5 Ways to Take Care of Yourself While Working in the Service Industry (And 5 Ways to Be a Better Consumer)

I’m living that broke graduate student life, and jobs befitting the one degree I already have are hard to come by.

So when I’m not in class, evading Sallie Mae, or scrambling to meet the deadlines for my Everyday Feminism articles, I am a part-time Sales Associate for a chain clothing retailer.

I started as a seasonal employee right before Thanksgiving and somehow managed to  survive the US American nightmare that is Black Friday. And despite my numerous meltdowns over hearing Mariah Carey’s entire Christmas discography on repeat every. damn. day. for the entire month of December, I decided to stay as a regular associate.

As much as I detest working for The Man, it pays the bills and is flexible enough for me to do my best in school.

Most of the time, our clientele just ignores me, which I actually prefer. I know that it’s a sucky thing to say, but when people are shoving clothes in your face or trying to bully you into giving them discounts, it’s better to be invisible.

There’s something about working in the service industry that makes people think it’s okay to treat you poorly.

There’s an oppressive collective mentality that those who work in the service industry are deadbeats, “illegal immigrants,” lower class, or teenage delinquents – all who chose wearing a ridiculous uniform and reciting a menu 50 times a day over college and a desk job.

And somehow these stereotypes validate our mistreatment. We chose to not get a “real job,” so we have to deal with the consequences.

Within the service industry (meaning retail, food, hospitality, repair, and so on), class divides become abundantly clear. Restaurants, malls, hotels, and other service establishments are microcosms of systematic inequality that separates the working class from those with white collar jobs.

Minimum wage have most of us struggling to make ends meet, and we’re expected to give up our nights and weekends so those who work five days a week with benefits and paid days off and shit can come along and be jerks at our “fake” jobs.

Marginalized people face opposition everyday and must learn how to take care of themselves, especially within the service industry where racial and gender minorities make up most of the workforce. This is part of why self-care is a hot topic in the feminist community at the moment.

Dealing with negativity day in and day out depletes energy because wearing a name-tag and being in a subservient position tends to bring out the worst in people.

So here are a few tips to help you when things get particularly hard on the job:

1. Don’t Take Things Personally

Easier said than done, I know. People can be really mean.

There is no excuse for their behavior, but most of the time they’re frustrated at some bullshit bureaucratic policy or system that you’re employed to enforce and you just happen to be the only person they can go off on.

If I had a dollar for every time a customer got indignant over some misleading sales sign or trying to return items a year after the 30-day policy expired, I could buy the damn store. But I just tell them how it is as bluntly as I can get away with.

Just know that a customer berating you is not a real judgment on who you are as a person or your character. Brush it off as best as you can and try not to let it get you down.

Or if they’re one of those “LET ME SPEAK TO YOUR MANAGER” types, just get your manager and go about your business. The less you have to deal with negativity, the better.

2. Make Your Breaks Meaningful

If possible, leave the establishment where you work. Leave and be free for 15 to 30 minutes. Pack a lunch, listen to music, power nap, text everyone and complain, do anything you need to do to keep your mind off work.

And don’t get sucked into working either. You’re entitled to a break.

3. Be Present

Do you ever have those days at work where customers are being more prickly than usual, manager’s on your ass, and time just doesn’t pass?  

Or do you have days where everyone is begging for your attention and you’ve just become a blur with all the running around?

What I like to do is reset myself and calm my anxiety by being present in the moment. I like to do this by narrating everything I’m doing in my head: I’m walking to the cash register. I’m scanning this item. I’m opening the register. I’m handing back change. 

This is a great method for people, like me, who become easily overwhelmed by juggling numerous tasks and have minds that race ahead to the next task that needs to be completed.

It helps you become more thoughtful in your actions and is great for demanding jobs within the service industry.

4. Treat Yourself

The summer I worked at a restaurant, I would buy a chocolate milkshake after every late shift to drown my problems. My friends still tease me about it, but that became something I really looked forward to after working a long day.

Treating yourself doesn’t always mean buying things. After all, working a minimum wage job usually means that money will be pretty tight.

But be sure to do something nice for yourself after a long day of people being not so nice to you.

Thinking about bubble baths, binge watching a show, or just going to bed can be enough to get you through a grueling shift.

5. Learn to Say No

This is probably the most difficult way to self-care, especially if you’re a people pleaser like me. Learning to say no is a powerful tool in self-care and reclaiming agency over yourself and your time.

Sometimes I’ll be asked to pick up extra shifts, and I usually do because that means extra money in my pocket. But then all of a sudden I’m working seven days a week, I’m tired, I’m cranky, my fridge is empty because I didn’t go grocery shopping, my homework still isn’t done, and I’m sad and anxious.

