UK Retail Sector Sees 404% Increase in Demand of Mental Wellbeing Support by Workers Since Start of COVID-19

In recent years more and more employers have been recognising the benefits of supporting staff mental wellbeing and committing to programmes of support.

However, there is no manual for getting this right as mental health is complex. As is supporting the needs of a diverse workforce. There are some support tools we know can be helpful company-wide (like mental health awareness training, training for managers, mental health allies, or first-aiders). But when it comes to the unexpected—like the current COVID-19 health pandemic—these tools designed for traditional working environments are likely to have reduced impact. What we’re learning from COVID-19 is employers have to innovate and think outside the box to be responsive to crises, to be prepared for the unexpected when it comes to continuing to support staff wellbeing.

Why collaboration matters

COVID-19 presents a strong argument for why industries should collaborate, sharing lessons learned and best practice amongst one another—where out of the box thinking is already happening. With collaboration, impact can happen more quickly and effectively, such has been the case in UK sectors like law and banking; construction and especially now in retail—one of the sectors most hard hit by COVID-19.

Four of the UK’s largest retailers: the John Lewis Partnership, Marks & Spencer, Co-op and Next conducted joint research to assess workplace mental health across the sector.  It revealed that over 50% of the 2,000 retail workers questioned could not recognise the signs of someone needing emotional support, and around 25% would not feel confident approaching an upset colleague.

Wellbeing in Retail

As a result on Mental Health Awareness Day in October 2019, seven leading retailers (ASOS, Co-op, John Lewis Partnership, M&S, Next,  Sainsbury’s and Tesco) joined together in an effort to improve the mental wellbeing of staff (with the help of Samaritans) by co-funding the Wellbeing in Retail initiative.

As previously reported in Make a Difference news, the initiative aims to help staff to look after their own mental health as well as identify colleagues who may have problems. It’s accessible through desktop and mobile devices and offers resources such as guides for breathing techniques, the Samaritans’ listening wheel and a mood barometer. It also includes support films from mental health experts.

Sir Charlie Mayfield, Former Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said about the tool when it was launched:

“Mental health issues can affect us all – and stigmas and barriers that once prevented people talking about the issues are starting to erode. The world of work and retail in particular, is fast paced and constantly changing, and we want employees to feel supported. I hope this guide is a stepping stone to creating further conversations on mental health and gives workers the confidence to use it when they may need it.”

The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit for the retail sector

Further substantiating the need for wellbeing support amongst retail workers, in February, 2020 Time to Change and The British Retail Consortium launched The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit for the Retail Sector. The toolkit provides advice on how retail employers can improve staff mental health literacy and on how to get started training a group of mental first-aiders. Further support is offered through a series of case studies to demonstrate how successful these approaches have been in the retail setting.

Retail as a whole is the largest private sector employer in the UK, currently employing some 2.9 million people according to figures from Retail Economics. The timing couldn’t have been better for both these initiatives to launch in autumn 2019 and February 2020, just before the start of the health pandemic.

How COVID-19 has impacted retail workers

Since the end of March when the UK government imposed a lockdown and social distancing rules, retailers with physical stores have been hit more significantly than online retailers. Due to closures, clothing stores have been hit the hardest with a 35% drop as per the Financial Times’ records. Furlough and layoffs have already impacted retail staff mental wellbeing and with the ongoing pandemic, uncertainties about job/career security still loom—increasing the likelihood of work-related stress and anxiety amongst a large population of UK employees.

And with stores having opened back up in June another form of stress that workers face is around protective measures. Retail workers don’t have the option to work from home like office-based workers do. Retail employers have a ‘legal duty of care’ to ensure health and safety of their workers and most retailers are pledging to ensure this happens using protective equipment and social distancing rules. However, it’s understandable that retail workers may still face stress or anxiety around a lack of personal safety being exposed to the public or around safely carry out social distancing in stores.

How industry collaboration is making an impact for retail staff during COVID-19

Industry-specific tools like that of the Wellbeing in Retail initiative and the Mental Wellbeing Toolkit for the Retail Sector, have proved a worthwhile investment for employers and their vulnerable workers. The retail sector can now see the fruits of their efforts in joining together to create specific tools to support their workers as industry workers face an increase in work-related vulnerability to mental health problems

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Neil Duffy, Director of Wellbeing and Funding at retailTRUST, told Make a Difference News:

“We were delighted to work in partnership with the British Retail Consortium and Time to Change on the Mental Wellbeing Toolkit. We have seen a 404% increase in demand for wellbeing support since the COVID-19 outbreak. We have received 980 grant applications since March and 95% of those provided support for debt and helped keep people in their homes. During the last two months alone, we delivered counselling to over 900 retail colleagues. We hope that these initiatives will continue to support the wellbeing of our retail colleagues.”

Mental health support for retail workers beyond COVID-19

British retail workers are facing unique challenges to their wellbeing today due to the COVID-19 crisis, and fortunately the sector has been prepared to respond. However, there are other future-focused pioneering initiatives underway across the sector which aim to standardise wellbeing support for retail workers beyond the health pandemic. The Retail Trust and the British Independent Retailers Association, representing many of the UK’s retailers, have been publicly supporting the UK Parliament’s introduction of legislation to make Mental Health First Aid mandatory for organisations like physical first aid for the past two years.

As Stephen Clarke, chief executive of WH Smith, said about support for the legislation:

“At WH Smith, our employees’ mental health is of equal importance to their physical health. Every one of our 14,000 employees has access to mental health support and we are proud to have the same number of mental health first aiders across our business as we do physical health first aiders. We are calling for this legislative change, alongside many other leading employers, as we firmly believe that everyone should have access to first aid support for their mental health regardless of where they work.”

The UK’s retail industry is setting a great example to other sectors toward the benefits which collaboration can have during times of uncertainty, times of change, times when workers are most vulnerable.


Supporting mental health of staff through COVID-19 will be a core topic discussed at our global digital events this October, including Make a Difference Summit US in Association with Mind Share Partners on 15 October, 2020 and Mad World Summit UK on 8 October, 2020.

About the author





Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.



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