Posted: 26/08/2021

Why you should prioritise staff wellbeing

After what has been an undoubtedly stressful year, even for those who have fared well through the pandemic, FFD investigates ways in which retailers can better look after staff wellbeing, and how this could improve the industry as a whole

It took the unexpected and premature death by suicide of two of his former staff for one deli owner to take a step back and reflect on the role his business could play in the wellbeing of his team. 

The pair had left the business when the tragedy occurred, but it left Iain Hemming, owner of Thyme & Tides in Stockbridge, wondering what he could do better. “I didn’t know how to convey my feeling to the parents other than by going to see them. I just went and knocked on the door.”

Over the course of the following hour, through tears and laughter, he says, the owner decided to do more with his business to look after the wellbeing of his team.

“It’s our responsibility to look after these people because we spend more time with them than they do with their families,” says Hemming. And in an industry with, as he says, “a reputation for people on the edge of burnout, working long hours and not being particularly well looked after,” it is crucial to make a change.

Pandemic pressure

Those normal stresses, according to the Association of Convenience Stores CEO James Lowman, have been massively exacerbated by the pandemic. “One of the major threats to mental health in the grocery industry is the various incidents involving ‘bad’ customers. We may not be aware, but these negative interactions have a cumulative effect,” he says, “and coronavirus has created another set of flashpoints for those incidents.” 

Lowman says that, as well as creating additional stress in terms of customer numbers, retailers have often found themselves policing government regulations and the conflicts arising from disagreements around them, and this takes its toll. According to recent ACS statistics, 40% of local shop staff have reported a decline in their mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is something that has been borne out in many of the UK’s farm shops and delis. For Kate Forbes of Somerset’s Trading Post Farm Shop, the “immense” pressure of the past 18 months has been testing. Forbes was “ready to give up” in April, when she and her business partner husband, Andy, were working all hours to keep the operation alive. When you factor in policing mask debates among angry customers and dealing with the brunt of people’s pandemic-related frustrations, Forbes and her staff have been pushed to the limit, “but we got through it,” she says.

It is this cumulative pressure that we need to watch out for, though. Mental health consultant Patrick Melville, of training provider and consultancy Melville Mental Solutions, says that we often wait for burnout before we act. Our traditional approach to mental health, he says, is that we put it off until we are forced to act. Our focus, though, should be on giving people a “mental MoT”, he says. 

“We need to increase awareness, remove the stigma and allow people that space to check in and make a change before they slide into burnout.

“You need to invest in your team and invest in their mental health, or you will lose – it’s as simple as that. It’s so important to prevent burnout in a small business like a deli or farm shop. 

“If you lose someone, you’re immediately putting more pressure on yourself and everyone else.”

This sentiment is echoed by Lucy Knight of customer experience specialists Insight6, which has recently launched a feedback system to help businesses check in on staff wellbeing. 

“Mental health is such a big topic at the moment and is really doing the rounds, which is great for people’s awareness, but it’s a challenge for employers and how they manage it,” she says.

According to Knight, there are two main reasons we need to be looking after our staff wellbeing better. “Firstly, we should be doing this on a purely human, empathetic level – these people are part of your team, and you have a duty of care to them. And secondly, from a commercial standpoint, we know that demotivated, disengaged team members, who aren’t feeling great in themselves, will have a massive effect on your business.”

Higher absenteeism, lower productivity and lower profitability are all associated with poor mental health, she says. With so much out of an employer’s control, though, how can business owners truly affect the wellbeing of their staff? 

Checking in

Knight says the basis of any approach to wellbeing has to be communication. “You have to ask them to find out what they’re thinking or feeling so you can do something about it, otherwise you’re on a road to nowhere before you even start.”

Checking in is key, she says. It’s not enough to ask as you pass by a team member in the corridor. Regular one-to-ones and what Knight terms ‘temperature checks’ are crucial and making use of online surveys can be an effective tool for staff members who don’t feel comfortable approaching colleagues with their issues.