But all of this is avoided when I actually take a realistic look at my schedule and say no.

Listen, you have days off for a reason. You should cherish those. The work we do is more grueling than people give us credit for, and you deserve a break as much as a person working a white collar, 9-to-5 desk job.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a single parent, or anyone else working in the service industry for any reason. That doesn’t give customers the right to treat you like shit, and it doesn’t give your bosses the right to work you to the bone.

You are a person deserving respect. Your time is valuable, too. You don’t have to justify your decisions to anyone.

There are many reasons why a person may need as many extra shifts as possible (mostly because a living wage isn’t a thing in this country), but you are not required to do so.

And saying no is actually kind of fun. I’m just a sales associate who has to take orders from everyone all day, so it’s nice to be able to choose at times.

But if you’re uncomfortable, just don’t pick up the phone. I promise the world will keep spinning.


I also want to take the time to address those who aren’t working in the service industry at the moment.

All I really have to say is: You can do better!

And by that, I mean that you need to realize that you are benefiting from existing class privileges that have us working strange hours for little pay to make you happy, and you don’t use your manners as often as you may think.

So for you, dear consumer, I have some suggestions on how to be a better customer (and probably get better service from a happier employee in return):

1. Be Patient

Yes, I understand that there’s only one person at the register when there’s three registers.

Yes, I understand that a sales associate doesn’t just materialize out of thin air as soon as you think about asking for help.

We’re human, and we’re also constricted by store policies that may slow things up at times. Being rude is not going to speed up the process

2. Be Kind

Use your manners. Most of you are probably rolling your eyes reading this thinking “Obviously,” but I can count on one hand how many times I’ve heard a customer say please this week.

Do you know how hard it is to be helpful and courteous to rude people all day?

The person helping you is a person deserving kindness.

3. Have Realistic Expectations

No, the customer is not always right. Don’t buy into that shit.

The more accurate motto should be the customer should always leave satisfied by any means necessary. It’s our job to bend over backwards and give you what you desire, but you need to scale back the fantasies a little bit.

I can’t magically make a pair of brown shoes black or in your size. I, an hourly Sales Associate at the cash register, have no control over how the company decides to price their items.

Don’t expect those helping you to do the impossible.

Also, please leave when the establishment closes. You do realize that the workers are there for at least an hour after closing to clean up, right? We don’t live at the store – you’re holding us up!

4. Engage and Humor Us

Come on, now. I exist. I’m saying hi to you. Say hi back.

When customers are polite it makes our whole day less bleak, which in turn will make your experience better.

And I’m sorry to say, but “I’M JUST LOOKING” is not going to make us go away. At my current job, I have managers screaming into my earpiece about how I need to engage customers and sell as many things as possible.

5. Address Issues Head-On

There are fuck-ups on both sides of the customer/employer relationship.

There will be times where you’ll get terrible service or no service at all. And while we’re encouraged to circle around like vultures to make sure you buy things and aren’t stealing, this behavior can approach the muddy waters of profiling and discriminatory behavior.

I’m sure many people of color have encountered a sales associate that just hovers for too long.

If you’ve been kind, patient, realistic, and are still getting poor service, then by all means be that “LET ME SPEAK TO YOUR MANAGER” person or confront the employee in a tactful way.

For instance, if an employee is following you around in a manner that makes you uncomfortable, you could say something along the lines of “Since you seem so eager to help, I’m looking for…”

Another option is to not give that establishment your business – that hits them where it really hurts.


I hope I’ve encouraged consumers to take a step back and appreciate the fact that we’re working nights and weekends so you can experience some kind of luxury.

We are people, and it doesn’t matter what reasons we have for waiting tables, folding clothes, or cleaning hotel rooms — we deserve courtesy and respect.

And to my fellow service industry employees: You rock.

You don’t get enough credit for clocking in to face marginalization and stereotyping, especially those who also face oppression during their off hours. It’s important to practice self care in this current society where we are subservient at work and off the clock.

Your employment is no indication of how you deserve to be treated. So go out there and make that money, and take care of yourself.

And since you probably don’t hear it that often: Thank you!

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Jenika McCrayer is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Virginia native with a BA in Women and Gender Studies from The College of William and Mary, she is currently pursuing an MA in the same field. This AmeriCorps alumna is passionate about community service and strives for a better understanding of how to mobilize marginalized populations through service and activism. Jenika  also enjoys good books, bad horror films, naps, and the beach. Follow her on Twitter @JenikaMc. Read her articles here.