How many health and wellness listicles have you favorited? You know, those stories like: “5 foods to fight belly fat,” “9 tips for good sleep” or “4 ways to reduce stress at work”. They probably contain good advice, but often you don’t get the results you were hoping for. Health expert Jenny Dempsey would say that’s because there’s a lot more to health and wellness than following a recipe, and everybody has their own path to better health.
Dempsey is a customer service expert who also has her own health and wellness consultancy, Jenny Dempsey Wellness. She starts clients with a free 60-minute consultation to get a sense for someone beyond the engrained “diet and exercise” mantra.
“It is a bigger perception shift,” Dempsey said. “I have a hard time with getting people to actually believe that you don’t have to count calories and you don’t have to be on a diet. They don’t think it’s possible.” Health involves so much more than counting calories, she said. It’s about your emotions, your environment, and your relationships. “It takes time to poke and prod to show ‘Here’s how deep the questions go.’”
Dempsey’s own journey has been a long one that began with an eating disorder. On the way, she’s had to figure a lot out for herself. Now, with her clients, she focuses on the concept of “bio individuality,” the idea that one man’s food is another man’s poison.
“I had to be okay with realizing I don’t have to believe in what society thinks I should look like, what I should be eating, and what I should be doing. It’s about knowing you want to change that belief, and that there’s going to be a lot of work with that,” Dempsey explained. She went to therapy, read a lot of books, and stuck with it, knowing that if she persisted something would click and help shift her beliefs.
"I had to be okay with realizing I don't have to believe in what society thinks I should look like, what I should be eating, and what I should be doing." - Jenny Dempsey
Customer service is a wellness laboratory
Her work in customer service has given Dempsey an opportunity to help spread ideas about wellness in her day-to-day life. Dempsey was an English major at San Diego State University, working at Starbucks, when she saw a job opening for a customer support role at a web hosting company. She was hired that day as a Tier 1 agent. In a short amount of time, she rose up through the ranks and wound up managing a team of 24 agents.
“I didn’t think I would stay in customer service this long. I didn’t see it as a career—I saw it as a job to pay my bills….When I was younger I had a different vision of what I should be doing that didn’t look like anything I’m currently doing,” she said. But she really enjoyed interacting with customers, had a lot of opportunities to advance, and the company showed her that they valued her. So she stayed on.
“I like the connection,” Dempsey said. “Talking to so many people from all around the world, building a connection, helping them solve problems. You build this small relationship with them even in those few minutes.” In fact, she had one customer write her a song to thank her for her help. She wrote one back to thank him, calling it a customer service songfest.
Writing songs is a passion, and in her current role as customer service and social media manager with startup NumberBarn, she uses her English degree to help with writing blogs, customer emails, and technical journals.
"I like the connection. Talking to so many people from all around the world, building a connection, helping them solve problems. You build this small relationship with them even in those few minutes." - Jenny Dempsey
Outside the office, as a health coach, Dempsey’s very aware of how the sometimes stressful work of customer service can take a toll on agents. She’s learned and applies strategies to protect herself and to help others. One impetus for this was a conversation she had several years ago with her then-partner about the fact that she put too much into her job. She wouldn’t take breaks, she poured her heart and soul into caring for customers until her muscles and eyes hurt, and she came home feeling emotional and exhausted. Her partner pointed out that all he got was her tired, emotional shell.
Redefining self-care in the customer care center
That’s when Dempsey realized she had to work harder on self-care—an issue many customer service agents face. “It’s not about getting a mani-pedi or a massage,” she said. “I’ve had clients say, ‘When I get done working I just come home and sit down and watch TV. I hate it, but I can’t stop doing it.’” Frequently, she said, all it takes is a small shift. For example, if you’re tired at 8 p.m. but wind up staying up with your significant other until 11 p.m. because that’s their preferred bedtime, self-care might mean going to bed at 9 p.m. because that’s what you need. What one person needs to take care of themselves is going to be different from what someone else needs, she said.
That’s important for leaders to understand, too. She explained that it’s also important for them to start with self-care. Like they say on the airplane, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then assist others.”
“Supporting your teams starts with you in self-care,” she said. “We have to take time as leaders to look at ourselves and our lives. There’s a tool I use called a discovery circle. It goes through and slices areas of your life to help you rate how you feel about those areas in the present moment. It’s a tool to tune in to a shift that we might need to happen.”
That might mean taking a walk, not eating at your desk, going to a yoga or dance class twice a week, or starting to meditate.
“In the past, when I managed support teams, they would sit all day at their desks, even for breaks. They would eat lunch at their desks. There was really no movement, no fresh air. Later I would hear ‘I’m so tired I’m going to go home and sit on the couch.’ Without movement you burn out, it’s not sustainable,” she said.
Self-care is also about tending to emotions—something that employers and employees tend to leave out of the equation. Some companies expect employees to show up at work and check all their personal feelings and circumstances at the door. She’s even known some who wanted agents to keep a mirror on their desk to make sure they were smiling, without regard for how they really felt that day.
That, too, Dempsey said, is not sustainable. “Customer service managers are not therapists and, I don’t have the full answer on how to do this, but it’s a matter of acknowledging that these things have an impact on their work and letting employees acknowledge and own their emotions rather than leaving them at the door and giving attitude all day long. Sometimes you just have a crappy day.”
If she could design her own customer service center, she said, most of the workers would be remote—able to work from anyplace in the world. She would have multiple communication channels that include built-in video chat and a very robust knowledge base. And in the office? Standing desks and yoga balls, windows that open, a nap room, and catered lunch. There would be consistent guidance and opportunities for coaching. And a park nearby, because having access to nature is another part of the complex ecosystem that is our health and wellness.
The most important thing, she stressed, is to be able to listen to yourself, your own emotions and body, and what they’re telling you that you need. And whether that’s taking a walking meeting after quickly scarfing down a healthy protein or drinking a banana smoothie atop a yoga ball, before taking a nap…go for it, she said.