My commentary about the need to respect retail workers and customer service personnel has been updated and polished! Read on to find out exactly how demanding a retail/customer service job is–shoutout to everyone who is working or has worked retail!
Web design and development can be fairly glamorous. You’re creating and maintaining tons of web pages and graphics that other users reference and link to, all with just a few key presses and clicks. (Or, if you’re a designer like me and have to use Backspace or Undo a lot, there’s quite a few more key presses and clicks involved. 😛 ). And it’s quite an ego boost to learn that your page is getting views from other people; suddenly, you feel like your 15 minutes of fame have started.
Most people who aren’t in the business think of it as an “easy” career or hobby. All you’re doing is sitting in front of the computer typing, right? Most of the work is in your mind–how hard can that be?
The Health Risks
But web designers and developers, along with all the other jobs that involve sitting for long periods of time working on a computer, are putting themselves at risk for several health problems, including the following:
- Stiffness/muscle pain in the neck and back
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Arthritis in the hands and wrists
- Eye strain
- Sedentary lifestyle, leading to possible heart and joint problems, obesity, diabetes, etc.
Of these problems, carpal tunnel and eye strain are the most work-endangering; when you can no longer type or read your screen without pain or problems, you will not be able to work as a web designer or developer anymore. I remember my grandmother suffering arthritis and carpal tunnel when I was a child–her hands were literally gnarled up so badly she could barely hold anything, and to try to grip anything was agony. Typing was completely out of her range of motion. And eye strain is no better; it can lead to the need for new glasses much faster than normal, and it can also affect your long-distance sight whether you’re far-sighted, near-sighted, or blessedly 20/20.
I’ve suffered a number of these health problems ever since college, when my computer use went way up and my walking went way down because of injury. The amount of neck stiffness and eye strain I had, especially in college, led to bad headaches (and still does on occasion). Sitting for 10 straight hours coding a website–not the smartest thing I ever did, for several reasons. xD And these days, I find my wrists are more often achy than not. I worry I’ll end up just like my Nannie, unable to even uncurl my fingers or bend my wrists without wincing.
I’ve also seen how my imposed sedentary lifestyle (part choice, part necessity) actually contributed to loss of flexibility in my injured joints, especially my knees. Now that I’ve been doing weekly Zumba classes, doing physical activity, I notice that my knee joints are feeling just a bit easier to move. If I had not started doing more physical activity, who knows where my stiff and sore knees would have landed me?
Avoiding These Health Problems
Thankfully, there are ways we can avoid these types of problems without having to permanently stop doing the design and development we love. Just a few small changes to how we work, and where we work, can save us doctor visits and even later surgery!
Easing Tired Eyes
- Set a timer for 20 minutes. For every 20 minutes of internet work, look away from your screen for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away (I usually try to look out a window if I can). This is the old “20-20-20” rule, taught for years in school.
- Use a gel eye mask that can be chilled in cold water, especially after you’ve been staring at the screen for a while. I find that this helps the puffiness around my eyes as well as indirectly calming itching and irritation from long staring at screens. Plus, it forces you to shut your eyes and reduces the sense of ambient light, which might just make it easier to rest!
- Turn down the brightness on your computer screen just a touch–I find that slightly dimmer computer screens are easier on my eyes than working with it on full brightness. Also work in a room that has an equal amount of light as your screen if you can. Working in complete darkness staring at a bright computer screen, for some reason, drives my eyes bonkers.
Helping Stiff Muscles
- Add something to the 20-20-20 rule by standing up and stretching every 20 minutes, while you’re looking away from your computer screen. Be sure that when you stretch, you let your head go back so that you’re looking at the ceiling, and your arms are stretched up above your head and somewhat behind you. This gets some of that tension out of your neck, shoulders, and back (where most of mine ends up, at least).
- If you can’t afford to stand up or don’t want to, at least let your head tilt back so that you’re looking at the ceiling for at least 20-30 seconds. Sometimes I even do this at stoplights. 🙂
- Massage the sides of your neck and down into your shoulders, rubbing in circles, if those muscles are beginning to get sore. Anti-inflammatory medicines like Advil and Aleve are also good for helping soreness.
Avoiding Carpal Tunnel/Arthritis
- Before starting work, and every 30 minutes during work, do the wrist and hand exercises which are so excellently detailed on eatonhand.com, a site for helping patients prepare for, recover from, and avoid surgery on the hands and wrists.
- Design your office space, especially your keyboard and mouse setup, so that your wrists don’t have to be positioned at weird angles. And you might not need those ubiquitous wrist rests, either. Check this WebMD article on office ergonomics for more information.
- Simply take breaks from typing. Visit a site that requires no typing and mostly browsing with the mouse (with one hand), and let the other hand rest. After about 10 minutes, let the mouse-using hand rest and switch the mouse control to the other hand. It might be a little awkward to use the mouse with your non-dominant hand, but your dominant hand will thank you.
Getting a Little Bit More Active
- For every hour you work on the computer, try getting just 10 minutes of exercise. Walk around the office, do a bit of housekeeping (sweeping and picking up trash helps the most, with all the bending)–anything that gets you moving for 10 minutes. Your eyes and hands will also thank you for being away from the productivity machine for a little while.
- If you’ve got the money and space, invest in a treadmill desk (a less costly DIY version plan can be found here). This ingenious invention combines a fairly sizable workspace with an actual treadmill underneath you, forcing you to walk to stay close enough to your desk. I don’t know if this would actually work for me, but at least I wouldn’t be walking for nothing!
