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It’s time to act to prevent a mental health crisis in the UK’s stressed and anxious retail industry, warns retailTRUST

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Retail workers are stressed and anxious as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic – threatening a potential mental health storm that could hit millions of workers, says industry charity retailTrust. The warning comes as the trust launches a campaign that it says represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to prevent that crisis. 

Through the #forthefour campaign, which launches today, retailTrust is calling on retail leaders to act now to protect the wellbeing of the industry’s 4.5m workforce. The campaign includes a three-day Championing the Health of Retail event, running from October 19 to 21, to help retail leaders ‘lead the industry’, ‘lead their teams’ and ‘lead themselves’. Presenters include Boots chief operating officer Tracey Clements, Dixons Carphone chief people officer Paula Coughlan, former Asda chief executive Andy Clarke, Asos non-executive director Rita Clifton and Dr Adrian Massey, chief medical advisor of retailTRUST and author of the retailTRUST 2020 Health of Retail Report.

The campaign calls for all retail staff to have free and quick access to help and preventative support to manage their wellbeing whenever they need it. retailTRUST is aiming to achieve that by building a coalition of businesses and leaders to recognise what retailTRUST chief executive Chris Brook-Carter terms “the responsibility the industry has to look after the people that contribute to its financial success, and build a healthy, happy, diverse and inclusive workforce that reflects retail’s position as the premier industry in the UK economy”.

Paula Coughlan, chief people officer at Dixons Carphone, said: “Retail is facing one of the most challenging periods in the sector’s history. To preserve an industry that gives so much back to local communities, we must focus on the health and wellbeing of those who work in it.

“At Dixons Carphone, we moved fast to keep our colleagues safe when the pandemic hit, ensuring the safety of our colleagues enabling them to keep bringing their best selves to work and to support our customers. We have a responsibility to all of our colleagues, not just as a business but as human beings. They are the lifeblood of retail and the driving force behind an industry that powers our economy. That’s why retailTRUST’s #forthefour campaign providing a very tangible support network is vitally important.”

What’s causing retail worker stress?

In its 2020 Health of Retail report, retailTRUST has identified three key ways in which the pandemic is causing UK retail workers to feel stressed. The report comes on the eve of World Mental Health Day tomorrow, and ahead of National Work Life Week, which starts on Monday.

Financial instability is cited as a leading cause of stress. retailTRUST says more than 13,800 shops have closed so far this year – almost a quarter (24.8%) more than at the same time last year. Added to that the government’s Job Retention Scheme is due to end on October 31 and the trust says there is uncertainty about the Job Support Scheme that will replace it.

The threat of redundancy is causing the second cause of stress: uncertainty and fear of the unknown. retailTRUST cites figures from the Institute for Employment Studies suggesting that 700,000 UK employees are at risk of being made redundant in the second half of this year, while headlines about the retail sector are causing further stress.

Finally, a social disconnect caused by lockdown restrictions is affecting staff both at home and at work. At work, the trust says an increase in physical, verbal and racial assaults has been reported as public opinion about retail workers has shifted from ‘hero to zero’. 

“Socioeconomically, the pandemic has been linked with a host of hardships: isolation, bereavement, alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, financial strain and criminality,” said retailTRUST chief medical advisor Dr Adrian Massey who authored the 2020 Health of Retail Report.

“Surveys of mental wellbeing demonstrate widespread distress across the population. Demand for public services is acute and the abrupt decline in economic activity means government access to funding is constrained. Retail workers are especially exposed to Covid-19 related health and wealth risks and, if we are to minimise subsequent harm, we must pull together now to offer support.”

retailTRUST’s Brook-Carter added: “The retail industry is the second largest employer in the UK after the NHS, so the sector has a huge responsibility to come together during the most challenging period of retailTRUST’s 188-year history. One in four UK adults experiences a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime, but four in four – so, every single one of us – will experience a major setback or life event that can affect our mental and physical wellbeing. This situation is getting worse as a result of the pandemic.

“retailTRUST’s pioneering approach provides financial, emotional, physical and vocational services for the #forthefour working in retail. We’ve seen so many fantastic examples of businesses taking action to protect the wellbeing of their colleagues and the response to the #forthefour campaign so far has been brilliant.”

Retailers are invited to sign up for free here and join more than 160 representatives of retailers including Dixons Carphone, Boots, Topshop, Screwfix and Ikea.

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