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Pandemic Mental Health Crisis Hits the Canadian Retail Industry: Analysis

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As cities and communities in provinces and territories across the country continue with gradual progress toward a full reopening, retailers and other businesses are busy fine-tuning their environments as they welcome more eager shoppers back into their physical spaces. With the reopening, which has been awaited patiently by retailers and consumers alike for more than 16 months now, there comes an anticipation and excitement, perhaps even exhilaration for some, at the prospect of returning to society as we knew it; to once again socialize, engage and enjoy the full value of community. However, as those operating within the industry prepare to ramp up their efforts in order to provide the unique and inspiring experiences that brick-and-mortar retail is known for, it’s being suggested in many circles that special attention ought to be paid to the frontline retail employees who support the execution of those experiences and the ways in which their mental health may have been negatively impacted by the strains and pressures of the pandemic period.

“There is no doubt that the pandemic has taken its toll on employees working across a variety of industries, including retail frontline workers,” recognizes Katharine Coons, National Workplace Mental Health Specialist at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “While many were able to quickly shift to a remote work environment virtually overnight, retail remained open which had a profound impact on employee mental health and wellbeing. We still don’t fully understand all the factors that are at play because the retail industry is still being impacted. We’ll have to wait for research to come out as soon as these unique and challenging times pass. The research we’ve seen at the CMHA so far suggests that fears and risk of contracting the virus, job instability and lack of permanent work, uncertainty and the unknown, isolation and customer demands have all played a role in having a negative impact on the mental health of retail frontline workers.”

Mental health on the decline

Although, as Coons points out, there is very little in the way of research and surveys that have been conducted and completed around the impacts of the pandemic on frontline retail employees, preliminary polling data concerning the impacts on those living in Ontario – perhaps the hardest hit province in the country – provides a glimpse into the severity of the issues concerning the mental health of both in-store and office employees. Commissioned by the CMHA, Ontario Division, numbers released in March of this year show that only a third of Ontarians (35 percent) consider their current state of mental health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent,’. This represents a significant decrease from 52 percent as recorded in May of 2020. In addition, nearly 80 percent of Ontarians now believe we’ll be in a serious mental health crisis post-pandemic, up from 66 percent in August of last year. The poll highlights the significant effects that feelings of isolation and loneliness have had on people with 36 percent of Ontarians saying they’re experiencing very high or high stress (up from 30 percent in August), 35 percent feeling very high or high anxiety (up from 30 percent in August) and 17 percent admitting to always or very often feeling depressed (up from 13 percent in May).

“Employee mental health has long been one of the most important and common issues facing workplaces,” asserts Coons. “Every week at least 500,000 Canadians miss work due to mental illness. We all bring our mental health to work with us, we can’t just leave our concerns at 9 and pick them up at 5. The pandemic has, however, helped push mental health into the spotlight. It’s no longer a nice-to-have but a need-to-have for organizations. According to CMHA research conducted with UBC 41% of people in Canada say their mental health has eroded since the onset of COVID-19. And we’ve also seen a sharp increase in suicidal thoughts and feelings.”

Impact on retail employees

This presents an obvious challenge for everyone going forward given the fact that many people have been away from their jobs or out of the workforce altogether for a year or more. And, combined with further impacts of the pandemic that have helped accelerate a shift in shopping and purchasing behaviour toward online channels, changing the means by which retailers provide their product and services to the customer, the roles and responsibilities of many have changed in their absence. This factor, along with many others, says Suzanne Sears, President of Luxury Careers Canada and retail staffing expert, are set to precipitate a massive challenge and potential conflict that retailers will need to overcome quickly if they are going to succeed through to a post-pandemic world.

“Perhaps the most detrimental result of the pandemic on the workforce is the working relationships that have been damaged,” she says. “People have lost friends who were terminated during the pandemic. And as we continue to reopen, new hires are taking their places. When people are hired and onboarded outside of the view of current employees, when there’s this kind of disruption, there’s a tendency for them to feel uncertain and to become disconnected. It can lead them to question their value within the organization and whether or not they’re working the right job for the right company. So, they’re coming back into the workforce with disrupted relationships while being required to develop new ones, leading them to feel incredibly insecure. In addition, job descriptions are changing and evolving. So, in many cases, the job that someone was originally hired for either doesn’t exist or has changed so dramatically that those impacted are wondering whether they even want to work in those roles. These factors are posing a huge problem that retailers need to find a solution for in a hurry.”

Communication and compassion

Sears goes on to explain that there are other emotions that employees might feel as a result of their perceived isolation and disconnection. Many will devolve into anger and resentment, she says, emotions triggered by sentiments of abandonment which can manifest in many ways through their behaviour and performance. The potential fallout can be disastrous, presenting impediments to the satisfaction and further development of an employee, stunting the efficiency of the retailer. It’s something that organizations need to address, making it a priority when reopening to employees. In fact, according to Sears, it’s going to be critical that retailers do so, and in a thoughtful and compassionate manner, in order to quell the uncertainty and resentment that could be their ultimate undoing.

