Sparking a Change: Strategies to Improve Retail Employee Well-Being
Few industries have experienced the turbulence that retail has in the last few years, but fortunately the latest forecasts show signs of a rebound. This may be good news for retail leaders, but that positivity isn’t necessarily trickling down to frontline employees. In fact, a concerning trend has emerged — 40 percent of full-time retail associates report a deterioration in their mental health in the past year, and 42 percent say their jobs negatively affect their stress level.
This stark reality highlights a growing disconnect between the perceptions of retail executives and the experiences of their employees. Despite the worsening mental health of workers, 77 percent of retail executives believe that employee well-being has actually improved over the last year. This growing gap is fueling increased turnover and productivity challenges that — if not addressed — could impact retail organizations of all sizes, creating ramifications for their overall business performance.
This disconnect has led to a situation where almost half of retail frontline employees and two-thirds of retail managers report they're thinking about leaving their jobs in the next few months. These employees dealing with mental health challenges have an estimated 12 unplanned absences per year compared to the average of 2.5 for all other employees, contributing to $47 billion in lost productivity. For the industry as a whole, trade productivity dropped 0.4 percent in the last year, the first such decline for the industry since 2008.
While some major North American retailers like BJ’s Wholesale Club and Loblaws have recognized this disconnect and made important strides in elevating the conversation on well-being support and education, it’s clear the retail space has an opportunity to raise the bar on outcomes in this area.
4 Strategies to Increase Well-Being in Your Retail Workforce
Since workplace realities are different for every retailer, it’s important to cater your messaging and your offerings to the unique demographics of your workforce. For example, e-commerce retailers need to ensure that messaging and programs work in a virtual environment, while for organizations with a dispersed workforce across job roles, such as warehouse work vs. customer service, adaptable support solutions are crucial. Whichever environment your organization is in, consider these four strategies as a way to spark a change and create a thriving workforce that's ready to serve more customers and adapt to the shifting demands of your organizational needs.
1. Reduce mental health stigma.
It’s well known that retail can be a stressful job, yet the industry has struggled to successfully address employee mental health. As a result, retail organizations are prone to negative perceptions about mental health that keep employees from seeking support to address issues like burnout and stress. Currently, 70 percent of employees say there's some or a high level of stigma around mental health in their workplace. Furthermore, 80 percent of workers with a mental health condition say that stigma keeps them from seeking mental health care.
Workplaces are uniquely positioned to reshape perspectives and reduce stigma, leading by example with empathy and care. Encourage leaders and managers to have conversations about mental health and to share their own stories. This will open a dialogue and build personal, meaningful bonds that will have a positive impact on company culture. Beyond words, think of ways to take action, such as providing incentives for employees who actively engage with health and wellness programs, and celebrating or rewarding employees who help champion these initiatives. It can mean building mental health activities into the workday so leaders can facilitate wellness practices in their teams. This can be as simple as implementing mindfulness breaks into the daily schedule, being sure to avoid peak buying times. Even these short breaks can help employees regain a sense of calm and find renewed patience when they're on the sales floor.
Another step to eliminate workplace stigma includes asking for employee feedback in confidential surveys. This approach can help you assess the top pain points for your employees and help refine your organization’s offerings. This also gives employees a safe way to bring up potential areas for improvement, ensuring they feel heard and valued.
2. Improve access to wellbeing support.
Recognizing that you need to change health behaviors like stress reduction, nutrition, fitness, or your relationship with alcohol is one thing, but taking action to change is another. Retail employees face some unique challenges when it comes to improving their well-being, including inconsistent schedules that can make it difficult to fit “me time” into their lives. This, along with long wait times for care and rising costs, might make many employees hesitant to engage with well-being programs and support. Employees may also be dealing with external stressors that can be uncomfortable or inappropriate to discuss in the workplace, and so they cope with these stressors in unhealthy ways.
Incorporating on-demand, digital health support into your organization’s benefit program can eliminate these barriers. On-demand, virtual support allows employees to access information and support anytime, anywhere, leading to positive behavior change and a better understanding of their own well-being. This creates ease of use for employees and provides peace of mind and comfort as they're able to explore sensitive topics and expert advice in the privacy of their own homes.
3. Reinforce the importance of exercise.
After a long day on their feet, the last thing retail employees may want to do when they do get off their shift is hit the gym. However, considering that retail outpaces many other industries in musculoskeletal injuries and disorders, it’s important employees engage in a fitness routine. This connection has been proven to improve strength and flexibility, and alleviate pain, which leaves employees in a better frame of mind to work with customers. Offering on-demand, virtual fitness makes it easy for employees to find complementary routines that they can fit into their schedules. Virtual classes also make it easier to reach diverse employee groups who can have vastly different interests. From yoga to HIIT to running to dance, employees can find new, unique ways to get their blood pumping and to strengthen their bodies and stave off common musculoskeletal issues and possible injuries. To address the aches and pains that can come from standing for long hours, retail managers can incorporate stretching into their daily routines or even begin each shift with a short stretching routine. This can help correct posture in the long term and help employees feel better when they’re on the clock.
4. Encourage healthy eating habits.
When everything is go, go, go, eating right can be a challenge. Shorter breaks can drive employees to rely on fast food or snacks as part of their routine. These foods rarely provide enough fuel to keep workers energized, and can actually have compounding effects on mood and negative mental health. You can help employees by providing healthy cooking classes on site or virtually, or educational resources that encourage healthy eating. This can help employees improve their relationship with food and inspire confidence in the kitchen so they can begin proactively meal prepping and planning healthy meals, which can reduce the 67 minutes people spend in the kitchen every day.
And, while evidence suggests that potlucks and social eating can improve workplace morale and increase team performance; these events often include sweets and other unhealthy options. Instead, use these opportunities to encourage employees to share healthy food choices or bring in a local chef to demonstrate healthy cooking options.
As a retail leader, you're undoubtedly excited to see an industry resurgence, but make sure your organization is poised to make the most of this upswing by investing in employee mental health. When your organization takes time to remove barriers to well-being and to support employee mental health, you'll find that you're able to build an adaptable, resilient workforce that's ready for anything that comes its way. This commitment to health and wellness not only safeguards your company's success, but also underscores its dedication to the well-being and prosperity of each individual within your organization.
Amy Antonacci is senior vice president, account management, at LifeSpeak Inc., the leading whole-person well-being solution for employers, health plans, and other organizations.