Burnout. Cabin Fever. Groundhog’s Day Syndrome (this probably isn’t a real term, but let’s go with it). What do all of these have in common? They all sound a lot like 2020, am I right?

Whether they carry a tinge of cynicism, or not, these feelings have become all too familiar in these “unprecedented times.” 

During this season, Team Anthill has had the privilege to work remotely. However, as we’ve seen the vaccine roll out, we know there are an incredible number of frontline workers who are unable to do so.

There are more than 30 million frontline workers in the United States across six broad categories of grocery, convenience and drug stores; public transit; trucking, warehouse and postal service; healthcare; building cleaning services; and childcare and social services (CEPR, 2020). Their in-person presence is required at work, or else the work doesn’t get done. These workers are essential, and despite everything going on around us—the overwhelming amount of sickness, death, economic hardship, loneliness and overall anxiety—these individuals are expected to do everything with a smile and unshakable positivity. 

Keep in mind, many of these roles are generally thankless. There’s no pause button or option to write down what you’d really like to say when a customer, client or patient isn’t being especially kind—this is real-time, face-to-face or live call attendance. Frontline workers are the first personal representative of any brand or organization, and as such, the pressure placed upon them to surface act and leave emotions at the door leads to even higher levels of burnout.

For context, surface acting is “faking it,” painting on the smile and bright affect to get through interactions even when your heart isn’t in it; deep acting is when you can find empathy for another person’s problems and questions, allowing you to more authentically respond. It makes sense that when you’re fulfilled with your work and environment, the need to surface act diminishes as those naturally positive emotions are reflected in your interactions both on the frontlines and in customer care. That said, the expectation to deep act at all times with no regard for context is inhumane.

In addition, emotion regulation is as it sounds: instead of allowing ourselves to display and act out our emotions as we feel them, social, biological, personality and more elements regulate our emotions to how we think we should react to a trigger in any certain scenario. We’ve been taught from an early age to regulate our emotions and essentially defend our egos. Exhausting, isn’t it? 

The “customer first” mentality of many industries can cause customers to interpret that the person serving them is “secondary” or lesser than. Verbal harassment and abuse, even physical abuse, come at high rates to frontline workers. A study by Grandey, Dickter and Sin found that, “a significant portion of US customer-contact employees suffers from verbal abuse daily, leading to emotional exhaustion or employee burnout. In the hospitality industry, almost half of customer-contact employees were found to have experienced physical abuse from customers, and 38% of them needed medication” (Bi, Choi, Yin and Kim, 2021). 

So, how can we help? Well, it starts by seeing a person, not just a service provider—by treating frontline employees with respect and empathy. We’ve all felt the urge to chew out a customer service rep or one of our junior employees on a bad day, but put yourself in their shoes. Humanize the “worker,” and ask them how they’re doing and what can be done to prevent any issues in the future. Offer them a smile first. 

When someone is offering their help, providing you with a service and support, don’t offer unnecessary criticism or take out your emotions on them—offer them a big thanks. It’s the least you can do.