“A lot of people say they ask their team how they’re doing, but there will be a percentage of them that just don’t want to tell you face-to-face. With an online survey, they don’t have to seek you out if they’re embarrassed.”

Melville says that this approach is a totally normal thing in business, we just need a shift in thinking to also apply it to mental health. 

“As a business owner you need to understand your company, what the potential issues are and how to address them,” he says. “You need to think about mental health in the same way and do the research to understand what issues your staff may be facing – you may think you know these already, but there can be blind spots.”

He add that checking in will also increase buy-in from your staff as, by sharing their feelings, they are displaying confidence and trust in you. 

Forbes agrees, and says it is crucial for her to be aware of how her staff are feeling. In her small team of 13, this simply involves fostering an interest in their lives and an awareness of their character. “You don’t have to know every detail of their life, just be aware so that if something’s not right, you can tell.”

For Forbes, this is something that is achieved through creating the right culture among your staff. While she shies away from the cliché that the Trading Post is one big happy family, she says it isn’t a bad analogy. Forbes’ previous experiences working in retail environments with a less caring culture have shaped her ideas of good management.

Workplace culture

Having worked in delis where she felt unsupported, understaffed and under heavy pressure from the owners, she learned how not to run a business. 

“That’s the thing with looking after your team. You have to be showing that you’re leading from the front, you’re willing to pitch in and do every single job they are doing. We won’t let our staff down, and that’s what we’ve created – an atmosphere where people know we care. We have a culture where people can just come and chat to us and have a coffee.”

This top-down formation of a workplace culture is also advocated by Knight. She says it comes down to being very clear about your vision for your organisational culture and, as the leader, setting it, defining it, and role modelling it from the top. “If you don’t exemplify what you are selling to your staff, there will be no buy-in at all.”

And creating a positive workplace culture is exactly what Iain Hemming has set out to do at Thyme & Tides. He has come up with a six-pillar wellbeing package (see box) which all his permanent staff receive after six months with the business. 

He says that a more holistic approach to staff wellbeing was needed and by implementing this scheme – “giving something back to the people who give a lot to the business” – he hopes that he will have a happier team.

“We have a responsibility. We are a business, we need to make money, but we also have a holistic responsibility for these people as human beings,” he says. 

But, the cost, according to Hemming, is simply an investment. “The more time I spend on this, the more I realise that it isn’t going to cost me a penny. I’d be a fool to bankrupt myself, but I’ve already noticed the difference it’s making in my team.”

And Knight agrees. Happy staff, she says, give better customer experiences, and are more likely to stay with you long-term. Often, she says, retail is seen as a first job, a stopgap or, as Hemming puts it “a last-chance saloon”. 

Knight points out that this is because of the way people are often treated in their first job in retail – if they are shown that they are not cared for, not looked after, then no wonder they can’t see it as a career to invest in, she says.

And, given the current staffing crisis the industry is facing, Hemming hopes his approach will help to change this, and attract and retain the right staff.

“We’ve got a perfect storm of Brexit and COVID and it’s making finding good people very difficult” he says. “So, it’s vitally important that we take a look at ourselves under the microscope to see how we can look at a more strategic way to recruit and look after people.”

Knight says that, from an employer’s perspective, the word wellbeing scares the hell out of them – it’s a massive topic and they don’t know where to start. But, she says, it’s simpler than they may think. 

“It’s simply taking an interest in your staff, and, if an issue arises, deciding, ‘is this something I can deal with or is a specialist needed?’.”

Employers can’t always help, she says – in which case knowing where to signpost vulnerable team members to is vital, but they can take steps to make their team’s work life better, and if they do that they are investing not only in the staff, but the business itself. 

“It’s going to take some time to change people’s perceptions of a career in retail or hospitality,” says Hemming, “and it will take an industry shift, but making changes like this will make a difference and will thrust us in the right direction.”

“We’re a tin pot business in the middle of Stockbridge and if we can do it, then anyone can.”

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