“When COVID happened, a lot of people were either laid off or were forced to work from home in an unorthodox environment, away from their peers and the resources that they’ve become used to,” she says. “In many cases, those who have been laid off have received very little communication from their employer during this time. But, as they’re called back to the workplace, employers are going to expect loyalty, hard work and all of the other things that they truly haven’t earned from them. the cost here is an angry employee. And when there’s anger in retail, it expresses itself in many ways. A lot of it is passive aggressive where individuals will refuse to accept the workload or will do their job with intentional sloppiness and lack of care. It can also result in loss prevention issues in which the individual might be ‘getting even’ because they feel that they haven’t been treated right. So, there’s a lot of emotion that needs to be discussed and blotted out. Retailers need to deal with this issue upfront, which is something that they haven’t traditionally been good at doing. They’ve often taken the stance that it’s easy to replace minimum wage and lower paid people. But that’s not the case anymore. Companies need to speak to their employees and perhaps consider hiring some social workers and mental health professionals in order to do some one-on-one investigations and polling to find out how people are really feeling.”

Return to the retail workplace

It’s a notion that’s also subscribed to by CMHA’s Coons, agreeing that open and transparent communication between employers and their returning staff is going to be vitally important in their attempts to properly and effectively reintroduce employees to their physical spaces. And, she goes one step further, suggesting that retailers and other businesses should developed formalized ‘return-to-work’ plans, involving input from employees, in order to deal with some of the issues that are sure to arise upon the return to ‘normal’ in many workplaces.

“The return to workplace following COVID-19 will require a great deal of communication between managers and employees to ensure that everyone can be happy and healthy, while balancing the needs of workers and of the workplace,” asserts Coons. “Having a clear return-to-work plan that includes information on accommodations, should employees need them, is a good first step. Engaging your employees in the creation of this plan may also be helpful in opening lines of communication, increasing transparency in the planning process and allowing employees to feel included and heard. The back to workplace plan and ‘re-onboarding’ process should be based on the physical and mental wellbeing of employees and consider psychological health and safety. Have an open and honest conversation with the employee one-on-one and discuss their concerns. It is understandable that people will feel anxiety with this return to the workplace and ongoing changes. And it can be helpful to validate that to your employees.”

Opportunity to support

Coons also points out that because many employees spend most of their lives at work, employers have an incredible opportunity to support and nurture their positive mental health. Aside from it of course being the right thing to do, she says, organizations who invest in the mental health of their employees by creating a psychologically healthy and safe work environment can expect to see a positive return on their investment, ensuring that they avoid many of the negative ramifications associated with a dissatisfied and disgruntled workforce

“The writing is on the wall,” she says. “Research has shown that there are many positive benefits when employers invest in employee mental health and many risks when they do not. Higher turnover rates, higher long-term health care and disability claims, reputational risk, increased absenteeism and presenteeism are some of the many risks that come from a psychologically unsafe work environment. In contrast, when we work in a healthy, psychologically safe workplace, employment can have positive impacts on employee mental health including higher employee retention and attraction, improved employee engagement, more creativity and innovation and enhanced productivity.”

Levers and resources

To assist retailers in their efforts to create for their employees the psychologically healthy and safe work environment that Coons refers to, there are a variety of tools and resources that they can leverage. The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is a resource for organizations that provides a set of voluntary guidelines for organizations to follow. And, the CMHA offers training on the Standard and a variety of customized organisation-specific training and speaking sessions, as well as its nationwide Not Myself Today program – an evidence informed program filled with physical and virtual materials designed to help employers support the positive mental health of their employees, while also providing opportunities for employees to learn skills in order to support their own mental health. Along with available resources offered by associations like CMHA and others, Sears calls attention to some other initiatives that retailers can undertake that will help complement the re-onboarding process that Coons references and ensure a smoother transition back into the physical workspace.

“Companies, particularly those with larger offices and workspaces, should create a ‘buddy’ system so people aren’t returning to work alone,” she recommends. “They should team people up and provide the support that will be required. Many people have been working from home for the past 16 months. It can be overwhelming to return to an office of up to 100 people. And they should also consider arranging small social events on the side, like lunches for six, to help maintain a strong social program within the company. In addition, organizations, whether you’re talking about in-store or office talent, are going to need to offer their employees greater flexibility with respect to hours worked, days worked and time away. The pandemic has created a new social and workplace dynamic. Retailers have got to find the levers that are going to allow them to transition their returning employees in a healthy and positive way.”

Validating value and importance

It’s clear that, as retailers and other businesses across the country continue their staged reopening, the value and importance of the retail workforce has never been greater. Helping to deliver the retail experience, executing on a company’s vision and elevating its reputation among visitors, the retail employee is imperative to everything that a brand does and all that it intends to do. As a result, an effective return to their jobs is essential in order for retailers to reopen with success. But, despite the resources and levers that are utilized to do so, Sears underscores the fact that a healthy and positive culture and the importance of re-onboarding retail employees in the best possible way has to come from the top.

Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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