Female dominated industry of retail faces mental health crisis

Female dominated industry of retail faces mental health crisis


The latest research from an Australian workplace mental health organisation has revealed that roughly two-thirds of people working in retail have experienced a mental health condition during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost one in four considered changing their careers since the pandemic emerged in March this year, with Victorian workers bearing the brunt of the worst impacts. 

The study also revealed that on-site retail workers were more worried about COVID-19 transmission, compared to on-site workers in other industries – including those employed in health care and social assistance. 

The results of this study, land the retail sector as the second worst sector after hospitality in regard to workforce mental health. 

In an industry where more than half of its workers are women, this is concerning. Also concerning is the fact that while women dominate employment in the retail sector, retail employment among them tends to be part-time and lower-skilled, while men tended to be in more full-time positions – meaning women most likely had less access to channels of support.

The report, commissioned by SuperFriend, was drawn from the country’s largest workplace mental health study, assessing the mental health and wellbeing of Australians in the retail workforce. 

SuperFriend’s CEO Margo Lydon believes this year has been “extreme for retailers.”

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

“The retail environment also saw large swings in spending by month by month. With 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.” 

The report detailed anecdotal evidence of retail workers’ ‘stressful’ interactions with the general public – many recounting incidents of verbal and physical abuse from customers.

More than 10,000 Australians who worked or received a JobKeeper payment between March and June this year were interviewed for the study, which found that one in five retail workers found their jobs “highly stressful” and almost half of on-site retail workers said they experienced lower productivity due to concerns about COVID-19 transmission.

Vicki Doyle is the CEO of Rest and SuperFriend Board of Director. She acknowledges the widespread economic uncertainty and shut down of many stores throughout the year.

“It’s been such a tough year… those who continued have had to change their working practices dramatically,” she said in a statement. “This has hit retailers in regional and rural Australia as well as in our big cities. It’s been a difficult time, watching people having to use their retirement savings just to get through.”

The status of jobs has also depended on the size of the retail companies. The study found that the most negatively impacted stores in terms of productivity were among smaller retailers. SuperFriend’s CEO Margo Lydon believes that “larger organisations are perceived as better able to weather challenging economic times.”

“Due to more resources available they are typically better equipped to establish mentally healthy workplace policies and supports for their people,” she said. But she also adds that “it’s not all doom and gloom.“

“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.” 

Like the rest of us, Doyle is hoping for a more positive and productive 2021.

“2020 has shown us all just how important it is to have these supports in place, and I hope that the retail sector’s small gains in its thriving workplace results gain even more traction in 2021.”

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