According to the World Health Organisation, in recent years depression has crept up the ladder to become the most common cause of ill health & disability worldwide. In the UK, at any time, one in six adults reports themselves as suffering from depression or anxiety or phobia or OCD, (that number rises to one in four for London).
Already an existing societal and economical issue to contend with, there is absolutely no doubt that the recent pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Any major event that results in widespread fear, grief and isolation is going to have a profound impact on the psychological wellbeing of large segments of the population – all the more so when a society is collectively expected to absorb any oppressive feelings, whilst managing the threat that catastrophic events may recur if it dares to stop worrying.
Undoubtedly, a significant factor contributing to the psychological fallout is the widespread financial insecurity that the pandemic has caused to permeate through so many sectors, with retail – along with hospitality, leisure and travel – being the hardest hit of all. It is unimaginable, therefore, that these sectors won’t also be the ones where anxiety remains most rife among the workforce – something that is not only distressing for those experiencing it, but can significantly impact the morale, ambition and productivity of an organisation as a whole.
With this in mind, there is an imperative for retailers to support the psychological recovery of their workforce in the same way that they would previously have nurtured their career development and progression. This is particularly salient now that we’re slowly starting to emerge from lockdown and shops are beginning to reopen.
Aldi’s response to Covid-19 – joining forces with Mental Health UK to support its 33,000 staff – is commendable. Every large organisation talks about regarding their employees as part of their corporate ‘family’ but an initiative like this demonstrates that they’re actually putting their money where their mouth is.
To mitigate the “mental health threat” to the stability and productivity of an organisation’s talent, to demonstrate the values that most companies proclaim to exemplify, and to be part of a common effort to recover (in every sense of the word), the starting point is for management not to assume “business as usual” when people return to work. They should anticipate a workforce that’s continuing to reverberate from the shock of the last few months and they should have a considered plan for how they’re going to deal with it.
In the first instance: what of the psychological impact if we work in jobs that have been branded – by implication – to be wholly un-essential? It can be demotivating, lead to diminishing job satisfaction (and therefore loyalty) and, ultimately, low self-esteem. It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that making individuals, no matter their role, feel valued is a very important starting point on the road to better mental health at work.
The second basic solution is to make it easy for those who need support to access it. This means providing clear and easy to understand information; it means training everyone – not just team leaders – to be aware of how their colleagues are faring psychologically and to know how to respond, when necessary, in a way that’s both sensitive and helpful.
The next crucial step is to walk the walk of normalising mental health issues – something that every organisation proclaims the wish to do – by incorporating it into company time off policies. Sometimes having a bad day due to depression, anxiety or life events, can be far more debilitating than a runny nose, but it’s the latter that we unquestioningly accept as a justification for a ‘sick day’. The time is long overdue for us to consider mental health as at least on par with physical health. It also leads to the added safeguard for the person in your team who might repeatedly be taking time off work for depression or anxiety. It gives you the opportunity to ensure that they’re receiving the help they need in good time, rather than waiting for them to really hit a wall from which recovery can be far more difficult.
The effect of extending a company wellness scheme to cover behavioural health is not just easing passage to an essential service in tumultuous times, it’s hugely effective in breaking down stigmas and eliminating fears that exist for many in admitting that they might be struggling. It also has the potential to fundamentally improve the relationship between employer and employee and has the added benefit of helping to build a healthier society in the long run.
A retail business that demonstrates compassion and responsibility towards its staff is an organisation that’s going to be made stronger, more productive and ultimately more resilient by a loyal workforce who will not hesitate to mirror the sentiment if they’re called upon to do so.
By Maryam Meddin is CEO of The Soke, a private clinic integrating mental healthcare, wellbeing, support and performance coaching.