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Rethinking retail therapy?

07 October 2019

As part of our #ThisPlaceMinds campaign, we take a look at some of the workplace mental health challenges and solutions in the retail sector.

As employment lawyers, we are particularly interested in mental health issues in the workplace, including how poor mental health can develop and how can it affect staff, what impact it can have on the business and what initiatives employers can take to encourage positive mental health.

More and more, we are advising on how to manage employees with stress and depression, including once they have been off work for some time.  After a lengthy absence, relationships may be strained and resolution can be complex and costly, even more so if a work situation is alleged to have caused or exacerbated the issue.

Through our #ThisPlaceMinds campaign  we hope to engage everyone at Lewis Silkin, as well as our clients, to help foster workplaces that enhance mental wellbeing and build a culture where people can talk openly about their mental health.

This article focusses on the particular issues facing the retail sector.

Mental health challenges in the retail sector

Nowhere to hide                         

In our experience, each industry will have its own particular pressure points.  In the retail sector, many employees work (and love working) directly with customers.  That can be rewarding, but it also means being on the front line, with nowhere to hide, responding to (sometimes) dissatisfied people.  Serving in a restaurant, being a barrista, dealing with low stock in times of high demand on the shop floor or responding to customer complaints can be demanding.  “The customer is always right” might be a welcome motto – but it is not an easy concept to live by in all your working hours, especially if already facing difficult personal issues. 

Lack of autonomy

Research has shown that autonomy is important for employee happiness.  But those in customer facing roles often lack autonomy, because the very nature of the role involves responding to the needs of others.  Often, those needs are time-sensitive, adding to the pressure. 

The toll of physical effort

Then there’s the consistent physicality of many retail jobs to contend with.  For anyone dealing with mental health issues it can – at least sometimes – be tough to muster the requisite energy to perform at the standard the employer (or the employee themselves) expects. 

Difficulties reverberating throughout teams

Those who manage staff in customer facing roles are also exposed to these challenges – and the pressure is often on them to try to find resolution, sometimes with no particular training and with limited (if any) knowledge of any more serious underlying problems.  There is often a delicate balancing exercise between the needs of various employees which they may not feel equipped to undertake. 

What’s the cost – to workers and businesses?

All this presents workers with often unattractive choices.  Do you take time off work (either intermittently or longer term)?  Do you attend work even though you know you may struggle to concentrate, find it more difficult to juggle tasks, take longer to do tasks, have difficulty making decisions, or even be more likely to get into conflict with colleagues and/or be less patient with customers?

Generally, days lost to sickness absence have been reducing in recent years but absence due to poor mental health is increasing.  And, greater than the cost of absence, is the cost of presenteeism, when workers attend work despite not being fully fit to do so.  Deloitte has estimated the total monetary cost of poor mental health for UK employers at between £33 and £42 billion each year, with approximately £8 billion attributable to absence and a staggering £17 billion plus attributable to presenteeism.    

Possible solutions

Social moves toward change

The good news is that people (including celebrities and the Royal Family) are talking more openly and positively about mental health, reducing the stigma. Many businesses recognise the benefits (human and financial) of early interventions.  Employee assistance programmes and counselling services have their place, but many organisations are also adopting proactive mental health support strategies. These include workplace forums, mental health awareness campaigns and training for managers on how to recognise signs of anxiety, stress, depression and other common mental health issues.  The CIPD, in collaboration with the charity MIND, have produced a People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health which businesses may find helpful.   

Legal moves toward change

The ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ campaign started in May 2018 with the aim of making mental health first aiders a legal requirement, alongside the existing requirement for first aiders trained in dealing with physical injuries. 

There is also the existing legal duty on employers to safeguard the health and safety of their workers.  This includes mental health.  That aspect of “health” has often been overlooked but that may be about to change as a result of rising mental health-related absence and awareness of the issues.  Acknowledging these trends, the Health and Safety Executive has updated its guidance to reference mental first aid. 

Retailers leading the way?

WHSmith’s CEO was one of the key retail signatories of an open letter backing mandatory mental health first aiders.  In the meantime, the company has already appointed mental health first aiders in its business who are trained to spot colleagues’ mental health difficulties and provide appropriate support. 

And while bricks and mortar retailers may struggle to compete with online retailers, physical space on the high street has advantages, including the ability to offer on-site experiences and services.  Could these be used to promote mental wellbeing?

Large department stores often have a café which can act as a refreshment stop but also, potentially, aid a sense of community which can in turn ward off loneliness and guard against associated long-term mental health issues.  Marks & Spencer certainly seemed aware of this when it teamed up with comedian and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax to hold “Frazzled Cafes”.  The scheme is now a registered charity holding fortnightly meet-ups with the purpose of “providing a safe, anonymous and non-judgemental environment where people who are feeling frazzled can meet on a regular basis to talk and share their personal stories”.  Their message is “It’s ok, to not be ok”. 

Some retailers already provide health and beauty services at their locations (think Superdrug brow bars, and on-site pharmacies at larger Sainsbury’s stores).  Taken a step further, extra physical retail space could also be used to offer mental health facilities or even therapy (in partnership with a third party health provider or counselling service for example), increasing access to services and footfall for retailers.    

Interested in hearing more?

We are be hosting a discussion of these issues and more at our event on 16 October 2019.  More details, including of how to sign up, are here.

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