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Q&A with Zana Busby: Why Retailers Need to Invest in Employee Mental Health

Mental Health First Aid USA only offers trainings to employees based in the United States at this time.

Working in the retail industry is downright tough. It can be mentally and emotionally draining for many reasons, such as interacting with customers and working long, physically demanding shifts — not to mention the strains of job insecurity, low pay and poor benefits.

The stats are even more dire:

  • Retail scored in the bottom 10% for workplace mental health.
  • 84% of retail workers report declining mental health in recent years.

The National Council for Mental Wellbeing recognizes that workplace fatigue and stress have never been more prevalent and, in response, has developed Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) at Work for Retail. MHFA at Work for Retail teaches retail employees — from district managers to sales associates — to recognize and respond to signs that a colleague may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge.

Zana BusbyMHFA talked with psychologist Zana Busby (pictured at left), founder of ZANA. B. Psychological Studio, to gain inside perspective on mental health in the retail industry. Busby, who holds multiple degrees, including an MSc in business psychology, is also a coach and keynote speaker focusing on people’s behavior and health and wellbeing at work.

How has mental health in the retail industry shifted in recent years?

In recent years, the landscape of mental health within the retail industry has undergone a profound transformation. Previously, the focus was primarily on sales targets, operational efficiency and customer satisfaction, often neglecting the wellbeing of employees. However, a significant shift has occurred, recognizing that a healthier workforce leads to a more productive and customer-centric environment.

Retailers now understand that employees’ mental wellbeing directly impacts job satisfaction, engagement and overall performance. There’s a growing emphasis on creating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture, fostering open communication and offering resources to address stress, burnout and work-life balance. Flexibility in scheduling, mental health days and training to manage challenging customer interactions have become essential.

The pandemic accelerated these changes. It prompted businesses to reveal their authentic values — were their employees truly valued? This highlighted the importance of empathy and resilience, leading to a greater recognition of mental health’s significance.

Overall, I think that the retail industry has been steadily moving from a profit-centric model to a people-centric approach, recognizing that prioritizing mental health not only benefits employees but also enhances the customer experience and drives long-term success. This ongoing transformation sets a positive precedent, fostering a more compassionate and sustainable retail landscape.

What are the most common challenges to the mental health of people in the retail industry?

One major challenge is customer interactions, which can be both rewarding and draining. Retail staff must consistently appear friendly and composed, despite challenging situations with demanding customers, resulting in emotional strain, stress and burnout.

Building upon my observations and the recent conversations I’ve had with individuals working in the retail sector, it’s evident the current economic situation compels retailers to reduce costs, leading to staff cuts and higher workloads. This causes stress, mistakes and mistreating customers. Combined with the cost-of-living crisis, these factors result in people struggling to afford essentials, contributing to frustration, shoplifting and increased pressure on retail staff to manage theft and its consequences. This is detrimental not only to retail staff but also to customers. These factors and dynamics adversely affect the mental health and wellbeing of both groups.

Furthermore, long hours and irregular schedules disrupt work-life balance, impacting physical and mental wellbeing. Regardless of the industry, I’ve assisted clients facing disruptions in work-life balance, leading to sleep problems, anxiety and strained relationships. Additionally, the industry’s competitive nature may lead to job insecurity, causing anxiety about layoffs or job loss.

Let’s not forget the repetitive nature of tasks, like stocking shelves, which can lead to boredom and decreased job satisfaction. Employees may feel undervalued and struggle to find meaning in their work. This can contribute to a sense of depression.

Lastly, the retail industry often offers limited career growth, leading to feelings of stagnation. Employees may feel trapped in low-paying roles without opportunities for advancement, fostering frustration and lack of motivation.

How can retail companies create a safe, healthy space for employees?

I would encourage retailers to explore the implementation of a fresh leadership approach, one that places a strong emphasis on prioritizing the wellbeing and nurturing of their teams. This approach can provide a distinct competitive edge for all retail personnel, and it becomes particularly vital with the arrival of Generation Z. This generational shift, influenced by the aftermath of COVID-19, has reshaped work expectations, accentuating the preference of employees to work in companies that offer healthy space.

One of the first steps should include promoting an inclusive culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns and ideas without fear of reprisal. Encouraging regular feedback sessions, team meetings and one-on-one discussions ensures that everyone’s voice is heard. Also, this fosters a sense of belonging and value.

The clients I collaborate with hold diverse job roles, encompassing various positions and industries. They engage with my coaching program for a multitude of reasons. Particularly when dealing with leaders, my coaching approach emphasizes the significance of showcasing vulnerability and openness. This involves sharing their personal experiences and challenges. Such an approach encourages employees to adopt similar behaviors.

Any progressive and empathetic retail employer should consider providing employees with training — such as MHFA at Work for Retail — and coaching to handle difficult circumstances, manage stress, enhance self-assurance and promote overall wellbeing. Moreover, it’s crucial to establish partnerships with counseling services and supply resources for stress mitigation as part of a holistic approach to supporting employees’ mental health.

Other key strategies include prioritizing work-life balance, recognizing employee contributions, enhancing the work environment and resolving conflicts effectively to prevent escalation.

Recognizing and supporting retail employees who are showing signs or symptoms of mental health or substance use challenges is critical. MHFA at Work for Retail helps connect employees with the appropriate company and community resources. Fill out this form to learn more about how you can equip your employees with tools and resources that will make working in retail safe and healthy.

Mental Health First Aid USA only offers trainings to employees based in the United States at this time.

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