As retail reopens, a focus on employee mental health

Addressing the challenges of employee well-being in the time of COVID-19

As retailers open their doors and begin operating in the new economy, many might find their associates are dealing with a new array of challenges. Even as the number of infections and deaths decline, the economic and societal fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic could linger for years.

More than 40 percent of Americans say they or someone in their household has lost employment income since the pandemic began, according to a Census Bureau survey. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found half of Americans say stress related to the pandemic is hurting their mental health; there’s also evidence of more calls to suicide hotlines and of increased alcohol consumption, says Vaile Wright, clinical psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

“There are pretty startling numbers,” Wright says. “We’re seeing lots of data points that point to a significant mental health pandemic coinciding with and following COVID.”

Retail associates not only cope with their own problems but constantly interact with consumers that have theirs.

An ‘echo pandemic’

Retail associates not only cope with their own problems but constantly interact with consumers that have theirs. Fear of infection, the need to social distance and new societal norms have radically changed the shopping environment in recent months.

“Employees across the board are feeling fear, worry, uncertainty and anxiety. They’re working in a whole new environment,” says Jordan Friesen, national director of workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association. “It’s all fairly expected reactions to what’s going on in the world right now.”

Friesen believes the “echo pandemic” of mental health issues will challenge employers well beyond COVID-19 outbreaks. Rampant unemployment, social isolation, uncertainty and increased substance use could lead to long-lasting problems. The contagious nature of the virus further compounds the issue by isolating people from family, friends, community organizations and other traditional support sources.

“It adds a layer of challenge to the pandemic that I think is creating a really difficult situation for a lot of people,” Friesen says. “For people with existing conditions, it may be made worse.”

Encouraging self-care

Now more than ever, retailers must take an active interest in their employees’ mental health and well-being, says Lisa Adukia, manager of global benefits systems innovation at Gap Inc. The complexity and simultaneity of issues means the root causes of the pandemic-related anxiety and stress can vary.

While some employees face financial or health issues, others might be dealing with a lack of childcare or trying to help a relative. Retailers should not only address mental wellness but aim to identify the unique challenges that many could be dealing with, Adukia says.

“We need to ensure we’re understanding the individual employee’s concerns and making accommodations,” she says, “whether that be a back-of-house job or an extra daily check-in to see how they’re doing.”

Wright says addressing employees’ stress and anxiety around getting sick often starts with promoting physical health. Employers should ensure their workers have access to personal protective equipment, that they wash hands frequently and that they maintain social distancing. She also recommends encouraging employees to take advantage of new mental telehealth applications. Meditation apps and telehealth therapy platforms can help employees address temporary stress, anxiety and depression before it gets worse.

“As an employer I would want to encourage employees to monitor themselves, to seek help as needed and give them space to do that,” Wright says.

Gap Canada has adopted the Not Myself Today program, a workplace mental health campaign run by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Spreading awareness

Retailers can look to their health insurers and other platforms to find tools to assist employees. Gap Canada has adopted the Not Myself Today program, a workplace mental health campaign run by the Canadian Mental Health Association. Participating companies receive a tool kit with implementation guides, orientation support, customizable communications, short videos and awareness-building materials. There are also different engagement activities and evaluation tools to help employers assess the impacts of mental health on their workplace.

“It’s about spreading awareness of mental health and all the things that play a role in it — normalizing that conversation, reducing the stigma and giving managers tools to talk about it in a way they can feel safe,” Adukia says.

At Walgreens, engagement surveys and outreach by front-line managers have helped the company monitor its employees’ mental well-being, says Kristin Oliver, chief human resources officer for Walgreens. Stress, financial concerns, the need to care for children and concerns about the health of a loved one are common worries.

Maintaining an open-door policy has been instrumental in encouraging employees to seek assistance when needed. Walgreens employees can obtain help through several programs including telehealth provide MDLive and the Life365 employee assistance program, which features a COVID tool kit to help those coping with loneliness and isolation.

“We’re using several things to ensure we have our finger on the temperature of what is happening across the organization,” Oliver says. “We do think people are worried and we are taking some steps to address the most common issues.”

Long-term implications

While the retail sector is reopening in most the country, employers must consider that mental health issues related to the pandemic will continue to unfold months, if even years from now. The Canadian Mental Health Association is encouraging employers to think about a two- to four-year time frame in which additional mental health services may be required, Friesen says.

“If mental health wasn’t on your radar before, it needs to be now,” he says. “Investing in good access to benefits and care is really important, but training and education can show a return on investment.”

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