How can retailers prioritise mental health post-Covid?

Retail Gazette talks to experts to find out how staff mental wellbeing in the UK retail sector can be prioritised now that non-essential shops have reopened their doors and Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease.

As coronavirus restrictions continue to ease, how can retailers support their employees and their mental health as trading returns to normal.
"Retailers should make efforts to ensure that there is no shame or stigma associated with mental health." - Amanda Lennon

The mental health of retail workers has been impacted significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a survey from RetailTrust, 84 per cent of retail workers have said their mental health deteriorated over the past year or so. Common symptoms include anxiety, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and long-lasting sadness for more than a third of staff.

In the same survey, nearly two thirds of retail managers revealed they had been left overwhelmed by the extra work created by the pandemic. Meanwhile those working on the shop floor and in distribution warehouses, as well as younger retail workers in their 20s, had the lowest levels of wellbeing.

Now, as non-essential retailers have resumed trading across the UK and government restrictions continue to ease in each of the four home countries, how can retail workers be supported while businesses push on with reopening strategies?

Maryam Meddin, founder and chief executive of London-based mental health clinic The Soke, highlighted the importance of retail in the wider UK economy, and why looking after its workers was crucial.

“I remember a few years ago there was a survey asking what brands made British people most proud and top of the list was John Lewis,” she reflected.

“It was strange to think that in the country that produced Aston Martin, Wimbledon and the BBC, the organisation most beloved and admired was a retailer that sells a wide array of products, the majority of which are stamped with other brand names.

“I think it’s a testament to the important role that retailers play in our sense of national identity, as well as in our day to day lives – even with the ascendancy of online shopping.

“It must, therefore, have been quite soul destroying – not to mention somewhat antithetical – that when crunch time came, those who worked in retail stores were regarded as entirely ‘non-essential’ to our existence.”

“It’s no wonder that those who work in retail are showing signs of declining mental health”

Meddin went on to say that it’s not just up to retail businesses to re-establish trust when their workers – particularly shop floor staff – had been indirectly deemed as dispensable.

“Obviously it’s up to employers to take whatever action is within their means to nurture their staff’s welfare in every sense, but perhaps we, collectively, also need to show greater appreciation for how entirely essential to our happiness our non-essential workers are,” she said.

In honour of mental health awareness month, a range of UK retailers have launched new initiatives encouraging both consumers and employees to take care of their mental health and wellbeing. But unlike previous years, this time it’s more pertinent given the fact that much of the country endured at least eight months worth of lockdown over the past 13 months.

Dr Kate Daley, clinical psychologist at Unmind, explained that it can be hard to know if these mental health campaigns were purely public-facing or if they also reflected how a company approaches mental health with their own staff.

“Over the past year many retailers have introduced new mental health initiatives in the workplace,” she told Retail Gazette.

“This is particularly pertinent in a sector where many have spent the last year on furlough, which as a significant life change could have had an impact on employee mental wellbeing.

“Supporting staff  through this difficult time is vital and seeing companies recognising this internally, as well as externally, has been fantastic.

“It is important that this is more than ‘ticking a box’ and that initiatives are designed with staff wellbeing at the heart.

“Employers shouldn’t see these initiatives as temporary or stick to a reactive approach”

“The power lies within prevention and proactive approaches, helping all employees all of the time.”

Daley added that Gymshark was a key example of an online retailer that has been proactive and genuine in implementing mental wellbeing initiatives.

“With a rapid sales growth rate of 115 per cent over two years, the team at Gymshark identified that stress was on the increase amongst staff, and they had to act sooner rather than later, before employees began to burn out,” she said.

One of the many initiatives they have introduced includes recruiting internal wellbeing enthusiasts to form ‘Healthy Minds’, with the purpose of supporting, educating and engaging others in activities that holistically improve wellbeing.

“The use of Unmind, the Healthy Minds initiative and Gymshark’s core values including ‘prioritise your mind’ – contributes to a cultural change in the online retailers approach, bringing mental wellbeing to the forefront of importance,” Daley said.

Author and business consultant Richard Crawford Small said that while it’s impossible to comment on the individual protocol of specific companies, it was important for all retailers not to underestimate the huge impact that the pressures of the last year have had on the mental health of many employees.

“Whilst it may cost time and money supporting employees and their mental health, it’s important to see it as an investment which will help to improve happiness, productivity and the longevity of employees.” he explained.

Aside from what retailers can do to support their staff, Diane Lightfoot, chief executive of Business Disability Forum, discussed how retail workers themselves have been coping amid the pandemic.

