Fostering Mental Health in the Retail Industry

How do you make the move – and why?

In this time of great uncertainty, as many struggle to maintain and retain their footing career-wise it’s important to check in with one another and initiate a conversation around mental health. Research has shown that a proactive approach to mental health awareness within the workplace is generally more effective than a reactive one. Initiating an open dialogue within the workplace about this often stigmatized topic can lead to more efficient remedial care and ultimately, prevent the problems from arising.

Starbucks is a prime example of a retailer that has taken a proactive and humanistic approach to prioritizing workplace mental health. The company recently announced the launch of its ‘Mental Health Fundamentals’ — a mental health training course for Assistant Managers and above. This program builds on the company’s 2019 pledge to “de-stigmatize mental health needs through partnerships and advocacy; by connecting partners with quality care that meets their specific needs; by providing ongoing training to 12,000 store managers, and by making a mental wellness app available to employees in the U.S. and Canada”.

Managers in retail stores are under great stress as they work to ensure the safety of their teams and customers, while still maintaining viable businesses under pandemic health regulations. Front line staff have to deal with unusual circumstances and frustrated customers as they worry about their own personal safety. And head office teams have had to learn to work remotely, without the social aspect and connection provided by an office environment. In addition to dealing with the direct effects of mental health issues, these individuals have further concerns – Mental Health Works has found there is an average 50% drop in family income when the family’s primary income earner is diagnosed with a mental illness.

The human aspects of these mental health issues directly impact the business. The Canadian Mental Health Commission reported mental health costs of over $50 billion drain Canadian companies every year due to absenteeism, employee turnover, and ‘presenteeism’ — a term that refers to workers attending work while unfit to do so. The benefits of proactively addressing them are significant – a study conducted last year by Deloitte found that Canadian companies that invest in preventive programs and measurable initiatives to tackle mental health issues among their employees enjoy significantly better financial results than those who don’t. The potential benefits of placing mental health awareness high on the priority list can have long lasting effects for a retail firm.

So how can retailers create a landscape that encourages an open narrative around mental health?

As a recruitment agency working with and placing retail leaders, we understand the importance of good leadership and a collaborative dynamic in the industry. We understand that some of the issues retailers are facing today — a significant portion of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — can be mitigated by building a thoughtful team, one that understands the advantages of a holistic and humanistic approach to business. To establish a good team there needs to be high levels of trust within a company, for with trust comes open communication, which is vital for high-functioning workplace morale.

Below are some strategies we’ve seen followed to proactively address the challenges of workplace mental health concerns:

  • Treating Mental Health as a Workplace Health and Safety Obligation: Mental health is a workplace issue - it’s unrealistic to expect employees to park their mental health struggles at the office door and leave them there until closing. And it should be prioritized as seriously as a physical hazard. Statistics from the Retail Council of Canada showed that, in Canada, roughly 500,000 people a week miss work due to mental health struggles. The first step employers can take to combat this problem is to prioritize the creation of a healthy work environment. This commitment to the wellbeing of the work team should be paramount and will be most effectively implemented from the top down, with strong and compassionate leaders acting as navigators.
  • Taking a Holistic Approach to Leadership: Management should lead by example, adopting healthy work practices and modelling appropriate workplace behaviours for the benefit of the whole team. Initiatives like mental health policies for the organization overall will help support this leadership. The proactive nature of this method means that your retail business is prepared when an issue arises, rather than scrabbling to deal with the unforeseen issue without the appropriate tools. Ensuring that managers are well trained on how to identify mental heath ‘red flags’ and that they understand the level of sensitivity needed when broaching the subject is important. Encouraging employees to speak out if they see or are experiencing hazards that may impact their wellbeing is just as beneficial. Generally, creating a safe and trustworthy environment, where good mental health is valued and mental illness is de-stigmatized, will deliver great benefits to both individual team members and the organization as a whole.
  • Starting the Conversation: Statistics from the Retail Council of Canada showed that 36% of employees are hesitant to speak to a superior about mental health issues they might be experiencing. Numbers also showed that 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health problem every year. As employers, it can be difficult to broach the topic with an employee for fear of it being misinterpreted or having the potential to exacerbate the issue. Approaching the topic with sincerity and a genuine concern for the other’s wellbeing is far more beneficial than an authoritative approach. A simple question like “I’ve noticed a change in demeanor, are you okay?” could be enough to open a thoughtful dialogue between employee and employer. A proactive, humanistic approach to management will benefit the employee/employer relationship hugely in relation to workplace mental health concerns.

Canadian retailers and retail professionals are under immense pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, there is an increased need to understand that and react accordingly to ensure that everyone is heard and supported. Going forward, mental health will need to be treated by all with the same care as physical health and safety.

During this trying time and into the future, we’re ready to support the retail industry and its operators in any way we can. To that end, we’ve included a link to the Canadian Association for Mental Health website as a starting point for further exploration:

To learn more on this and other retail trends and insights you can check out our blog.

Written by Jessica Finch.