Looking after your employees’ wellbeing can have a hugely positive impact, not just on the individual, but on the business as a whole
Wellbeing in the workplace might sound a little ‘out there’, but it’s not all yoga mats and macrobiotic diets. Essentially, wellbeing is another term for happiness, and a growing number of businesses are realising that looking after the mental health of employees can pay dividends, resulting in reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.
London retailer Andrew Thornton, who owns Thornton’s Budgens in Belsize Park, London, has restructured his store around the belief that prioritising staff wellbeing will result in a stronger business. As part of his ‘Heart In Business’ strategy, instead of a store manager he employees head coach Daniel Frohwein. “I tell staff I’ve been hired to improve performance and happiness,” says Daniel.
He notes that convenience store staff, and in particular those who have customer-facing roles, are vulnerable to stress, “because of the level of complaints they get from customers”.
Avtar Sidhu (aka Sid), owner of Sukhi’s Budgens in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, concurs that retailing can be extremely stressful for both retailers and their staff. “It’s all-consuming. The nature of the business is very public, you’ve got nowhere to hide. You’re living and breathing in a public space.”
If a member of staff is suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, it can have a detrimental effect on the business, Daniel believes. “Customers pick up when people are disengaged, unhappy and just doing what they have to do, but their heart isn’t in it,” says Daniel. “Anyone who doesn’t recognise the importance of the atmosphere of their staff – their happiness, their emotions, their wellbeing – in relation to profitability, resilience, absenteeism and customer service levels, is living in the dark ages.”
This view is shared by Liam Modlin, wellbeing team manager at Imagine Independence, a charity that works with people with mental health issues. He says: “When people are suffering from anxiety, depression, or unmanageable levels of stress, the first thing that goes out of the window is performance.
“People are less likely to be motivated, they could even sign off sick. When we look at safeguarding staff wellbeing, it is safeguarding business wellbeing as a whole.”
He advises retailers to monitor their staff members’ wellbeing and be ready to work through any issues they are facing. “Awareness is key,” he states. “We need to educate ourselves in what stress is, know how to recognise it in other people and also in ourselves. There’s a lot of work to do in breaking down the stigma attached to mental health.”
Recognise the issues
Saki Ghafoor, who owns two stores in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Northumberland, is very open about mental health. “Because of the pace of life today, there are lots of things happening at once, but there’s awareness that if you can resolve these feelings early on, they don’t need to become a big issue.”
Andrew also accepts that dealing with mental health issues is part and parcel of his job. “We continuously have people who suffer from anxiety and degrees of depression, that’s part of life. We deal with it in-house.
“Through Heart In Business, we have experienced coaches who are really good listeners and that’s a resource available to people who are struggling. We don’t specifically talk to staff about mental health, but we do create an environment where people can share problems and challenges openly and it’s encouraged to do so.”
As well as team coaching sessions, staff at Thornton’s Budgens also receive one-on-one coaching.
Recognising the symptoms of stress can help retailers know when to step in and offer help. Stress can manifest itself in a number of ways, explains Modlin. “Stress is the physical and emotional response to excessive pressures or demands. Obviously, there’s a healthy amount of stress that keeps us going, but when there’s too much demand, then we tend to get to a point where our performance starts to suffer.”
He explains that there are several warning signs that a person isn’t coping. “It can look like anxiety, depression, low mood, sadness, worriedness, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, or difficulties in relationships.
“You may notice a worker becoming easily agitated or frustrated, or you just sense that they’re feeling overwhelmed. People may be reporting that they can’t relax, or you can see that their self-esteem is down, or that they are feeling lonely.
“From a physical point of view, stress symptoms can be anything from low energy, headaches, aches or pains, tense muscles, chest pain, insomnia, nervousness, to cognitive symptoms such as constant worrying, being a bit disorganised or forgetful, not being able to focus, poor judgement, or pessimism.”
Sid makes an effort to observe his team and quickly picks up on any issues. “On a number of occasions, I’ve noticed that something’s not right with someone,” he says. “I’ll take them out the back and we’ll have an open conversation to find out if they’re okay. I’ll ask ‘how are your kids?’ or ‘how are your studies going?’. That might lead to them telling you what the problem is.”
