As the pandemic has unfolded, economic uncertainty and store closures have meant massive disruption in retail, a sector that was struggling even before COVID.
In this article, Terry Streather, Director at Mental Health, Wellbeing and Personal Safety consultancy Oakwood Training interviews Claire Kershaw, Heath and Wellbeing Manager at British multinational clothing, footwear and home products retailer Next.
Together, they highlight how Next is supporting the wellbeing of its employees as the high street fights for survival.
Terry: There are so many moving parts in a business like Next. That must make supporting employee wellbeing quite a challenge.
Claire: The reality is that with so many different divisions from head office, distribution, our stores and online retail, a one size fits all approach to wellbeing simply doesn’t work. We need to understand that this pandemic has affected people in different ways.
Some of our people are dealing with the loss of loved ones or supporting those who are ill. Not everyone has the option to work from home, and some feel anxious and vulnerable coming into work, commuting, mixing with the public in our stores, or wearing masks or visors all day.
Some people aren’t used to working from home or managing people remotely to maintain engagement to feel connected in and out of work.
Some have adapted well and now don’t want to return to having established new routines. But others have found being on furlough or balancing childcare and homeschooling with working on the dining table, shared accommodation or a blurring of the line between home and work a real challenge.
The main challenge I think though is the uncertainty. Will stores have to close again after Christmas and will I still have a job? With all the gloomy economic headlines some people are quite understandably worried about what their future looks like. We are all in the same storm, but in different boats.
Terry: How do you keep employee mental health and wellbeing on the agenda at a time when some might argue business needs must take priority?
Claire: I’d say that with so much going on we all risk staying in crisis management mode and forget to look after ourselves. That’s not good for employee wellbeing or for business. Our ‘Wellbeing Charter’ is more than just a pretty infographic on our intranet, it underpins everything we do. It doesn’t have a finish date and it’s not a tick box exercise.
From a wellbeing perspective we’ve tried to keep a ‘business as usual’ approach, rather than ‘business very unusual’ by continuing to mark and celebrate events, albeit in a slightly different way.
Despite the obvious obstacles, we are moving forward with our wellbeing plan we developed before COVID, to embed a more holistic approach to health.
For example, we’ve just launched a new service to all employees called Digital GP, giving our people 24-7 access to GP services virtually and extended our flu vaccination and voucher programme to include all of our stores and call centres. We also hosted flu clinics at our warehouses and head office throughout October and November.
Terry: Working remotely may be a blessing for some, but not for everyone. Feeling alone and isolated can bring its own problems. How are you supporting your people through this time of enormous change and how do you know if it’s working?
Claire: Everyone is different and may be dealing with things in their own way. We’ve tried to respect that and at the same time look at new and creative ways to connect and promote wellbeing. COVID hasn’t stopped us celebrating long service awards, big birthdays or milestones. We’ve just used a google hangout!
The role of managers is essential in making people feel connected and we’ve encouraged them to have conversations about how people are doing, rather than just focusing on performance or work targets. And for those working from home more permanently, we’ve arranged physical meet ups at the office one day per week so they can connect with their team.
Sharing tips and resources around health, wellbeing, financial, physical and more has been really important, but sharing the personal stories of our people in video has really resonated. One of our people, Kate, made a video journal documenting what it is like to live alone during lockdown and the amount of engagement her story generated was amazing. People can identify with them and it’s so much more powerful and inspiring.
We’ve launched internal campaigns like #bringthekindness and ‘More Than OK’, marking events like World Menopause Day and International Men’s Day, where we encouraged teams to hold Google MEETS to get talking.
Apart from the informal feedback we get, we have an annual engagement survey, and we are currently trialing a platform which will enable us to get more regular temperature checks.
Terry: If we think a colleague might be struggling, rather than waiting for them to ‘reach out’ for help, maybe we should accept the ‘invitation’ their behaviour has given us and ‘reach in’ to offer a listening ear. Some organisations may think they have the wellbeing box ticked because they can signpost an employee assistance programme or mental health first aider. But is that really enough right now?
Claire: Our Mental Health First Aiders are fantastic, but they are only one component of our wellbeing plan. We’ve made them easier to contact, including email and google chat, and promoted our wellbeing app called ‘Thrive’. It can be used discreetly as we know there are a so many reasons why accessing support from home can be difficult.
The essential link in the chain though is our managers. We wanted to get away from the standard ‘ring HR’ approach you see in so many businesses. Over the past few years, you have supported us in training all levels, from our CEO and exec team to first level line managers on how to spot the signs of poor wellbeing and more importantly how to have a conversation, rather than just passing people on to HR.
Managers don’t need to be trained as First Aiders, and we share our Wellbeing Charter and what support is available during the induction process to make sure everyone shares the same vocabulary and understanding. It’s the day-to-day interactions that matter most, not the big mission statements.
Terry: Technology has allowed work to continue and even speed up in many cases, but it can also mean people never switch off. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should! Can you share any thoughts about how organisations might prevent staff ‘burnout’ and overwhelm?
Claire: Technology has enabled us to stay connected and keep working. But it can also lead to an ‘always on’ mindset, and ‘Zoom’ or ‘Meet’ fatigue.
You don’t always have to have your camera on, what ever happened to a good old voice call? Rather than lurching from one meeting to another, plan your day to get some time away from the screen. Make sure your day has a start and finish and stick to it. I think we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to do everything in one day and it’s just not possible.
Put the laptop out of site once the working day is done, and maybe do the same with your phone! It’s too tempting to ‘just check your emails quickly’ before bed and before you know it, you’re up half the night.
Terry: I wondered if you might share a few thoughts or tips you’ve learned that might help employers and managers navigate their way through this.
Claire: I don’t think we should expect ‘perfect’ right now, and it’s important to have realistic expectations of the people you manage, but also of yourself. Remember what’s important and be human with your people.
Everyone is doing their best to deal with this in their own way, but we can keep reminding ourselves that help is out there. We are not on our own, even though it might feel like that sometimes.
About the author
Terry is a Director and Head of Training and Oakwood Training. He’s a mental health and personal safety expert, with extensive experience as both a frontline practitioner and trainer. Terry works with global companies and charities and is passionate about helping organisations create safer, healthier workplaces, by placing wellbeing at the very core of what they do. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense. He understands that our health and the way we feel has a huge impact on the way we behave, the decisions we make and our productivity www.oakwoodtraining.co.uk