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The mental health impact of working in retail

The mental health impact of working in retail

Retail is a hard industry. Though it can be rewarding, it’s also fast-paced, ever-changing, and often extremely challenging for the employees you rely on. It requires a retail worker’s dedication and commitment and generally means long hours, unpredictable and constantly changing schedules, and dealing with the occasional disgruntled customer. It’s not uncommon for employees to experience what’s commonly referred to as retail burnout. 

The psychological effects of working retail can impact more than just employees — it can impact entire companies, too. Poor workplace mental health in retail can lead to low engagement, poor job satisfaction, high retail turnover rates, and more. 

There’s good news, though. Retailers that emphasize work-life balance for employees and offer mental health services and support as part of their brand culture can combat the negative impact poor mental well-being can have on employees. Keep reading to learn more about the link between retail challenges and employee mental health, the psychological effects you should know about, and what you can do to improve workplace mental health. 

Does working in retail affect mental health?

Yes, employment in retail can have a sizable negative impact on mental health. There are several reasons why this occurs, and understanding what may be causing retail burnout in your company is the first step in learning how to overcome it.

Causes of poor mental health in retail

Some of the more common reasons why employee mental health can become such a concern for retailers include:

  • The stress of unpredictable hours: Retail jobs often include long shifts that ramp up during weekends, nights, and the holiday season. You may ask your employees to work later shifts or start earlier in the morning. Irregular schedules are common and can harm a retail worker’s sleep patterns, which can cause stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and, ultimately, burnout.
  • Demanding customers: We’ve all seen the customer freak-out videos that run rampant on social media. While these viral videos may be entertaining for some, for the people on the other end of them dealing with irrational, angry, difficult customer interactions, the result could be emotional exhaustion.
  • Physical demands: Not only do retail employees have to deal with customers, but they also commonly need to deal with physically taxing tasks, such as standing for long periods or lifting heavy products. Even though they’re part of the job, these physical demands can cause exhaustion and added stress.
  • Job insecurity anxiety: Job security worries are not uncommon for people who work in retail. Seasonal fluctuations can mean retailers must hire during peak times and lay off during the slower ones. Fear of losing a job can be incredibly stress-provoking for employees.
  • Low wages and limited benefits: For people who work for low pay and limited to no benefits, the financial pressures and risk of needing medical attention they can’t afford might cause chronic stress and other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Psychological effects of working in retail

On the surface, the world of retail might seem like it’s just about stocking shelves and ringing up products at the cash register — but employees in this sector deal with much more. The psychological effects of working retail jobs can include things like fatigue and burnout, anxiety and depression, social isolation that leads to loneliness, and low self-esteem.

Retail burnout

Employee burnout is possible in any industry, but retail work can be relentless. Employees spend hours on their feet dealing with demanding customers, scrambling to meet quotas or sales targets, and trying to manage the constant pressures of their jobs. 

Expectations for retail employees can be physically and emotionally exhausting and leave people feeling drained and unable to cope.

“Those who work in retail can sometimes feel burnt out due to long hours and dealing with difficult customers, sometimes an unhealthy work environment. This can manifest in physical and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, aches, and pains. Therapy can help employees deal with these issues so they can learn healthy ways of coping.” - Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LPC, LMHC

Anxiety and depression

Because retail jobs can be unpredictable, employees often worry about issues like shift changes, job security, or inability to meet performance goals. These and other stressors can evolve into full-blown anxiety or depression. 

Research shows that in the United States, more than 17 million adults experienced one or more major depressive episodes in the last year. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the country, and nearly 40% of people who experience it don’t get treatment. For retailers, this can be a huge problem. 

Anxiety is the leading reason people cite for considering quitting their jobs in the last year — more than any other culprit, 22% of people who thought about leaving their role stated anxiety as the reason — in retail specifically, this rate surges to almost half, 48%. 

Social isolation

Isolation can be a genuine concern in the retail sector. Even in busy retail environments bustling with energy, employees aren’t necessarily making meaningful connections or interactions during their shifts. 

Inconsistent schedules can mean working with various people throughout the weeks and often cause retail workers to miss out on family events, holidays, or social gatherings. Once you add on the demands of customer complaints, it’s easy to see how feelings of loneliness and stress at work might spiral into depression.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem is not uncommon in the retail industry. Persistent negativity from customer interactions, high-pressure sales environments, and expectations can quickly chip away at confidence. As a result, retail employees may question their worth or sink into a cycle of self-doubt.

