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Retail workers experiencing COVID-19 induced mental health crisis

Research from national workplace mental health organisation, SuperFriend, reveals a mental health crisis is unfolding amongst retail workers in Australia.

The study, Spotlight on the Retail Industry 2020, found that 66.4 per cent of retail workers have experienced a mental health condition since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was even higher among casual workers (68.9 per cent).

“2020 has been a year of extremes for retailers, with some retailers experiencing record sales, while others quietly folded amid empty shopping centres and from significant loss to revenue,” said SuperFriend CEO Margo Lydon.

“Many essential retailers boosted their workforces significantly, providing much-needed employment at a time when more than a million Australian workers were unemployed.

“The retail environment also saw large swings in spending by month by month. With Black Friday just gone by and Christmas season round the corner, retail workers are bracing for an unusual, but busy, holiday period of both in-store and online demand. They will need great support teams and a strategy in place to deal with this.”

One in five (21.3 per cent) retail workers admitted that their jobs were “highly stressful” (up 4.8 points from 2019). Anecdotal evidence from workers found that many experienced an increase in verbal and physical abuse from customers since the onset of COVID-19.

Vicki Doyle, CEO of Rest Super, also witnessed the carnage to the retail industry first hand.

“It’s been such a tough year for Rest members. So many retailers have faced economic uncertainty or even shut down, and those who continued have had to change their working practices dramatically. This has hit retailers in regional and rural Australia as well as in our big cities.

“At Rest we’ve taken calls from so many members who’ve needed to dip into their super to support themselves financially throughout COVID. It’s been a difficult time, watching people having to use their retirement savings just to get through. But I am glad we’ve been able to help some of our 1.7 million members in these hard times.”

The mental health issues of retail workers are further exacerbated by the lack of support provided at work.

Only a quarter (24.3 per cent) of retail workers surveyed believed that their workplace was committed to preventing the spread of COVID-19. This saw 45.8 per cent of retail workers experience lower productivity due to anxiety over COVID-19 transmission.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Ms Lydon.

“In our study, retail workers have clearly identified a wish list of positive work-related changes they would like to continue in the future.

“Many of these relate to feeling more valued and respected as frontline workers, an improved sense of personal safety at work, stronger workplace relationships and more flexibility. With well-trained managers, strong leadership and a supportive zero abuse policy, we think that’s achievable.”

For workers experiencing mental health issues, support is available here: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

For businesses looking to improve their mental health support policies, resources are available here: https://aheadforbusiness.org.au/

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Ann Wen

Ann Wen

Ann is a journalist at Dynamic Business.

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