plants are a perfect way to still connect with nature every now and then.

Animals rely on you to deal with all their needs, from feeding to grooming to walking, and they are the one thing that will push me to go outside or get up in the mornings when anxiety is really hitting, because their quality of life depends on me. Not only are they motivating to do the things I sometimes dread, but they offer a great deal of support. They are sensitive to your moods and will comfort you when you are low. They also cause me a lot of joy and are constantly making me smile; without the dogs, exercise, laughter, nurturing, and physical closeness would all be very difficult to make myself do.

I have always loved nature and animals. Somehow, they seem more significant than a lot of the things in this world. Animals are uncomplicated, and nature just gets on with it. They are the perfect reminded of what actually matters in life, when it’s flooded with anxiety and fear.

Arts and crafts have always been a good way to centre and soothe myself when I’m stressed. Crafts like knitting have actually been proven to reduce stress. The repetition and focus on the tactile activity at hand is perfect for people who have anxiety or are restless and need to find something to focus on. I also find it hard to just watch TV and relax, so having something to ‘do’ helps me to feel like I’m doing something productive.

Live music is one of the few events where I don’t experience high levels of anxiety in a public space, which is ironic considering it’s crowded and noisy which are two elements I typically avoid. It’s the fact that when you’re in the audience, no one is looking at you, and you’re not expected to talk or socialise; it’s all about watching the band and a shared appreciation of their music. The noise and immersion has actually become something I love, as it takes me out of my own mind for a couple of hours, and acts as a release from all the pent-up fear and stress.

Sometimes people will try and engage or get you to dance, but the mood always seems to be good humoured. It’s not something I would have considered as being good for those with social anxiety, but it has been a great help for me, and could be a good step towards facing intense situations without the expectation put on you to talk or perform.

~~

I suffered from Selective Mutism, so I was talkative around a very small family unit or close friends, but completely mute in any situation that was unfamiliar or threatening. I was then homeschooled between the ages of 11-16, so it’s difficult to say how much character developed over this time.

I do experience some of the effects of Selective Mutism. It is known as a children’s disorder, as people supposedly ‘grow out of it’. I think people just learn to adapt with it and ‘present’ as normal. Often, if I feel like I can’t make my voice heard, I will feel my throat tighten and I was emotionally shut down and zone out.

I would describe selective mutism as a physical manifestation of your anxious thoughts. The tension causes your throat to constrict to the point where you feel like you physically can’t speak. It’s debilitating, and completely shapes the way you experience the world, much like looking in through glass. People learn to tune you out and you become virtually invisible. Homeschooling was a last resort. I wouldn’t say it was hugely positive, but I don’t know where the alternative would have lead me.

AA, 2021

By setting stores in competition against each other for customer ratings, Walmart is placing greater burdens and threats on workers

The writer, who works as an online grocery dispenser at a Walmart grocery store in the US, and experiences social anxiety symptoms, discusses how increased demands and threats are being placed on workers to achieve customer ratings in surveys and to compete in store rankings. This article was first posted on Cherry Northern’s WordPress blog, RaisedByOwls.

In a previous post, I revealed the culture that permeated my workplace. It’s a culture based on company image and competition against other Walmart stores. What this means is that people in my position–online grocery dispensers–must perform their primary roles (deliver customers’ goods to their vehicles in the parking lot) and arbitrary, yet obligatory, roles (convince customers to review their experience in order to boost the store’s rating among the local market and nation). But lately, it seems as if there’s been a shift. Now, the role we thought to be secondary in nature is starting to feel much more essential–both to the future of the department and the future of our very jobs.

Let me explain something through an example. If I were hired as a salesman, but couldn’t land a sale, what do you think would happen to me? I’d be fired, and rightfully so. Now, imagine if I were a salesman and–without much warning–my boss was demanding that I drive an eighteen-wheeler truck to deliver groceries to a wholesale store. First, this would lead to consternation since driving a truck was never part of my job description, nor what I signed up for. But imagine doing the job you signed up for and STILL not being good enough because you’re not performing well in a task that was never supposed to be yours anyway.

