Covid-19 has drastically impacted the way we live and work. It is paramount that leaders reassess how their organisations can foster a safe and supportive environment as they navigate a broad range of interrelated and complex issues triggered by the pandemic. The latest 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, which includes more than 4200 responses from CIOs and technology executives across 83 countries (including 265 from Australia), revealed that 84 per cent of technology leaders reported they were concerned with the mental health of their team. Modern-day knowledge workers are living in a time of ‘always on’ culture, often leading to increased anxiety, loss of connectivity with fellow workers and added complexities of juggling home and work responsibilities.
Given the rapid shift to working from home for a significant part of the workforce, it would be remiss not to consider the impacts of Covid-19 on frontline retail workers. To service the needs of consumers, essential service workers have remained on shop floors throughout the pandemic to meet unprecedented levels of demand – packing orders, stocking shelves and serving customers. Many have continued to use public transport and work in public spaces, facing an inherently higher risk of being exposed to Covid-19.
Within stores, stress has pervaded essential service retailers, with staff bearing the brunt of panic-buying, abuse and violence from agitated customers. Working from behind transparent screens, mask requirements and exposure to the public are factors that have added an extra layer to employee stress. Moreover, the steep decline in customer traffic in non-essential retail stores has cast a looming shadow over job security throughout the industry.
A collection of Australia’s largest companies united in 2020 to form The Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia (CMHAA), a business-led, expert-guided organisation dedicated to improving mental health in the workplace.
Steven Worrall, Chair of CMHAA and managing director of Microsoft Australia, said that now more than ever, businesses need to come together to take collective responsibility for creating mentally healthy workplaces. In a panel discussion, he further emphasised the need to pool collective experience and resources “by sharing what we’re each doing in the workplace to support our people’s mental health and wellbeing”, and to place mental health at the heart of the business agendas.
According to SafeWork Australia, work-related mental health conditions (also known as psychological injuries) have become a significant concern. An estimated 7200 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions each year, with 90 per cent of workers’ compensation claims involving a mental health condition linked to work-related stress or mental stress. This equates to around six per cent of total workers’ compensation claims. For businesses to support workers and adhere to legislation, they must take proactive steps toward complying with health and safety laws concerning psychological health.
The way forward
In the past, the standard, off-the-shelf approach to wellbeing featured wellness weeks with free yoga classes or discounted gym memberships. Nowadays, the need to develop a long-term strategy with practical measures has become essential and expected.
Businesses need to go beyond pilates. Below are three key considerations for retailers who wish to create a sustainable, evidence-based approach to workplace wellbeing.
- Socialising the agenda. Leadership is a requisite for lasting success. Support from boards and senior management is essential in driving change and embedding new cultures. A zero-tolerance approach to abusive customer behaviour should be driven by leaders and managers in stores and demonstrated by active communication and a standard approach to safeguarding the wellbeing of employees on the front line. Leaders should pair any instances of abuse from customers that put service workers at risk with swift action, such as the refusal of service or police attendance. Consistent messaging should flow through all layers of the organisation to establish expectations for working hours, build awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
- Upskilling the workforce. Core to any wellbeing strategy is ensuring people have the skills to engage in effective conversations about mental health. To measure the effectiveness of training and support mechanisms, retailers should leverage data to evaluate trends in mental health-related incidents, turnover rates and employee satisfaction. Key considerations for building capacity in the workforce include:
- Adopting evidence-based practice from scientific research, industry groups and global case studies.
- Developing a balanced approach of best practice paired with local consultation to tailor an offering that meets the needs of the organisation and its people.
- Training to equip people with the necessary skills to manage difficult customers and support team members is critical. Managers should have the skills to identify signs of excessive overtime work, encourage breaks in line with working hours and understand how to identify and provide support to those displaying anxiety or stress-related symptoms.
3. Sustainability. Employers have a significant and lasting impact on the mental health of their people. Retailers need to examine the environment they are creating for their teams and integrate best-practice initiatives, such as Employee Assistance Programs, flexible working arrangements, wellbeing programs and readily available mental health resources. A successful business model demands clear performance indicators comprised of quantitative and qualitative data to paint a holistic picture of progress.
Retail employees have become essential workers. Many are serving hundreds of people every day, while others are packing online orders and keeping stores safe for customers. As we reopen the economy, more people will be shopping and working in retail, and the support needed to fortify the health and wellbeing of these employees is critical.
The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting isolation have increased mental health issues around the world. Those businesses that emerge successfully from the crisis will be ones that have properly designed and implemented employee wellbeing measures that provide adequate support, increase awareness, reduce stigma and create an open culture around mental health. By supporting the health and wellbeing of employees, retailers not only stand to benefit through reduced healthcare costs and less absenteeism, but they can also design an environment that supports the wellbeing of employees, thereby improving staff retention and morale. A prime opportunity exists for all retailers, big and small, to take a forward step in their approach and accelerate a change in the way Australia approaches workplace mental health.