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A fifth of retail industry staff plan to leave the industry: Retail Trust study

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One in five (21%) retail workers – and almost a third (31%) of those working for the largest retailers – are planning to leave the industry because of concerns about finances, mental health, and the level of abuse they receive, a new study suggests.

Younger workers, those employed in distribution and warehouses, and those who work for larger retailers are the most likely to say they will leave the industry, according to the trust’s Health of Retail report, which questioned more than 1,500 retail staff, interviewed leaders at 20 household name retailers and worked with employee engagement platform WorkL to assess the wellbeing of another 4,500 retail workers.

More than eight in 10 (83%) of those who said they planned to leave said their mental health levels had declined over the last year, and 85% of retail managers reported an increase in mental health problems among their teams. More than half (54%) of managers said team members had experienced issues they were not equipped to deal – and a quarter (26%) of retail managers also want to leave the industry.

While staff reported poor mental health, half of the retail leaders the Retail Trust spoke to said they believed employees’ wellbeing had improved over the last year, and nearly a third thought it had stayed the same. But 30% said abuse in-store was one of the top issues impacting staff wellbeing

The study found the unhappiest retail workers were those aged between 16 and 29, with female workers more unhappy than male workers, but male workers less likely to reach out in a crisis. The cost of living crisis was found to be causing the biggest worry overall,. The Retail Trust saw a 28% increase in applications for financial aid from retail workers this year compared to the last four months of 2021. There was also a 195% increase in visits to the Retail Trust’s online financial health support over the same period.

Chris Brook-Carter, chief executive of the Retail Trust, says: “People working in retail have moved from one period of turmoil to another. They are exhausted after two years of a global pandemic and now facing a world dominated by a brutal war while coming to terms with a cost of living crisis, with inflation at a 40-year-high, that threatens to put our standards of living back decades.

“We believe the retail industry is committed to improving workplace wellbeing but our research shows there’s a clear gap between how retailers think their employees are feeling and the reality. A worrying 83% of retail workers have experienced a deterioration in their mental health and too few line managers say they are equipped to deal with this. This poses a serious long-term challenge as more and more people turn away from the sector. The retail industry must foster a happy and healthy workforce to attract and retain the talent it needs to survive and thrive.”

Amelia Lietke, chief people officer at Ann Summers, adds: “Our teams can be very diverse and we see the extremes, from suicidal thoughts to, ‘I’m feeling really low today and can’t get to work’. We need to help with managers with how they deal with those conversations so they are not expected to take on incredibly complex issues but can get the right support and signpost to organisations like the Retail Trust who can help.

“We run training all the way down the business, right down to the sales floor, but engaging and training people starts at the top, if you can create the right culture business where those conversations are encouraged. [Ann Summers’ Executive chair] Jacqueline Gold and [CEO] Vanessa Gold are very open about their own experiences, and it helps us all to open up more.”

Between 1 May 2021 and 25 April 2022, the Retail Trust answered nearly 14,000 helpline calls, gave out more than £400,000 in financial aid and ran nearly 10,000 counselling sessions to help people working in the sector pay their rent and utility bills and provide support to those facing stress, anxiety, and depression.

What retail employees and employers say

“I used to say to my colleagues that for every customer who leaves you feeling upset, there are ten or twenty nice ones,” one store manager told the study. “But that ratio is changing for the worse, and how we’re all feeling means we can’t brush it off as easily. We’re here to serve customers, but they’re not always right.”

An unnamed respondent said: “Our managers say they’re always there if we need them, but once you’ve been in the firing line, it’s too late, and we’re not told how to deal with it. On one shift, I was on door duty, and there was a 45-minute wait to come inside. One customer refused to queue, and started shouting, swearing and filming me. I experienced a lot of that kind of behaviour over the pandemic, and it affected me more than I realised. At the time I was so tired, I just wanted to go home, eat and sleep, but there have also been days where I’ve sat down and cried.”

A chief people officer at a fashion and lifestyle chain said the business is concerned how best to help staff. “I wouldn’t be surprised [if our biggest challenge this year] is financial wellbeing and how we can better support teams as the cost of living increases. We’re mindful of decent pay increases but also that they’ll be absorbed by National Insurance increases and the cost of living.”

And a chief people officer at a supermarket chain added that it is concerned about knock-on mental health effects: “People are hugely worried about finances – heating, fuel costs. We are worried about the toll of that from a mental health perspective.”

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