Just as in my last post, I still take issue with being pressured to ask customers to fill out online surveys referencing their experience with my customer service. To me, this is salesmanship and is not something I find inherently important to my role. If I had wanted to persuade customers to take action, I would have aimed to become a salesman. Prior to the fetishization of 5-star customer surveys, my job seemed simple and straightforward. You gather the order and take it out to the customer. Done. Easy. Simple. The way I like it. But now, there’s a new social element that is both bothersome to the employee and the customer. And things have become worse.

The boss of my department is a man I respect, and in general, has had a logical head on his shoulders. But something has changed. While I don’t mean to drag his name in the mud, my boss has tasted a bit of success (our store’s ranking is #1 in certain measurements) and has never seemed to come down from the high. I can imagine the stress of trying to stay on top. And of course it must be stressful to lead an entire department. Again, my aim is not to trash this boss of mine.

But I also think that my boss is blinded and has failed to consider the value that we, as workers in the department, bring.

So, where to begin?

Well, lately, we’ve been sloppy. It turns out that some customers have been getting items with poor quality. Things like brown lettuce would rightfully upset any customer. As a result of the sloppiness, we’ve been getting bad reviews. A 1-star review sets us back in a major way when you consider it takes 20 perfect reviews to make up for the damage one 1-star review brings. This metric is sadistic and unrealistic. It only serves to stress people out more. If you ask me, it’s arbitrary.

The boss was not happy about this and left an ominous note on the whiteboard. The note acknowledged the sloppiness and the mistakes. Since dispensers like me are the closest to the customer, dispensers take on most of the blame. For instance, we’re supposed to catch items that lack quality before they’re delivered. The problem is that we can’t catch everything, especially when it’s really busy in the afternoons. And I guess the “pickers” or shoppers hold no responsibility at all? If someone saw brown lettuce, then the lettuce shouldn’t have been picked in the first place. I digress.

A slew of bad surveys has brought down our CSAT score. CSAT is a fancy way to say, “Customer Satisfaction.” This metric is composed of the surveys that customers willingly complete after their experiences with picking up groceries. As you can imagine, the score is low. In fact, our boss made it clear it was the lowest it’s been since the opening of the department. Great. Let me think of something truly sad so I can at least shed a tear and pretend that some Walmart metric matters to me.

Oh, but it matters. It matters more than we know. CSAT is like a holy grail. It is the standard to which we must live. A string of bad surveys and a lower CSAT than usual prompted my boss to really get after the dispensers. He suspected that people weren’t asking for surveys. Or, that people were asking for surveys in “the wrong way.” Now, I’ll admit that I never ask customers to do surveys because my job isn’t to be a salesman for a company that doesn’t treat its employees well. Again, that’s not what I see as my role here.

I think what really bothers me is that I’m being asked to take part in a war I never signed up for. I don’t care how well our store does in comparison to other stores. I also don’t care about corporate reputation or company benchmarks–shit like that is above my paygrade. I don’t worship at the altar of impressing market managers or even the store manager. Yet, we’re supposed to be super involved in the process of making the store look good when customers really only care about getting their groceries and getting the hell away from Walmart.

And now, here comes the worst part. My boss implied that if we don’t get the CSAT back on track, we may see reduced hours. Let me just take this in. Let me soak this information in. Basically, if we don’t get enough good surveys, our wages will be impacted. Less hours equals less income. This, despite the fact that we’ve been one of the fastest (if not the fastest) online grocery departments in our region. This, despite our boss praising us in better times, making us feel valued and treasured. This, despite our hard work, sweat, and issues we’ve had to go through in our time here.

I have my doubts that they would actually reduce our hours. It isn’t like online shopping is going to slow down just because of few bad surveys from isolated incidents. The demand for online groceries and delivery will only continue to climb. So, uh, how can you reduce hours when demand is only going up? That doesn’t make much sense. But you know what? It doesn’t matter whether the threat has substance or not. The very fact that the implied threat was written on the whiteboard in the first place is what I mostly take issue with.

Say they actually did reduce hours. In my opinion, that’s a crime. Once again, there is no indication that business is going to slow down. My boss makes it seem like the very future of the department is in jeopardy because we don’t get enough good reviews. What my boss doesn’t seem to grasp is that bad reviews are not the end of the world–certainly not the end of an industry like this. The utility of the service we provide is worth more than one million good reviews combined. Do you think that people who have had a bad experience at Burger King will swear off Burger Kings forever? Well, do Burger Kings still exist? Do people have bad times at Burger Kings every day? Yes and yes, but at the end of the day, the restaurants provide a valued service that compensates for any bad reviews. A little bit of critical thinking could make this shit so easy to reconcile.