“Our members and our retail network members in particular have told us that the lockdown and the pandemic have taken their toll on front line workers’ mental health,” she said.

“The challenges are different for essential and non-essential retail.

“Those operating in essential retail report a noticeable difference in customers’ attitudes from the first lockdown in 2020 – where customers were generally appreciative, respectful of social distancing, friendly and polite – to the second, where sadly, many are not following distancing regulations or the requirement to wear masks.

“This puts frontline workers in a very difficult position of knowing whether and how to challenge customers  – or whether or how to intervene when customers challenge each other – and some members are reporting abuse of frontline workers as a result.”

Lightfoot added that even if the experiences do not go this far, these actions would still continue to take a toll on staff mental health regardless.

“There is a further consideration for essential retail in that many jobs cannot be done remotely which creates particular problems for staff who are vulnerable to Covid-19 and may need to continue shielding because they do not feel safe returning to the frontline,” she said.

“Non-essential retail workers may have been furloughed and the disconnection and isolation of not being in touch with the workplace, and worse the stress and uncertainty around whether there was a job to go back will also impact on long term mental health.”

Small agreed: “Lockdown has been a very difficult time for many people, especially employees who have been furloughed or lost jobs over the past year.

“Many have struggled on both a personal level as well as in terms of their employment of business.

“Some are now facing the prospect of returning to a job that they may have been furloughed from for the best part of a year, or starting a new job, or of re-opening a business that has been struggling.

“It’s perfectly natural for all of these different possibilities to induce anxiety for a whole host of reasons.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March last year, almost 190,000 retail jobs have been lost as a result of store closures and cutbacks.

The Centre for Retail Research revealed that 188,685 retail jobs disappeared between the start of the first lockdown on March 23, 2020 and March 31 this year. Meanwhile, a staggering 83,725 jobs in the same period were lost due to CVAs, restructures and administrations, including collapses by Debenhams and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group retail empire.

With non-essential shops forced to close during lockdown and a boom in online shopping, retail jobs have been reduced massively, leaving many left struggling to find new work in a challenging climate – thus affecting mental health.

Daley said that sudden life changes such as job losses and global events like recessions can understandably have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing.

“If we think of our mental wellbeing as comprising seven key areas: fulfilment, coping, calmness, happiness, connection, health and sleep – you can see how changes like these could affect them all,” she explained.

“In conceptualising wellbeing in this way, we’re able to see the areas that need our attention, and the areas where we can intervene.

“The ‘calmness’ area for example is about managing stress and worry, which commonly increases when an outcome is unclear. For retail workers, the fears of job losses, store closures and pay reductions, will likely have impacted their ability to remain calm.

“This for many, has been on top of other societal worries such as what the outcome of the pandemic will be like – which is why the last 12-plus months in particular have been so difficult for many.”

Daley added that “connection” was another key area that would have inevitably impacted shop workers after lockdowns were implemented. A significant reduction of in-person interaction with people may have created a lonely environment for many – and in turn affecting mental wellbeing.

“It is important to stay mindful of these challenges and we offer support where we can,” she added.

“It’s essential that businesses in strongly affected sectors including retail, recognise the industry challenges and take a proactive approach in ensuring mental wellbeing is being looked after, before it hits a crisis point.”

For those retailers that already had comprehensive measures in place to support employees before the pandemic, do they now need to make amendments post-Covid?

HR director and employment solicitor Amanda Lennon said that while it was “relatively easy” to get the right support for a physical health issue, mental health is a much more sensitive area and requires more patience and sensitivity.

“There is a huge spectrum of mental health issues and everyone is an individual, so a one size fits all approach wont work,” she told Retail Gazette.

“Suffering from mental ill health is not a sign of weakness”

“Having a decent occupational health service is the base line.

“Developing an open and inclusive culture is important. The more that mental health is talked about, the more likely that people will come forward to say that they need help.

“Retailers should make efforts to ensure that there is no shame or stigma associated with it, good employers will want to do all they can to support their workers.”

As the government continues to roll out its vaccination programme and retailers can look towards the future, is it possible for retailers to be able to prevent further stress on their workforces in the event of another crisis?

Lennon said the key was ensuring that all staff understood the new policies and why they were being introduced – instead of waiting for trouble to strike.

“Retailers should also review policies and procedures to ensure that they are ready to act quickly with hygiene measures and mental health support if lockdowns happen again in the future,” she said.

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