- Fidget while you sit. Even just wiggling your toes or trotting your leg can be good to just keep blood flowing around faster than glacier speed. Just make sure it doesn’t disturb anyone else working near you, of course
Working as a web designer/developer doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your health. To be sure you can code happily ever after, you need to start now maintaining at least some healthy habits. After all, we webmasters don’t want to end up unable to type and unable to move from our chairs, right?
Retail workers, as well as customer service personnel in general, have a very tough job, in my opinion, because they have direct contact with the public. We as customers, admittedly, can be awfully tough on salesmen and saleswomen at times–how often have you seen another customer yelling at a cashier in line at a big-box store, or getting agitated while trying to return an item? Heck, haven’t we all BEEN that customer at some point?
What we as customers don’t realize is that we individually aren’t the only people that retail workers see all day. Literally hundreds of people pass through their store every day, and each of them have their own set of demands to make. Having worked retail myself, and having two parents who have worked pharmacy retail for nearly 40 years, I not only have heard horror stories, I’ve lived them, too. Customer service and retail workers have a very difficult job, and it’s certainly not for everyone.
Why should we respect these people who chose to take on this job? Here are several reasons:
They are expected to stand all day long.
Most healthy people don’t think twice about standing in line for a few minutes, even if the wait is boring. But how about standing on your feet for 6 hours with no rest, or 8, or even 10 or 12? This is what is demanded of most retail workers who have to serve at cashier counters and the like. You cannot sit down–if you do, it looks like you’re on break, and you have to “look available,” no matter how bad you hurt.
For me, this turned out to be impossible to deal with–I have terrible nerve pain, bruising, and swelling of the legs and feet that make it excruciating to stand or walk for long periods of time. Needless to say, I had to quit one of the retail positions I took because I hurt so badly. But I saw many co-workers stand for hours without breaking a sweat or even losing their smiles. They bore up under that physical strain, which is much more than it looks, and they did it while looking pleasant and friendly. Not only do retail workers have to bear their physical pain day in and day out, but they have to make it look effortless so that their customers feel that they are being served by happy people.
They are expected to deal with people who treat them like sub-human beings.
Some people are just plain mean to customer service personnel. As soon as they come in the door, retail workers cringe–suddenly, retail workers are the “enemy,” somehow, even though part of their job description is to be ready to help. For instance, there was a woman I waited on in a local bookstore one time who barely even looked me in the eye, even as I tried to be friendly and assist her; she eventually called the manager on me twice, once because I was “hounding her,” and the second time because “I wasn’t assisting her.” I was, admittedly, glad to see the back of her–I felt as if I were the lowest bug in the dirt when she spoke to me, and it made me mad, because I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.
When you walk into a store or restaurant, it is important to at least treat the workers with civility, even if you don’t feel much like being friendly. They are fellow human beings, after all, doing honest work for a paycheck just like you. Believe me, a friendly customer is a blessing–someone who understands how busy a store or restaurant can get, someone who waits patiently rather than shouting “serve me now!!”. Unfortunately, these customers are a minority–more often, you get shouted at, cursed at, or generally ignored until needed, as if you are a soulless creature with no emotion.
They are expected to instinctively know when their place of employment is being robbed/defrauded.
No human is equipped with eyes in the back of his or her head. But it sometimes feels as if you need that surgery to be effective employees in retail work! Somehow, amid your regular work of serving customers, running their purchases through, and keeping the business clean and tidy, you are also supposed to know just when a shady customer is about to make a five-finger discount. It’s not easy–those who like to steal usually disguise themselves pretty well, and it’s hard to be assertive enough to walk up to somebody and say “Have you paid for that yet?”, not knowing if you’re going to get a gun or knife pulled on you. Bravery is one of those “hidden” job requirements for retail personnel of any sort.
They are expected to take on-the-fly schedule changes without a frown.
Someone sick on Wednesday night when you have choir practice? No buts about it–you’re coming in to work. Your kid have a performance on Tuesday night, but the boss needs you to do emergency inventory? No way around it–you’re coming in to work. Retail workers are expected to pretty much have no highly-scheduled life outside of their jobs, because you never know when you’ll be called upon to cover someone else’s shift, or do extra work outside of normal job hours. You are literally supposed to drop everything, even if that “everything” is really important to you, because people must be on hand to man the storefront. Since retail these days rarely even stops for holidays, the whole career is very time-sensitive, and you have to be ready to work at any time.
Admittedly, many jobs are like this these days, with people becoming more mobile and business becoming more demanding. Still, with retail being as punishing on the body as it is, you often need more time to recover than your schedule can give.
They are expected to be constantly ready to give 100% or better.
Are you a cashier? You better scan and bag those items super-fast. Are you a waiter? You better never drop a dish or forget a customer. Are you a receptionist? You better type at over 100 words a minute or bust. And there’s tons of other retail- and customer-service-oriented jobs that demand more than your best.
Whenever you deal with customers, they generally expect you to be expert at your job, know where everything is, be able to answer any questions–you are their window into the business, and they need information and service fast. Many things are automated by machines these days, so it’s not surprising that many people treat human service personnel as if they should be machines too, never making a mistake, never forgetting a detail, and never needing to rest. Unfortunately, not all of us can be Commander Data of the U.S.S. Enterprise; we get stressed out, overtired, or just plain sick, and things tend to go awry because we’re not functioning at 100% anymore. But we still have to look and act like we’re functioning at 100%.
When you’re a customer, keep in mind that the person waiting on you has likely been there for hours. He or she may be in pain, stressed or tired, or may be missing out on a part of life that doesn’t involve their job. But he or she is still serving you, and trying hard to meet your needs.
Even if salespeople seem surly or rude, patience and a smile can alleviate that very quickly–answering them with rude comments of your own will only exacerbate the situation. Be kind to retail workers; they’re doing their job so you don’t have to do it for yourself!