How to support staff in challenging times 

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Kathmandu is a brand that lives and breathes the outdoor ethos. “So it’s been hard to see store teams confined to their houses,” says the general manager of retail stores and operations, Stephen Domancie.


Yet even the most committed homebody would have struggled with the restrictions that many Australians have endured over the past few months. 


In such challenging times, it’s little wonder that calls to mental health organisation Beyond Blue have increased by 40–60 per cent since March.


Supporting employees through difficult times isn’t easy for retailers. There’s a lot to consider – from financial support, to wellbeing and mental health – but the rewards for employers, not to mention employees, are significant, both in terms of productivity and loyalty. Numerous studies have shown that a positive culture in the workplace contributes to higher levels of productivity – and, of course, there’s the satisfaction by doing the right thing.


At Kathmandu, staff wellbeing is a priority. “Keeping in touch is one of the most important things right now - both from the team at head office but also with each other,” says Domancie. The platform Workplace by Facebook has proved essential in connecting staff as they work from home, he says. “We use Workplace by Facebook to communicate directly to each of our team members and update them with the necessary information, but also to have some fun, sharing sourdough recipes and ideas for activities you can do within 5kms.” 


He adds that, “the buck stops with all of us in making sure all our teams are safe and healthy. Nothing is more important.”


Be mindful of extra pressure


Right now, retailers must balance the requirements of the business with employees’ personal circumstances, says mental health speaker Mitch Wallis, who works with brands like KPMG and Microsoft.


Wallis, who founded the global mental health social movement Heart On My Sleeve, says that retailers need to ensure they’re fulfilling their obligations as an employer by avoiding putting psychological strain on staff. This means accommodating flexible working hours and being compassionate towards their staff’s personal circumstances.


“Employees tell me they would forego the green smoothies and gym memberships and all those ‘nice to have’ perks in their role if they could simply feel like they could bring their real self to work and have supportive relationships with the manager,” he says. 


Put safeguards in place


This is the perfect time to make staff aware of services that support their health and wellbeing – whether that’s publicly available resources, such as Beyond Blue, or dedicated in-house programs. 


At Fluent Commerce, an order management platform, staff can now access a confidential counselling program via MyCoach and BeneHub. CEO Graham Jackson says that his 80-plus team members are having difficult conversations with retailers every day, and he wanted to make support available.


The 24/7 support service enables employees and immediate family members to access mental health counselling, along with strategies to create better work/life balance, guidance on parenting issues and advice on improving fitness and nutrition. 


“It’s not expensive to have an external confidential support service in place as an employer, and it can play a huge difference in the lives of your people,” says Jackson, who launched the program this month.

Employees tell me they would forego the green smoothies and gym memberships and all those ‘nice to have’ perks in their role if they could simply feel like they could bring their real self to work and have supportive relationships with the manager

- Mitch Wallis, Founder, Heart On My Sleeve
Check in regularly 


Clear communication is vital, and Mark Deady of the mental health organisation the Black Dog Institute, says that the best way to monitor employees’ mental health is to check in regularly. “Make an effort to enquire about how they are going and if anything is causing them stress.”


Larger organisations may consider an employee survey, but if possible, managers should talk to their team directly about how they’re coping. “It’s extremely normal to feel ill-equipped to help, but it’s important to know that just starting the conversation can go a long way to helping someone out. Trust your gut when something doesn’t seem right,” says Deady who advises that simply allowing employees to be heard and showing that you care can be helpful. 


“If [staff have] been feeling really down for more than 2 weeks, encourage them to see a health professional. You could say something like, “It might be useful to link in with someone who can support you. I'm happy to help you to find the right person to talk to.”


Deady says that a number of organisations have taken up the HeadGear app, and that if employers are unsure how to provide support, they can contact the Black Dog Institute.


Keep morale high 


Victorian psychologist and author Merryn Snare says that social connectedness is one of the most important contributors to wellness, and COVID restrictions have made this very difficult. For all the benefits of working from home – from time saved on a commute to PJs all day – the lack of social contact with colleagues is a problem for many people. 


One way to maintain morale is to initiate a fun, but psychologically beneficial, activity. “So, retailers might set up a daily challenge or game,” says Snare.  


For some retailers, this might mean a regular virtual social meeting where staff are encouraged to have some fun. Adore Beauty held a group macarena dance session at the beginning of COVID-19. Financial advisers in Melbourne have been running online pottery sessions and making pizzas via Zoom while working from home. Other workplaces have been holding virtual pet parades, or holding family lunches, where staff share a virtual lunch and include their children.


Simply showing your appreciation can pay off when it comes to morale. Woolworths rewarded staff with $50 million in shares and gift cards for working so hard during the coronavirus panic-buying period. Others have ordered work-from-home ‘self-care’ gift baskets, containing soups or treats, to let staff know they care. 


It’s also important that, during times of stress, retail staff are empowered to know how to deal with difficult customers. Extra training or providing resources on how to handle challenging scenarios will help maintain staff wellbeing.  


Nina Hendy is a business reporter who has written for a number of publications including Fairfax.


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