He claims that simply allowing staff a voice is often the key. “You need to take time out to listen and then you’ll hear about whether it’s good, bad or ugly. We have a social responsibility and, from my perspective, I have a duty of care to the people who work for me. And if there’s something at home that’s affecting them at work, they can get upset with another work colleague and it all relates back to a source that might have nothing to do with work. If we can help then we’ll try.”
Saki is equally accommodating. “If a member of staff has any issues affecting them due to work or personal life, we try to get them resolved. We have one-to-ones every so often and staff know that if they have any issues they can come directly to us for a chat.”
He often finds that there can be a simple solution to a staff member’s problem. “Sometimes we get people suffering with anxiety relating to something at home – for example, they can’t get a childminder for a certain shift. In that case, we’ll try to accommodate that.
“If it’s work-related – they aren’t getting on with another member of staff – then we get them together and get everything out in the open.”
A listening ear
Making time to listen to staff is crucial, agrees Andrew. “You might only have to do it for two or three minutes, but it means you’re completely present and listening to what someone has to say. Whether they’re upset because one of their children is ill, or whether they’ve had a bruising incident with a customer… what we want as human beings is to be heard. We want to express what’s going on, otherwise it goes round and round in our heads and we do get mentally unwell.”
As part of listening to staff talk about personal issues, Daniel encourages them to come forward with ideas for store and workplace improvements. “Wellbeing is about engagement, empowerment and connectivity,” he says.
As a consequence, the staff canteen is being redecorated and a new fridge is being installed. The staff have also come together to develop creative ways to celebrate themed events in-store.
But the results of Andrew’s Heart In Business approach go beyond anecdotal evidence. “We measured our performance compared to a control Budgens store,” says Andrew. “Our sales are 10% higher and our average length of service is 54% higher.”
When people feel heard and when they feel their experiences are valued, they feel fulfilled and they are more motivated, says Modlin. “Where there are signs of empathy and compassion and an environment that is non-judgemental and accepting, that’s a really fantastic starting point in any working environment.”
Putting the wellbeing of your staff at the forefront of your strategy is vital. “You need to be proactive as an employer and you have to show a willingness to tackle any issues,” he says.
Of course, sometimes people will need more help than you can give them, and in that situation Modlin says that advising the staff member to speak to their GP would be the first step to take, alongside contacting a mental health helpline (see panel above).
He also reminds retailers to look after their own wellbeing. “In order for staff to be calm, retailers have to be in that position themselves,” says Modlin. “You need to acknowledge your own levels of stress, anxiety or low mood and be proactive – question ‘what am I doing to look after myself physically, emotionally and socially?’. Lead by example.”
If you are able to make wellbeing a priority, the rewards are rich. “As a convenience store, you want your customers to come in and feel that they are greeted with a smile that is genuine,” says Modlin. “If staff feel that they are being looked after and seen not just as workers, but as people, then their wellbeing increases. Healthy employees, healthy business.”
Five steps to greater wellbeing
Convenience Store and Imagine Independence’s Liam Modlin explore how the NHS’s Five Steps To Wellbeing could be used to boost staff wellbeing within a retail environment.
Connect - Feeling close to, and valued by other people, is a fundamental human need. Talk to your staff - ask how their weekend was and really listen to their responses.
Be active -Obviously, in a convenience store, there’s a physical aspect to the work. You could make this fun for staff by getting them to download a fitness app on their phone and challenging them to see if they can hit set targets. Or you could organise a work sporting activity like Avtar Sidhu, who treated his team to a day out at a high rope course.
Take notice - Be aware of how your employees are feeling and reach out to people who need your support. In addition, take time to enjoy moments, for example, if a member has created a strong product display, take a snap on your phone.
Give - As a store, committing to a cause and raising money is a great way to give. It can make staff feel better about themselves and feel they are part of something bigger.
Learning - Offering training can boost employees’ confidence, make them feel more valued and give them a greater understanding of their position within the company. Simply inviting a supplier to talk about their products can teach staff something new and help to enrich their working day.
Who to call
Samaritans: 116 123
SANEline: 0300 304 7000
MIND: 0300 123 3393
Imagine Independence: 0151 709 2366
Rethink mental illness: 0300 5000 927