But let’s get to the threat. Because no matter how many times you read that note, it is impossible not to identify the threatening undertone. Of course the note was written in a “professional” way, but we’ve worked here long enough to read between the lines. There’s nothing in that note that proves a causality between a lower CSAT score and reduced hours. Regardless, I’m taken aback at the nature of the note.

As a boss, you don’t do that to employees you supposedly value. That is a crappy way to show your appreciation of our work. Using fear to drive the team to perform in the way you envision? That’s manipulation. Cutting hours for such a minor reason? We’re verging pretty close to “deducting wages” since less hours at work will mean less money earned. You don’t get the respect from your team by beating each person over the head with a pointed message implying dire consequences for refusing to sell one’s soul for a soulless corporation.

Then again, maybe cutting hours was the plan to begin with? After all, we all recently got a raise to $16 an hour. So, we get more per hour, but less hours? Wait. But doesn’t that just mean we’ve evened out? What use is a few dollars more per hour when you work less hours than usual?

Fine. Go ahead and play that game. I don’t really think any hours will be cut. I just don’t see how that would work. However, it’s your conduct that bothers me. What you wrote was disrespectful to all of us. Are we going to have bad times? Yes! Will we always be perfect? No! Have we made mistakes? Yes. Can we improve? Sure, if you let us. But what we could most certainly do without is the micromanaging, the fear-mongering, the pressure you put on us. If anything, you’ve now ensured that I’m not putting in any extra effort. I will do my job. I will do enough. But I’ll be damned if I play into your games and the pissing contests between stores.

To read more from this writer, follow their WordPress blog, RaisedbyOwls.

Social anxiety news and stories round-up

Blogs

Introspective piece questioning the causes of feeling less desirous of being in love and more content with being single: “You’d think this lack of interest would be a comfort to me, considering how much I use to agonize over my loneliness. Yet, even though this new state doesn’t necessarily cause me pain, it’s still a cause for concern. How can it be that in the span of just a few years I can feel so completely different about something that was once so vitally important to me? If I could be certain these were an accurate reflection of inner growth and independence, I might not mind. However, there is part of me that wonders if this isn’t somehow a result of so many years on anti-depressants. Paxil has helped me in a lot of ways, and I am grateful for that. But now I’m beginning to question if I’m even still the same person I was before. Which version of myself would I ultimately prefer? Can I even trust the way I think and feel now?”

A perspective of a loving relationship: “I feel like love is everything. It’s the good, it’s the bad, it’s the glue that holds life together. Whether that’s in a romantic or platonic way, whether it’s between you and family, or you and your favourite song; love is the glue.”

A writer managing relationships with those who have caused them emotional harm in the past: “so, while i’m working on myself and my relationships, i’m going to let myself feel angry. i’m going to let myself feel bitter. i’m going to remind myself that all of these feelings are valid. healing from trauma is a nonlinear process that takes time, and i’m going to give myself that time.”

On the complex relationship we might have with mental health difficulties: “As much as I wish my coping mechanisms were healthy and productive, I can’t deny my anorexia didn’t serve me a temporary kind of protection, however much this point will overshoot the rational brain. It’s almost like hugging a cactus, expecting the delights of a teddy bear.”

An interesting perspective on the issue of courtship between genders with the backdrop of media attention on the sexual violence against women: “But in reality men are told from almost birth its their job to make the first move to ask women out, to initiate contact,. men have chat up lines, not usually women. I worked in a company for 20 year and never had a female try to befriend me in a romantic type of way ever. The odd hello is not the same as chatting someone up but I had plenty of people especially women think me weird for being quiet. As I said once before hearing girls say “he wont do anything at a bus stop!” as I did not chat their friend up Well if the world is equal then why didn’t she do something?”

