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Professional and office workers can have stress because their work is not rewarding enough. Or they have a crazy or narcissistic boss, or they have to work long hours because of a workaholic culture, said Douglas LaBier, a psychologist with the Center for Adult Development and author of "Modern Madness: The Hidden Link Between Work and Emotional Conflict."

But stress among retail workers is different, he said. They may still have the problems with management that office workers have, but they also deal with a constant variety of shoppers -- many of whom don't realize they are the cause of someone's bad day at work.

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"There is a tendency to treat that [retail] person as a servant who is not human," LaBier said.

LaBier was in line recently behind a woman who yelled at the cashier because the customer thought the flowers were one price, but the cashier could find only a higher price. The customer had little patience for the cashier, whose English was not perfect, LaBier said. To remedy the situation, the cashier involved a manager. LaBier said the cashier shrank back when the manager was near, presumably afraid she would get in trouble later. (The manager gave the woman her flowers for the lower price).

After that episode, LaBier said, he tried to remind himself to strike up a little conversation with cashiers and to not be impatient after waiting in line. "I think the stress that retail people have is the stress of disrespect as human beings," he said. "They are not perceived as human beings that have their own lives, concerns and issues."

McCausland said she thinks some customers take their bad day out on grocery workers because most customers view food shopping as a chore. But employees at Whole Foods are told in training that customers must leave happy. "At the end of that shopper's experience, they have to feel satisfied," McCausland said. Therefore, workers are told not to focus on who is right and who is wrong.

She acknowledged this effort pretty much goes against human nature. And so the store encourages workers to ask someone else to step in if "someone just plucked your nerves and you don't think you can handle it," McCausland said.

The company knows it's not easy to deal with the constant stress of pleasing customers, a sometimes impossible feat. So employees are given little things, such as occasional massages during breaks or appreciation days when the store buys pizza for everyone.

Employees are also given a coupon booklet to be used for unhappy customers. The employee can use the coupons for whatever they feel they need to do to placate a customer, McCausland said. Grumpy lady with cheap flowers? Give them to her for free. That can ease the customer's tantrum and help take that bad moment off the shoulders of the worker. (Don't you all go out yelling at the cashiers so you can get free stuff now, please.)

This is not to say there aren't grumpy, unpleasant retail workers out there -- some who are hard to deal with even if the customer is as kind as can be.

"Being in a customer-service-type industry, I know we're not perfect either," said Kevin Stickles, human resources manager for Wegmans supermarkets in Virginia and Maryland. But they try.

In customer-service training, workers are told to let an upset customer talk, then repeat back what they heard. "Most of the time, there's a way we can fix a situation," Stickles said. Employees are told to get the next person in charge if they are not comfortable with an upset customer. That way, "they never feel like they're cornered," he said.

Unfortunately, angry customers may be partly to blame for so much bad customer service. To deal with the daily stress of being the focus of a customer's rant, cashiers and other retail workers separate themselves from the person across the counter who is yelling about the price of milk, LaBier said. They become numb and unresponsive.

As one who often yearns for better customer service, I'll probably think about grocery store workers' stress next time I swipe my card and run without a smile. And maybe, next time, I'll have something to say to the man in the suit.

There will be no live online chat Tuesday and no column next Sunday, but Amy Joyce will return March 15 to talk about your life at work at washingtonpost.comfrom 11 a.m. to noon. You can e-mail her at lifeatwork@washpost.com.


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