Mental Health & Customer Service

We rely on our clients in almost every industry to run a successful business. Accountants need corporations, doctors require patients, and restaurants thrive when bustling with consumers. They make our business go round. There was an adage I grew up hearing my whole life that the customer is always right, but anyone who has ever worked in the service industry knows this isn't true. Striving for customer satisfaction should always be our goal. Still, unless the situation is objective, there is a chance either the customer or service provider is wrong. 

In our post-COVID world, the expectations of clients have changed drastically. According to an article written by Forbes, 93% of customer service teams say customers have higher expectations of them, and 58% of customers agree that their expectations of customer service are more significant than before. I don't think I would be wrong to say that we have all witnessed someone in customer service being yelled at by a consumer for "just doing their job," As of late, I have seen it more often than not. The question is, how does this affect your business? And why should it matter to you as an employer? 

With so much focus on workplace culture, toxic employees, and toxic management styles, we forget about the toxic client and their impact on your staff's mental health. According to a study by Inc and Go, 60% of employees quit because they weren't willing to deal with toxic clients.

Try to understand the emotional and physical strain and anxiety an employee endures when faced with an aggressive client. Now imagine what happens when that aggression comes from multiple customers in one day. In an article written by Corporate Wellness Magazine, they state, and I quote, "These effects occur in a continuum, beginning as distress in response to stressors. Distress, in turn, leads to elevated blood pressure and anxiety, which increase the risk of coronary heart disease, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders." On top of the long-term effects of being yelled at, it can also cause employees to feel unsafe in their work environment and put them into fight-or-flight mode. 

As an employer, your goal is to maintain the health and wellness of your employees and support them when needed, but all too often, that support should be considered when it comes to a toxic client because they are bringing in revenue. But equally as significant is the financial impact of a high turnover rate within your organization. It's possible that a toxic client's value versus a good employee's value doesn't even compare. So how do you support your good employees' mental health and wellness? 

In my opinion, the first step is setting boundaries. When an organization has limits and management and employees adhere to them, there is no room for confusion. Consider a client entering a retail establishment for a return. The policy clearly states that there are no returns; however, management allows for a return, just this once. The client comes back to the establishment a month later and has another return. The employee handling the situation quotes the return policy. The client is now bewildered as the company previously did this for them. Frustration arises, and the employee is at the mercy of an angry client; Meanwhile, they are just doing their job.

The one exception creates precedence in the mindset of the customer, then making it hard for them to understand why you can't just "bend the rules" once more if it was done before. Maintaining boundaries will prevent confusion or entitlement and allow for a more structured work environment for your staff. After all, rules are put in place for a reason. 

Secondly, create a safe place for employees to discuss their frustrations without repercussions. Either have an open-door policy where employees can come and speak with you about these concerns or have a form that employees can complete on an as-needed basis. As long as the employee knows that their concerns are heard without a slap on the wrist, this can benefit both the employee and the employer. Talking about abusive situations is the best way to process them. Additionally, it gives you, the employer, insight into what's happening in the workplace. 

Thirdly, investigate the leading cause of the client's frustration. Speak with the client, and try to understand their concerns. Is there an underlying reason for the unfair treatment of your staff? Remember that underlying causes don't excuse their behaviour; your team needs to feel supported. Still, everyone should have a chance to share their side of the story. They could suffer from extreme stress in their personal life, the uncertainty of the rules and boundaries, or they just expect more from you. 

Fourth, address the problem. It's all good and well to let someone voice their opinion or concern, and for some, that is enough, but that only helps for so long. If the toxic situation continues, talking about it will no longer be enough. Have an action plan. How can you, as the employer assist the employee in overcoming the frustration? What steps can you take with the client and the employee to mediate the situation? Attempt to inform the toxic client that this behaviour is unacceptable and back up your staff. Ultimately, if the toxic behaviour continues and no amount of mediation improves the situation. You may need to let the client go or suggest services elsewhere. Letting a client go can be difficult, but also necessary if they negatively impact your staff.  

Following these steps may only sometimes be enough. Being treated negatively on repeat can cause deep-seated behaviours in your staff, including shortening their emotional fuse and making them more reactive. A toxic client can turn a great employee into a toxic employee and sour the environment of your workplace. Stopping the problem early is the only way to protect your staff, their mental health, and your organization.   


Note: To learn more about good customer service or for your staff to learn more about it, consider enrolling in the Service Excellence Blue Pin Program at Northwestern Polytechnic. Service Excellence Blue Pin - Courses - Continuing Education | Northwestern Polytechnic (

To learn more about Mental Health at Work, check out these articles.


Written by Kristina.

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