“When employers do not recognize their employees' hard work and efforts, it can lead to dissatisfaction. Employees can also experience low self-esteem because they haven’t been given any positive reinforcement. Employers should take time to appreciate their employees — especially those who are high performers on the job — so they continue to feel motivated.” - Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LPC, LMHC

5 Strategies to improve employee mental health in retail

Working in retail can be challenging, but as an employer, you have the opportunity to improve mental health, retail employee engagement, and workplace culture. Here’s how:

1. Eliminate toxic work environments

Healthy work environments make productive, happy employees. A 2023 study done by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly 1 in 5 (19%) of workers feel their work environment is “very or somewhat toxic” — and 22% report their mental health has been affected as a result. 

In the retail industry, 64% of people surveyed say they’ve experienced an increase in verbal abuse or aggression since the beginning of the pandemic. Notably, less than half of retail employees feel supported by management when dealing with an altercation with a customer. 

How to do it: Creating an atmosphere where your employees feel secure and supported is critical in fixing a toxic workplace

  • Have (and promote) an open-door policy where employees feel comfortable and safe coming to leadership in times of need
  • Foster an environment of respect
  • Create a zero-tolerance policy to respond to intimidation, threats, or other abuse

2. Improve work-life balance for employees

We hear a lot about work-life balance these days. Retail hours, expectations of working nights and weekends, and holiday schedules make the concept of balance even more crucial.

How to do it: Focusing on work-life balance for employees can effectively combat mental health concerns in retail. You can do it by:

  • Offering paid mental health days — research shows that more than half of people working in retail say paid mental health days are what they’d appreciate the most
  • Providing counseling and therapy support — something that’s desired by 18% of retail employees who were surveyed
  • Reimbursing for gym memberships — a perk 17% of retail employees want

3. Provide mental health support

When asked about mental health in retail jobs, 45% say it doesn’t feel like a priority or concern for their managers. Further, 60% say they don’t have access to or don’t know if their employer offers any benefits. 

How to do it: Offering mental health benefits like therapy for retail workers can be instrumental in improving workplace emotional well-being. 

Talkspace makes it easy and convenient for retail employees to get support in dealing with their mental health at times and places convenient to them despite irregular work schedules.  

4. Equip them with tools to address work challenges

Building resilience by having coping mechanisms readily available is critical for any employee who works in the high-pressure world of retail. Providing employees with tools to reduce workplace stress and anxiety can go a long way. 

How to do it: Consider offering retail employees things like:

  • Stress management training
  • E-books or physical books that discuss dealing with demanding customers
  • Running workshops on avoiding retail burnout
  • Reimbursing for meditation and stress management apps
  • Hosting company retreats
  • Offering memberships to yoga studios

“Some companies now offer mental health services and/or support to their employees. Other companies should follow suit to help those employees who are struggling. This creates and fosters a more positive relationship between employers and employees. Ultimately, this can lead to improved quality of work and motivation for the employees.” - Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LPC, LMHC

5. Celebrate employee achievements

Recognizing and rewarding the hard work and efforts of retail employees can boost morale and reduce stress and anxiety. Almost half (45%) of retail employees surveyed believe mental health isn’t important to their manager. Showing that leadership cares by celebrating achievements can improve working relationships between staff and management, enhancing overall culture on a grand scale. 

How to do it: Let employees know that their dedication to the company isn’t unnoticed by:

  • Creating incentive programs for sales and promotions
  • Rewarding simple things, like “best attitude” or “helping others” 
  • Offering cash for hitting targets
  • Throwing company-wide celebrations for meeting quarterly or annual goals

Support retail employees with Talkspace

Retail employment is tough, from long hours to rude and challenging customer interactions. If there’s ever been a time to prioritize mental health in retail environments, it’s now. Show that you value your employees by investing in services like Talkspace, which offers online, convenient, affordable therapy ideal for busy retail work schedules. 

Sources:

  1. “What Is Depression?: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” What is Depression? | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Accessed November 7, 2023. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression
  2. “Please Don’t Quit: New Data from Zipline Show Declining Mental Health among Retail Associates.” Zipline, February 10, 2022. https://getzipline.com/blog/please-dont-quit-new-data-from-zipline-show-declining-mental-health-among-retail-associates/.  
  3. Contact Information  Maggie Philbin  PR for Zipline  VSC for Zipline    Contact via E-mail. “As Supply Chain Woes and Worker Burnout Rages in Retail, New Study from Zipline Finds 40% of Associates Report Worsening Mental Health.” WebWire, February 10, 2022. https://www.webwire.com/ViewPressRel.asp?aId=285120.  
  4. “Apa Poll Reveals Toxic Workplaces, Other Significant Workplace Mental Health Challenges.” American Psychological Association, June 13, 2023. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/07/work-mental-health-challenges.  


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