man sitting on a sofa with head in hand mental health depression sad

Too many employees still worry if they admit to struggling it will damage their career

The grocery retail sector employs millions of people in the UK and is the lifeblood of the economy. However, the advent of online shopping continues to make its mark on physical stores. And the impact goes far beyond the boardroom – the health of store associates is likely to be affected by all the uncertainty.

Recently, mental health was once again put in the spotlight through the well publicised Mental Health Awareness Week, with celebrities and other spokespeople opening up on how stress, anxiety, depression and other associated illnesses have affected their lives. It’s been an important event in reducing the stigma around these conditions but there is still much to be done, as our recent research suggests.

Indeed, one of the fundamental issues continues to be that mental health problems carry a social stigma, with too many employees worrying that if they admit to struggling, to either the boss or colleagues, it will cause embarrassment and possibly damage their career. Tellingly, just 3% of employees working in the retail sector said they’d tell their employer if they were suffering from mental health issues, while 37.3% of respondents said they wouldn’t share their troubles with anyone at work and just 29.1% said they would speak to a line manager. Conversely, seven in 10 employers (70.9%) said they speak directly to a colleague showing signs of a problem to offer support.

The difficultly for employers is that many of the symptoms of these conditions are invisible and if employees don’t speak up there is very little that they can do. That said, the impact on a business of staff suffering in silence can be severe, especially when every sale matters.

Picture one scenario where your sales associate is suffering from depression and is getting very little sleep at night. He or she can’t afford not to come to work, so they turn up but are not fully fit. A customer is looking to find a certain item and approaches the member of staff. The shopper is not aware of the employee’s condition and, through no fault of the employee, is greeted less than favourably. The result? The shopper’s experience is poor and they choose to shop elsewhere.

Clearly this is an extreme example and is unlikely to happen frequently, but it leaves the question: if someone doesn’t want to speak out about a problem that is not overtly visible then what can a store manager or business owner do? Ultimately it revolves around training and processes, and having these in place will make a real difference to staff’s wellbeing.

Of course, the onus cannot, and should not, fall entirely on the employer, but a well thought-through and implemented workplace wellbeing or mental health policy can help cut absence, loss of productivity and a high staff turnover. The problem, at present, is that less than a third (30.6%) of employees are aware that their place of work has an official workplace wellbeing policy, which highlights the vast majority are unaware of who they can turn to for support or how the business can help.

But offering the right kind of support is very important, and simply including a mental health policy in the company handbook is not enough. Employers must work on creating an open and supportive culture that encourages people to talk about issues rather than try to hide them. Above all else they need to engage, and our research found that more than half (50.7%) of employees said they’d like their employer to offer help and support and 20.9% simply want their employer to listen.

Read more: Taking employee mental health seriously goes beyond HR

We found that fewer than one in four (22.4%) of respondents felt their employer regularly engaged with staff on mental health, while 85.8% would like businesses to provide mental health awareness training to line managers. The latter statistic is an important one and demonstrates where you can make a real difference. If your managers can spot the early warning signs that someone is potentially suffering they can engage with them and help them overcome the first hurdle – speaking about the problem.

Creating a culture of openness should be the priority for all businesses in tackling mental health issues, along with a clearly stated and promoted mental health policy. If managers make it clear that discussing mental health issues will result in support and not discrimination, this can be the first step to helping an employee manage their issues without needing to take lots of time off work. Likewise, prioritising a good work-life balance, flexible working and where necessary offering professional help, can all help to prevent or minimise the impact of mental health issues on your workforce – and your bottom line.

Helen Smith is commercial director and business sponsor for wellbeing strategy at Benenden Health