- Suicides in the workplace have steadily increased, and service industries rank in the bottom 10% for mental health.
- 84% of retail workers report declining mental health during the pandemic.
- Employers need to take this crisis seriously and support the mental health of frontline workers.
- Fiona Chan is content strategist at Rebel & Co, a research and strategy firm.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Suicides in the workplace have been steadily rising since the mid-2000s, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the need for a stronger focus on mental health. But for service and retail industry workers, the need for mental health support has never been more imperative. Unlike their salaried counterparts, many hourly workers do not receive the same support and benefits from their employers even though they are oftentimes experiencing worse working conditions.
I spent my first summer out of college working at a big-box retailer. As an introvert, I was curious to see how far I could push myself out of my comfort zone. But while working as a cashier, I was subjected to verbal abuse and, on many occasions, had my intelligence questioned for not giving in to customer demands. I also had to navigate personalities that made me feel uncomfortable as a woman.
Due to the “customer is always right” philosophy, I often felt like I couldn’t stand up for myself and instead had to bite my tongue, swallow my pride, and put on a smile. Needless to say, I lasted roughly one month before I threw in the towel over what was the most demoralizing experience I’ve ever had.
And working conditions for retail workers have only gotten worse with the pandemic. In addition to putting themselves at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 with each customer interaction, long hours, unpredictable schedules, and the stress of having to deal with unruly customers are reasons why industries including manufacturing, retail, and food and beverage score in the bottom 10% for mental health. 84% of retail workers reported that their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic.
Pre-pandemic, retail salespeople not only died by suicide at higher rates than workers in other industries, but were also more likely to carry out the act at work. Between 2014 to 2018, front-line supervisors of retail workers were reported to have the most cases of suicides among the top 12 occupations that accounted for 36% of suicides in the US.
Yet employers aren’t offering front-line workers the same benefits as salaried office workers. Nike recently made headlines for giving its head office staff a paid week off for mental health, but it failed to offer the same for its retail workers. Mental health support is a life or death issue. Employers need to start taking the needs of their frontline workers seriously.
Retail employees need more resources and support
While employers can’t control how customers treat their employees, they can make the workplace a healthier environment for employees.
It seems like Leadership 101, but setting and communicating clear expectations can help reduce stress and improve outcomes. Employers should also look to limit unnecessary and unpredictable changes to a team member’s workload; frequent changes can be overwhelming for workers — affecting quality of work and creating a sense of failure when employees feel they are not performing at their best.
Employees often don’t feel comfortable asking for help when they need it, which is one of the biggest hurdles to providing support. Companies should look to emphasize an open-door policy that allows for clear communication between employers and employees. In retail, front -line workers are often face to face with customers. Dealing with people regularly at that level can be frustrating, exhausting, and emotionally taxing. Ensuring that team members know they are supported even amidst difficult exchanges with customers can be a game-changer.
Most importantly, employers shouldn’t allude to someone’s job being at risk if they request time off work or accommodations for mental health. Many service and retail workers are more likely to live in poverty, and many are the primary breadwinners for their households. Supporting these workers’ mental health means not putting their job at risk when they do need help.
Employers also need to leave room for workers to be human. Kids get sick, dogs die, and cars break down. Employers should get comfortable with providing schedule flexibility that allows for life to happen. Even something as simple as encouraging employees to take short walking breaks outside can have enormous benefits for improving their mental wellbeing.
Ideally, employers should be able to work with employees to ensure taking time off is feasible. If paid time off isn’t an option for businesses, allowing for small breaks during the workday when needed, providing mental health support resources, or access to quality mental health benefits, healthcare, and self-care are all beneficial.
As a nation, we are failing to provide those that are at risk with the support they need to manage their mental health. In Japan, after changing the conversation around suicide by identifying it as a public health problem rather than a personal problem to be dealt with in private, the country started funding suicide awareness and prevention campaigns in 2006; by 2012, the number of suicide deaths had fallen below 30,000 for the first time in more than a decade.
It’s time employers in the US take action and mobilize support services to the groups that need it most. Stop treating service and retail hourly workers as disposable names on a schedule and not as valued workers deserving of the same mental health benefits as salaried employees.