I’m Working In A Supermarket Through The Pandemic. This Is What It’s Really Like

Lizzie Bestow

When I went into my first shift, I was somewhat nervous. 

I hadn’t been in employment for a little while. After finishing my master’s, I developed chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and had been recovering after spending a month almost entirely bed-bound. I saw a job advertised in our small local supermarket and thought it was the perfect opportunity – the supermarket is only five minutes down the road from where I live with my partner, and the flexible part-time hours could provide a source of income while I studied for my PhD.

My second shift, however, was even more nerve-racking: lockdown had begun. The panic buying started almost immediately, with one colleagues remarking she had never seen the shelves so empty in a decade of working there. Since, then it’s been utterly exhausting – for all my colleagues, let alone someone like me living with CFS. 

I ended up having to work more hours – working more shifts and staying later – because we were needing huge deliveries of most foods daily, and my PhD application remained stuck on my computer as universities across the country closed. Because of the situation, I had almost no training; I just ended up having to find my way around the tills myself. I didn’t mind doing this – I’ve always preferred a more hands-on approach to learning a task – but it was very stressful to learn something completely new whilst attempting to adhere to stringent social distancing guidelines, which were difficult to put into practice in a very small store.

More than once, I’ve come home and sat in the bath crying, too exhausted to wash my hair.

Sometimes this can feel quite distressing; I struggle with explaining to customers that we are trying our best, but that the store itself has very narrow aisles, and there is little we can do about that. We have tried to implement as much as we can – although it can feel very upsetting to not be able to enforce what we need. Occasionally, customers will become annoyed at each other over a perceived transgression of the rules, and try to get me to take sides. More than once, I’ve come home and sat in the bath crying, too exhausted to wash my hair. 

Every shift begins with a familiarisation of the new measure which had been undertaken overnight – protective screens, gloves, face-masks, limits on the number of people allowed in the store at one time. Occasionally, well-meaning customers question me about the protective measures meant to keep us all safe; I remember vividly one lady, about a week into lockdown, questioned me incessantly about the safety procedures and helpfully told me I was probably going to get the virus. After she had left, I felt the beginnings of a panic attack, and had to take a moment to ground myself. A colleague has told me that I should be self-isolating, because, if I caught the virus, I could suffer a relapse in my CFS symptoms. But I am simply not able to – I started the job a week before lockdown, and so the government’s furlough scheme wouldn’t cover me as a very new employee.

While we in supermarkets are facing our trials and tribulations, I am always conscious that ours are nothing compared to other front-line workers, such as the nurse who, after finishing an A&E shift, broke down in tears in front of me, sobbing that she just couldn’t deal with treating dying people any more. I wanted so badly to give her a hug, and I felt deeply sad that I couldn’t. 

Being able to go out every day and talk to people, even if it’s just while I’m packing their shopping, has really helped me mentally navigate lockdown

Selective focus color image depicting a caucasian woman in her 30s wearing a protective surgical face mask and plastic surgical gloves during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. The woman is pushing her shopping cart inside a supermarket while shopping for wine and alcohol in the alcoholic drinks section of the store. Room for copy space. (Photo: coldsnowstorm via Getty Images)

There have been longer and more challenging shifts, and, sometimes, customers who are angry at product shortages and shout at me. That can be really upsetting, and I sometimes finish my shift in tears. But equally, there have also been customers who have thanked me for being there, who have said that I have made their day a little bit better. There’s a lady who comes in and asks me about what my PhD will cover – sometimes she comes in and tells me about what she has been reading while she buys her newspapers, about a dystopian fiction book that she has enjoyed.

It’s these aspects of the job that have really helped me get through lockdown – these customers make my day a little bit better too. Most customers who visit the store live only a few doors down from me, and working here has become a way for me to engage with the community. Now, on my little five minute walk to work, I see them cycling past, and we smile and wave at each other. Even this helps make me feel much more connected to the people around me, and far less isolated. 

This hasn’t been just a job – it’s been a lifeline for me during this pandemic. Being able to go out every day and talk to people, even if it’s just while I’m packing their shopping, has really helped me mentally navigate lockdown. A lot of the support services I usually access have been suspended; I receive outpatient treatment for my eating disorder, but this has all been over the phone because of the virus. Going to work forces me to get out of the house, see people and speak to them. I’ve found that the job has been really important for me in so many ways; as a source of income and to help me save for a PhD, as something that I have found fulfilling, and as a way to hopefully exit lockdown with my mental health intact. 

Lizzie Bestow is a freelance writer

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