Retailers need to focus on employee mental health: Experts weigh in
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Retailers need to focus on employee mental health: Experts weigh in

By Jessica Paige 14 May 2021 (Last Updated May 18th, 2021 11:10)

This mental health awareness week, Retail Insight Network spoke with experts across the retail industry to discuss how retail employees have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and what retailers should be doing to support the mental wellbeing of staff.

Retailers need to focus on employee mental health: Experts weigh in
Mental health awareness week highlighted what is arguably the biggest fallout of the pandemic; the impact Covid-19 has had on mental health.

The past year has been tumultuous, with the Covid-19 pandemic creating challenges across the retail industry. Many businesses faced closure or entered administration, including large empires such as the Arcadia Group, and ecommerce became the key topic.

However, while observers focused on the financial and business effects of the pandemic, something that is often overlooked is the most important part of any retailer: the employees.

This mental health awareness week, Retail Insight Network spoke with experts across the retail industry to discuss how retail employees have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and what retailers should be doing to support the mental wellbeing of staff.

Mental health the biggest fallout of Covid-19

Mental health awareness week highlighted what is arguably the biggest fallout of the pandemic; the impact Covid-19 has had on mental health.

Recent research has indicated that living through a pandemic has left thousands with a new anxiety disorder called Covid-19 anxiety syndrome, and many others with heightened social anxiety.

A new report by UK-based charity retailTRUST found that retail workers are “suffering the lowest mental wellbeing of any employee group, with the pandemic continuing to worsen staff’s mental health.”

Statistics provided by retailTRUST revealed that 84% of retail staff say that their mental health deteriorated during the pandemic, with over a third of workers now suffering long-lasting symptoms of mental illness.

As well as this, 91% of retail managers said that they have noticed an increase in mental health issues among staff and have been overwhelmed by the amount of extra work created by Covid-19 themselves.

RetailTRUST said that demand for its financial and wellbeing services hit record levels last year, with over £800,000 in financial aid needing to be provided, a 125% rise from 2019. More than 6,000 counselling sessions were also provided, an increase from 2019 by 164%.

RetailTRUST chief executive Chris Brook-Carter said: “Retail workers been hard hit financially, emotionally and physically over the last 12 months as our research shows, and it is clear that the retail sector now has a vital role to play in building hope, health and happiness as we move out of this crisis.

“Businesses who step up now will be rewarded with healthier and happier workers, a positive culture and ultimately, business growth.”

Aggression towards retail staff has increased

In February this year, retailers and organisations across England and Wales wrote to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask for more protection for shop workers, as it was revealed that violence and abuse in shops had increased, with this being attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to implement safety measures.

A survey conducted by the British Retail Consortium found that 100% of respondents had seen an increase in verbal abuse during the UK Covid-19 lockdown. There had also been an increase in incidents caused by violence to staff.

However, updated research indicates that increased aggression has not lessened in the months since February.

UK-based body-worn camera manufacturer Reveal told Retail Insight Network that it recently conducted research that looked into the impact of customer aggression and abuse on the wellbeing of retail staff across the UK, particularly as a result of the pandemic.

The research revealed that 63% of workers dealing with customers said they often felt unsafe as a result of having to deal with aggressive shoppers, with half of the respondents having to take time off after experience an abusive incident. Alongside this, 64% of shopworkers admitted to being too frightened to implement Covid-19 safety measures for fear they would be abused by customers.

How can retailers help staff?

Be more transparent with employees

UK-based vape pen retailer Vape Town digital PR executive Laura Blackwell told Retail Insight Network that retailer employers need to be more transparent with their employees and open communication, allowing more leeway on matters such as taking breaks.

Blackwell said: “Employers need to understand that not everyone is going to be equipped to deal with the increased demand for business and that it’s going to be a long adjustment period.

“Listen to your employees and check in with them throughout the day – if they need an extra break here and there; or if they need to take ten minutes, let them.

“The pandemic has forced everyone to adopt a certain degree of transparency, as almost every aspect of our lives has been affected.

“Being transparent with your employees about your own struggles will encourage the same vulnerability from them. Normalise talking about holidays and time off and find a way to make it work for everyone.”

Tackle mental health stigma

Working Mindset European clinical psychologist Dr Rebecca Holt told Retail Insight Network that the first steps retailers should take is to make efforts to communicate with staff about mental health and reduce stigma around the topic.

Holt said: “Retailers first need to reflect on their organisational culture around mental health. The number one priority has to be tackling the stigma and creating a culture of openness where people feel safe and comfortable to talk about their mental health.

“Mental health is still so often seen as a taboo subject in the retail environment and there is a reluctance to talk about it for fear of discrimination.

“Regular communication from senior leaders to reinforce the importance of staff wellbeing is, without doubt, one of the most effective and powerful ways to shift the culture. Asking senior leaders to share about their own well-being can be incredibly effective.

“Ensuring all employees have a regular conversation about their health and well-being with their line manager is important but, in practice, this can be challenging in the retail environment where there may be a lack of private space and limited time. Creativity is required – e.g., going for a walk – so that these conversations can happen.

“Having a mental health plan communicating the importance of mental health and wellbeing needs to be at the heart of the organisation’s commitment to mental health. This plan should include how the retailer plans to address the work-related causes of mental health problems, how work/life balance will be supported, and offer clear guidance and training for managers as well as establishing what support will be offered to those experiencing poor mental health.”

Take advantage of technology

According to health tech brand Moodbeam co-founder Jonathan Elvidge, health technology “holds the key” to retail staff wellbeing.

Elvidge said: “Central to looking after employee mental health, morale, and happiness is understanding how staff are feeling day-to-day. An employer wants to know that its staff are okay and provide a simple mechanism by which they can feedback – especially if they are suffering in any way.

“Equally, staff want to feel like they have a voice within their business – and more importantly that they are being listened to. This is where health can really benefit a business – and any simple-to-use device that allows daily sentiment tracking has the potential to be a truly powerful and transformative tool.”

Moodbeam developed an example of such technology that can be used called the Moodbeam One. By pressing a button attached to a lanyard or bracelet, employees can input their mood and monitor their mental health. This feedback can then be passed to employers or human resource departments, who can then act on this feedback and improve their employees’ wellbeing.

Elvidge said: “For example, an area manager could re-prioritise the frequency of visits to a particular store to help identify issues and solutions where staff morale may be low.”

Retailers have a legal responsibility to support staff

Employment lawyers Collyer Bristow partner and head of employment law Tania Goodman told Retail Insight Network that employers have a legal responsibility to support staff.

Goodman said: “It is common knowledge that employers have health and safety responsibilities for their employees, but this is usually thought of by employers in the physical sense.

“However, this duty of care also extends to an employee’s mental wellbeing and the employer must do all that they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.

“Employers could also take steps to promote a supportive working environment, which could include implementing mental well-being policies or investing in an Employee Assistance Programme that can offer support and counselling to those who need it.

“Employers should be aware that a mental health issue could be considered a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010. If so, the employer will have to consider making reasonable adjustments to assist the employee.

“It is important to note that an employer is required to make these adjustments where they know, or could be expected to know, that the employee has a mental health issue and therefore it is not the sole responsibility of the employee to inform their employer of their requirements.

“It is, therefore, necessary to have mechanisms in place to help spot the signs, such as providing mental health training to managers.”