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How the retail sector can boost employee mental wellbeing at work

By Teresa Long and Rebecca Forster | July 5, 2023

Practical tactics for retailers to protect, support and promote good mental wellbeing of their workers.
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Workers in retail are facing a range of pressures that could impact their mental wellbeing at work today, from dealing with increasing levels of theft as individuals wrestle with cost of living pressures, aggression from customers, to coping with the fallout from civil unrest such as climate related protests. By managing mental wellbeing at work effectively, retailers can better protect their people in challenging times, differentiating their employee offer from competitors and supporting improved recruitment and retention.

Where retailers don’t pay due attention to managing employee mental wellbeing, they face increased risk of personal injury claims from workers. And where a retailer has a reputation of not effectively managing mental wellbeing at work, these risks might deepen labour shortages as well as lead to long-term damage to the business and retail brand.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advocates a three-pronged approach to managing mental health at work:

  • Prevent risk to mental health
  • Protect and promote mental health by strengthening manager capacities
  • Support people with mental health conditions to thrive at work.

Using WHO’s framework and calling on perspectives explored in the WTW Leisure and Hospitality Futures report, this insight examines how retailers can better manage their workers’ mental wellbeing at work, particularly in the face of ongoing societal and economic challenges.

Before looking at the practical actions retailers can take in line with WHO’s framework, it’s also worth bearing in mind what’s included in ISO 45003:2021: Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work — Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. The international standard highlights the importance of considering and managing psychosocial risks. Hazards in this area might stem from emergency situations and include traumatic events (from factors such as threats to life including emerging infectious diseases, suicide of a co-worker, terror, threat and robbery, amongst others). Organisations need to provide appropriate support to individuals impacted by such events.

Preventing risk to mental health in retail workplaces

There are wide range of tools and tactics retailers can use to prevent risk to workers’ mental wellbeing, some relating to specific operational area and ‘hot spots,’ other strategic-level measures. These include:

  • Clearly articulated and widely socialised policies and procedures that work to reduce risk to mental wellbeing, including protocols on dealing with aggressive customers, or customers who steal
  • Investing in technology such as cameras in the vests of security staff which can serve to de-escalate situations with aggressive customers, therefore effectively reducing the risk this poses to mental health. Training on dealing with violent customers and how to de-escalate situations can also deliver similar benefits
  • Reviewing your policies and procedures for how effectively they identify hazards and assess risks to psychological health and safety, recognizing factors such as the high emotional demands of some retail roles, such as remaining calm and polite when dealing with angry customers
  • Reviewing training and competence, return to work procedures, and how you investigate and manage stress-related incidents
  • Incorporating the impact of psychosocial risk on your risk register. At an operational level, this could mean documenting risk assessments, recording control measures and having processes to cascade best practice on preventing risks to mental health throughout the business

Protecting and promoting mental health at work

The key means of delivering on ‘protect and promote’ is strengthening the capabilities of managers. However, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 2022 Health Wellbeing at Work report found only 38% of HR respondents agree that managers are confident in having sensitive discussions and signposting people to expert sources of help when needed. Even fewer (29%) agree managers are sufficiently confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health. This isn’t surprising given that just over two-fifths (44%) of organisations are training managers to support staff with mental ill health.

38% HR respondents agree that managers are confident in having sensitive discussions and signposting people to expert sources of help when needed.

Offering systematic support for managers including training and regular refresher training on line management and communication skills such as their ability to listen, communicate clearly, understand and empathise can be vital to protecting retail workers’ mental wellbeing.

Other moves designed to protect and promote mental health at work that your retail business could consider includes financial wellbeing champions able to signpost to debt management, foodbanks and other resources such as employee assistance programs to support colleagues struggling with cost of living challenges.

Creating planned post-incident responses to protect mental health at work

The possible consequences of exposure to a sudden, unanticipated traumatic event are wide-ranging and serious. Some of these after-effects include depression, sleep disorder, anxiety, loss of concentration, self-doubt, hypervigilance, disturbed relationships with family, friends and colleagues, inability to work, intrusive recollections, guilt, changes in belief systems, obsessive behaviour, and psychological trauma including the development of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Retailers can train managers and/or Mental Health First Aiders to monitor the worker for symptoms of physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural distress, particularly if they persist longer than four weeks. They can also consider providing access to counselling or clinical support.

Supporting positive mental wellbeing for all

Empowering workers to look out for each other, reducing stigma and raising awareness around stress and mental health can be an important way of supporting everyone to thrive at work.

The are many benefits of training workers in stress and mental health awareness and in upskilling employees as Mental Health First Aiders, including:

  • Building awareness of what stress and mental health are
  • Learning about stress vulnerability and how to build resilience
  • Raising awareness of mental illnesses
  • Encouraging early intervention to aid recovery
  • Increasing confidence in dealing with mental illnesses
  • Reducing stigma around mental health issues.

Training can give your people the skills they need to recognise when they or their colleagues may be experiencing stress or poor mental health, enabling them to provide support, understanding, build resilience and access appropriate help.

Having open dialogue around stress and mental health and showing genuine care and concern for the wellbeing of your employess is the first line of defence against presenteeism can reduce both cost to the business of employees leaving due to poor mental health, and the personal costs to individuals who may have otherwise thrived at your retail workplace.

For more insight on supporting employee mental wellbeing get in touch with our retail sector experts.


Industry Leader – Retail, Leisure & Hospitality for GB Risk & Broking

Stress and Mental Health Risk Specialist
Health and Wellbeing

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