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Covid-19 galvanised UK supermarket workers and showed the value of their role – but retail now needs to lead in building hope for the future

Nick Beighton

The key worker status of UK supermarket staff during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns galvanised the food retail industry to work together for a greater cause – and showed the real value of what they do for a living, Morrisons chief executive David Potts says today. 

“Our purpose in the pandemic was to play our full part in feeding the nation and it would be more than our jobs,” says Potts, speaking at a Championing the Health of Retail event that started today. 

“In that moment it galvanised everybody against a cause that was greater than we could have imagined. I think everything is possible to build on that real renaissance of the British supermarket, and on that feeling of empathy from the British public that we were there when everybody else was closed. This has to be a massive opportunity for the industry.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, also speaking at today’s event, says: “Everybody in retail, from the person who drives the van or is in the shop, or who has been in and out of furlough, right up those organisations, has really stepped up to the plate and I think the industry stands in higher regard now than it did before March 2020.”

Their comments come against the context of retailTrust research that suggests 84% of retail workers experienced a deterioration in their mental health during feeling anxiety, changing sleep and eating habits, and sadness amid overwhelming volumes of work. People working on the shop floor, in distribution warehouses, and workers in their 20s all have the lowest levels of wellbeing. 

More recent research questioned 1,295 retail workers and found levels of wellbeing are still much lower in retail than in other sectors that were also directly affected, including healthcare and education. Average wellbeing ratings, using internationally recognised measures, came in at a low 35 out of 70, where the average adult average is 50. 

Chris Brook-Carter, chief executive of retaiTrust, says: “The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the retail sector to the UK and our economy whilst intensifying the extremely difficult personal challenges facing those working in the sector.
Retail workers been hard hit financially, emotionally and physically since the start of the pandemic, and it is clear that the retail sector now has a vital role to play in building hope, health and happiness as we move out of this crisis, with the reopening of retail across the UK leading to a much stronger economic outlook. Businesses who step up now will be rewarded with healthier and happier workers, a positive culture and ultimately, business growth.”

Nick Beighton, chief executive of Asos, told the event this morning: “We’ve got to create the environment for people to legitimately reach out. And we’ve got to create the channels and the forums where they can. That will create an allyship and a support network so people can feel it’s ok [to talk about mental health].”

Some 1,500 people from nearly 250 UK retailers have registered for the free retailTrust event,  which continues this afternoon and tomorrow. Speakers include representatives of Asos, John Lewis and Pets at Home as well as Labour spindoctor turned mental health advocate Alastair Campbell, who is speaking this afternoon. The event will also be available to view on-demand. 

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