A fascinating account of the pressures placed on workers by a grocery chain: “I don’t do this job to impress people. I do what I’m supposed to do, which is to deliver the groceries to customers. 97% of the time, customers drive away content or thrilled. Sure, we have hiccups. We do get bad reviews. Mistakes are made. Do you think that stops customers from using the online grocery pickup service? Not in a million years. We’re being asked to push these surveys as if the very existence and justification of a digital grocery department is in jeopardy. And it’s really not. Grocery pickup from online orders is here to stay. This is life now. No bad review is going to shut it down.”

On poor posture as a symptom of anxiety and fear: “I’ve carried heavy books in backpacks for years, but I don’t think they’ve weighed me down quite like fear and submission. My entire life, I’ve learned to shut up, cocoon myself, break off from the others, and shrink into myself whenever life became uncomfortable. Again, to stand up with a good posture is to face everything. My body follows how I feel on the inside. Therefore, slouching was always a subconscious norm. I adapted to fear and submission so easily that my physical reaction was just built-in.”

Research

“Results indicate no between-group differences in heart rate variability (HRV) and heart rate (HR) at baseline. When starting the working memory task, the control group decreased significantly in HRV and the anxious group did not differ substantially in their change pattern from baseline to the start of the stressor. Finally, during the recovery phase of the working memory task, the clinically anxious and control individuals did not differ in their HFV or HR response compared to baseline.

From a clinical perspective, the results suggest that screening for the presence of anxiety disorders may help to identify patients with impaired HRV and HR functioning and to intervene on these important patient characteristics early in the treatment process.”

  • Recalling autobiographical self-efficacy episodes boosts reappraisal-effects on negative emotional memories – Christina Paersch, Ava Schulz, Frank H Wilhelm, Adam D Brown, Birgit Kleim. Emotion Feb 25, 2021 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33630625/ (Abstract)

“Self-efficacy is a key construct in behavioral science with significant impact on mental health and wellbeing. A growing body of work has shown that perceptions of self-efficacy can be increased through recall of autobiographical episodes (AEs) of mastery (“self-efficacy memories”) in experimental settings. Doing so contributes to improvements in clinically relevant processes, such as emotion regulation and problem solving. Here we examine whether the recall of self-efficacy AEs contributes to more adaptive appraisals for personally experienced negative memories.

These findings suggest that recalling self-efficacy episodes may promote adaptive self-appraisals for negative memories, which in turn may contribute to recovery from stressful events and, with further research, may prove to be a useful adjunctive strategy for treatments such as CBT.”

  • Crosstalk between Existential Phenomenological Psychotherapy and Neurological Science in Mood and Anxiety Disorders – Lehel Balogh, Masaru Tanaka, Nóra Török, László Vécsei, Shigeru Taguchi https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202012.0625/v2 (This version is not peer-reviewed)

“Existential phenomenological psychotherapy (EPP) has been in the forefront of meaning-centered counseling for almost a century. The phenomenological approach in psychotherapy originated in the works of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss and Viktor Frankl, and it has been committed to account for the existential possibilities and limitations of one’s life. EPP provides philosophically rich interpretations and empowers counseling techniques to assist mentally suffering individuals by finding meaning and purpose of life. The approach has proven to be effective in treating mood and anxiety disorders. This narrative review article demonstrates the development of EPP, the therapeutic methodology, evidence-based accounts of its curative techniques, current understanding of mood and anxiety disorders in neurological science, and a possible converging path to translate and integrate meaning-centered psychotherapy and neurological science, concluding that the existential phenomenological psychotherapy potently plays a synergistic role with the currently prevailing medication-based approaches for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.”

“These exploratory results indicate that anxiety, but not regulation tendency, predicts how individuals regulate emotion in the laboratory. These findings suggest that how individuals report regulating in the real world does not map on to how they regulate in the laboratory. Taken together, this underscores the importance of developing emotion-regulation interventions and paradigms that more closely align to and predict real-world outcomes.”

“Social anxiety impairs the balance performance of older women, particularly in those most affected by the evaluator, and during more dynamic modified gait tasks that challenge balance while walking. However, co-performing balance tasks with a partner reduced the effects of social anxiety, suggesting that social support may help to mitigate some of the potential ‘white coat’ effects experienced during clinical balance assessments.”

News

“Mental health experts said this fraction of the population found the quarantine protective, a permission slip to glide into more predictable spaces, schedules, routines and relationships. And the experts warn that while quarantine has blessed the “avoidance” of social situations, the circumstances are poised to change.”