I had high hopes for my life after graduating university. But my wistful daydreams about wandering out with the promise of a £25,000-a-year graduate job, my own flat and true financial independence were dashed, like so many others, in the throes of this pandemic.
With over 150 application forms filled, tons of free time on my hands and more than £250 into my overdraft, I started to feel as if my life had no meaning.
After living in denial for a few months I made the painful decision to put my dreams on hold, and start thinking practically. I began putting my applications in for anyone who was hiring, despite the fact that a lot of these jobs placed me directly within the firing line of Covid-19. I put myself forward for kitchen porter jobs, waitressing, office cleaning, even volunteering at my local nursery.
Every time I clicked ‘submit’, I was often greeted with the grim news that hundreds of other people had applied for the same job. I didn’t stand a chance.
One such job was a sales assistant role at a large store in the centre of town. On a family trip to Edinburgh back in August, I was invited to a video interview with the store manager – my first interview out of hundreds of applications.
I hurriedly cleared the confines of my hotel room and got to work researching every finer detail about the company. I prepared cue cards, threw a blazer over my pyjamas, and, while the rain was beating down on the window, presented myself as palatably as I could.
I felt like a fish out of water, but content enough. Until just a few weeks later.
Two weeks later, they offered me the job. After four months of self-doubt, anxiety and tears; I felt like I’d finally earned it. A ten-ton weight had been removed from my shoulders.
The first few weeks on the job were a pleasant surprise. I made friends, enjoyed the company of the customers and relished the hefty paycheck at the end of every second week. This wasn’t the trajectory in which I saw my career propelling, but coworkers convinced me that I was still young, I had all the time in the world. I felt like a fish out of water, but content enough.
Until just a few weeks later.
What seemed to be a normal weekday shift turned horrifyingly sinister. Stood at the front of the store, encouraging customers to use the one-way system, a customer sauntered up to me, introduced himself and made small talk – a welcome change from the unfortunate repetitiveness of retail.
He then asked me where I lived, whether I was single, and if I’d let him take me out for dinner in the evening. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and followed me when I tried to walk away and lingered around the store for hours after I’d reported him, just staring. He was trying to intimidate me.
I burst into tears when I came home, feeling more vulnerable than any of those months I spent in unemployment. I felt like it was my fault – maybe if I hadn’t worn such a figure-hugging dress that day, if I hadn’t engaged in his small talk to begin with, he would’ve left me alone.
Little did I know, being subject to sexual harassment would turn into a daily occurrence. In the store, and out of it, my routine forced me to come face-to-face with men who wanted nothing more than to make me uncomfortable. I endured it because I didn’t have a choice.
In November, my fears of being in the viral firing line came to fruition: I caught a bad case of Covid from work, which continues to leave a lasting impact on my physical and mental health. While deep down I knew that contracting Covid had become a certainty, the positive result still shocked me to the core. Knowing I’d sacrificed my physical wellbeing for minimum wage drained any optimism I had left.
And yet I was summoned back to work just two weeks after I was left bed-bound, still exhausted and struggling to breathe. Having to wear a mask for seven hours each day in a high-pressure environment hindered my recovery. I had to serve customers at the till while I was struggling with long Covid-related hair loss – I would notice stray strands of curly hair falling onto the counter in front of me, and bat them away as I downplayed my worry in front of the customer.
Just a week before Christmas, I bit the bullet and handed in my notice. I instantly felt relieved.
In the midst of running to the staff room to have a private coughing fit, and being pulled up by the managers for ‘leaning against the wall’, I knew this was the end of the line. I realised no amount of financial independence was worth sacrificing my mental and physical wellbeing for.
Just a week before Christmas, I bit the bullet and handed in my notice. I instantly felt relieved. My body was ready for a rest.
Since quitting my job, I’ve been able to let myself quietly recover in a supportive environment. During the pandemic, we’ve been made to believe that job offers are like gold-dust. In the midst of people sadly losing their jobs, graduating into the void with no promise of employment – and, like myself, sending off hundreds of applications to no avail, the pressure is on to feel guilty about quitting.
But in the era of self-care, especially when looking out for your health is more important than ever – we shouldn’t have to feel guilty for simply doing what’s right for us.
I don’t regret quitting my job, and I don’t think I ever will.
Hannah Van-de-Peer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @hgvandepeer
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