Should big retailers take mental health more seriously?

Mental health is predicted to cost the UK £30 billion every year, and the numbers are only rising. Are retailers taking the issue seriously enough?

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Mental Health

A lot happened in 2011. The UK was introduced to its future monarchy at the Royal Wedding, the faces of international terror Gaddafi and Bin Laden were killed, and the legendary Amy Winehouse secured her place in the infamous “27 club”.

Behind the scenes and out of the media limelight though, something else changed. Following a downward trend of sick days for nearly two decades, workplace absences began to rise.

Since 2011 this has risen consecutively every year. It‘s now estimated to cost the UK economy £18 billion per year, and will hit £21 billion by 2020.

A telling figure to this rampant increase in absence is the 71.9 per cent rise in mental health issues over the same period.

“One in four employees in the UK have mental health problems,” Professor Dame Carol Black told the British Safety Council in her ‘Mental Health and SMEs’ campaign.

“Their symptoms include stress, anxiety and depression, which affect their own performance and wellbeing, as well as that of other workers.”

“Most pertinent for the retail sector, where staff have a high interaction with the public, are the findings that 50% felt it made them less patient with clients/customers.”

In her report she states that smaller companies are hardest hit by this worrying rise in mental health issues. She argues that smaller staff numbers mean SMEs – many of which are retailers – should take mental health more seriously.

Yet according to Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), £30 billion is lost per year thanks to 15.2 million sick days, reduced productivity and recruitment issues because of employees‘ mental health problems.

With a quarter of employees in the sector thought to live with mental health issues, it seems larger retailers with high staff numbers are left with no choice but to take it seriously.

Nearly all employees with living with mental health issues say their workday is affected. Law at Work director Donald Mackinnon highlighted that absenteeism is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Presenteeism can be just as damaging to both the business and to its members of staff,” he told Retail Gazette.

“The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that 95 per cent of employees with mental health issues said it affected their performance at work with 64 per cent saying it took them longer to complete tasks.

“Most pertinent for the retail sector, where staff have a high interaction with the public, are the findings that 50 per cent felt it made them less patient with clients/customers.

“A lack of concentration, which was felt by 85 per cent of those asked could not only put staff members at risk but customers as well.”

The impact of mental health on both an employee‘s well-being and the profitability of a business is clearly significant, and more importantly they’re being recognised.

So why are the numbers of those suffering from anxiety and depression still rising?

Unfortunately, stigma around mental illness still permeates, partnered with a general ignorance of the problems that brings.

This means the issue is rarely tackled head on, as both employers and employees are unsure how to talk about it.

“One of the major issues is the fact that management do not know how to help employees with mental health problems,” Mackinnon said.

“Fears of making the employee feel worse or triggering a potentially-expensive legal claim can result in employers doing little or nothing when, in fact, a series of straightforward steps could make a positive impact on the situation.

“In addition to this, The Guardian reported that 63 per cent of managers surveyed felt obliged to put the interests of their organisation above the wellbeing of team members.”

For someone already suffering with anxiety, apprehension in disclosing their issues due to a fear of being penalised is understandable.

Figures from the YouGov-backed  Mental Health at Work Report 2017 published this week back this up, revealing that 1.2 million of the UK’s working population faced demotion, disciplinary action and dismissal for disclosing their issues.

Meanwhile, only 11 per cent of people felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager.

A third of workplaces have no services to support mental health but half of line managers would welcome training on the issue.

Despite this, many in the retail industry are taking action.

This week the Mental Health Policy Institute urged 32 online retail and finance bosses to introduce personalised measures support impulse shoppers with mental health problems. Its estimated increased spending affects 93 per cent of those with physiological ailments, either to boost a low mood or as part of “social value spending”.

Meanwhile, several retailers are organising events or campaigns to mark world Mental Health Day next week on October 10.

“The more a person feels supported in their workplace the higher the beneficial impact this will have on their mental health and as such aid recovery”

And while it may not fall under the mental health umbrella per se, over 5000 retail stores across the UK this week are taking in Autism Hour, dimming the lights and bringing down volumes for shoppers living with autism.

Cardinal Clinic’s Dr Kavita Deepak-Knights said there were simple steps all retailers could take to begin to tackle mental health issues and stigma.

“The more a person feels supported in their workplace the higher the beneficial impact this will have on their mental health and as such aid recovery,” she told Retail Gazette.

“Encouraging and promoting the topic of mental health is essential if employees are going to feel comfortable discussing mental health related issues.

“Mental health awareness days and workshops are a great way of removing stigma. Retailers need to create a culture of openness regarding discussion of mental health issues.

“Also employers need to be especially mindful of how they manage, treat and accommodate people with mental health problems as this will determine employees openness to discussing their difficulties.

“Scheduling in regular ‘check-ins’ from managers and supervisors will help foster a sense of a person feeling cared for and valued, which in turn also helps nurture recovery.”

Leading retailers are starting to pioneer solutions to this growing problem. But as with any significant shift in perspective and practice in the business world, it takes proven results to convince the stubborn and the skeptical.

Perhaps smaller businesses, as Professor Dame Carol Black suggested, are the innovators that could instigate real change.

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