As October is Mental Health Awareness month, FashionUnited wanted to bring more awareness and transparency to the topic of mental health in the fashion industry by speaking to a former retail manager of River Island and a former sales associate of Hollister to discuss and reflect on what it was like to work in the retail industry during the pandemic, as well as if the experience affected their mental health and the challenges they had to overcome.
What was the biggest challenge you faced working in retail during Covid-19 and how did you overcome it?
Manager: “It was often quite challenging as a manager to keep control of the different protective measures in place, dealing with both staff and the public to ensure that social distancing was being adhered to and that PPE was being worn and used. Doing all of this whilst also balancing customer satisfaction was quite difficult. The limited store capacity and the closed fitting rooms would often create frustration for the customer, especially as the pandemic continued. However, it was important that I, as a manager, press the importance of such restrictions as I did not want my staff or any member of the public to be at risk of infection.”
Associate: “The biggest challenge for me was the uncertainty of not knowing when the retail shop would close or when it would open back up again. Often government rules would be in effect within 24 hours so often you didn’t even know if you would be needed to work the following day. Also, I worked for an American company with a store in the Netherlands which meant that we were following both local restrictions and those that were being enforced in America at the time. This just added a whole new element to the uncertainty of the situation. Also, due to my position being part-time, there was the uncertainty of not knowing if we were going to be paid a monthly salary and if we were how it would be calculated since every week my working hours fluctuated. There wasn’t much I could do except to adjust and be flexible.”
Did you feel that your mental health was affected working in the retail sector during the pandemic?
Manager: “I think there was definitely a heightened level of stress and nervousness going into work each day, especially as case numbers began to rise pre-lockdowns. It became easier as the restrictions fell into place and both the staff and the public became more accustomed to the new normal, however, as busy days approached and people started to become more relaxed when it came to restrictions, the working day did have an effect on my mood and mentality. It would often become quite difficult to focus on work and productivity when the majority of your focus was on preventing infection within the store.”
Associate: “Working was a little bit more stressful than usual because of the added element of ensuring that customers were following the Covid-19 rules, for example, social distancing. Working in retail, it's not really an industry where you tell people what to do, so telling people to follow certain rules did take some adjusting.”
How do you think mental health is treated in the retail industry? Do you think it could be improved, if so, how?
Manager: “I think the attitude towards mental health has improved within the retail industry and the pandemic has definitely brought these issues into sharper focus, however, there is still work to be done. As part of running a shop, there are certain expectations on both staff and management but these expectations, especially throughout Covid-19, can be quite unrealistic or fail to consider the different situations that individuals are going through.
“It’s important for staff to be comfortable enough to approach a member of management regarding their mental health and it’s important that allowances are made where they can be made. Having said that, it is as important for the members of management to have a support system for their own mental health, especially if they are a person that staff are able to approach regarding their needs. Whilst the productivity and running of the shop is important, it is crucial that the environment for all staff members is one that fosters openness, compromise and understanding, which all starts with attitude and the management’s willingness to work together with their staff.”
Associate: “I felt that the company I worked at was incorporating various initiatives to bring awareness to mental health, for example, putting posters all over the break room and having a mental health week. At first, you think it is all great and progressive, but, there were no physical actions taken, such as asking employees how they are or sending an anonymous survey to check up on how employees are really feeling.
“I think something that can be improved by the retail industry is to allow someone to take a day off for mental health reasons. From my experience, higher management is very happy to give you a day off if you have a cold/flu, but, wouldn’t quite give you the same level of empathy if you said you were feeling mentally unwell. You are just expected to come to work with a smile and help customers. Mental health should be classified as a valid reason to be unable to attend work.
“Lastly, I think it can be improved by simply having an open conversation about mental health in the workplace and by offering support in the form of therapy to those who need it, that is possibly financially compensated by the company.”
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