Mental health matters: NRF panel tackles retail stress, offers digital mental health tools

Journalist Dave Zielinski, left, moderates a NRF panel with Stuart Poole, Headspace, and Lorna Borenstein, Grokker.

HIGH POINT — In the face of a year’s worth of pandemic stress, national political unrest and more, the rate of mental health issues, stress and burnout in the U.S. has skyrocketed, and according to a session during the National Retail Federation’s annual retail conference NRF 2021, its impact is becoming more apparent in retail spaces.

According to a study from workforce management company Quinyx, 54% of retail employees said their job has negatively impacted their mental health during the pandemic, and 70% of employees say this period has been the most stressful of their career.

As a result, work effectiveness is being impacted.

In its 2021 State of Stress survey, employee health and wellbeing engagement company Grokker found that 50% of employees have reported increasing their unhealthy eating habits, 42% have reported getting less physical activity, and 25% have increased their use of alcohol and/or controlled substances. Right now, hourly employees without benefits are the most stressed, with 80% of workers reporting feeling overwhelmed, though stress is widespread in about 76% of employees.

“Stress is very, very real … and what is really kind of staggering is when you look at retail employees in particular,” said Lorna Borenstein, CEO of Grokker. “But how do you support employees with such a widespread problem?”

According to Borenstein, she has seen three things really make a difference:

  • Recognizing that stress does not just affect mental health, but it also impacts sleep, nutrition, energy, work and more. It is a whole person issue.
  • Utilizing digital solutions such as apps and videos to support employees as they are less expensive and more private than most in-person solutions, especially with coronavirus social distancing concerns and for employees without benefits.
  • Partnering and working with credentialed professionals so that your employees can connect with true experts and build community.

At online meditation and wellness platform Headspace, Stuart Poole, senior director of business development, said that COVID-19 has not only accelerated stress, but it also has increased the acceptance of digital health platforms, as medical offices and more have turned to online appointments and video calls in the wake of the pandemic. This has made digital mental health solutions more needed and popular for employees, especially as rates of mental health issues and stress surge.

“We ran a study of more than 2,500 U.S. and U.K. based employees in retail, hospitality and travel, and a few other industries and we found that 42% of workers have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety,” noted Poole. “There’s just not enough therapists in the world to meet the surging demand of these mental health issues, and it’s important to have an approachable and scalable offer.”

Even though the solutions offered by companies like Headspace and Grokker may look different from traditionally therapy and mental health programming  — such as celebrity-guided motivational sessions, meditations, exercise programming and more — studies show they work for employees. With Headspace, users see focus improve 22% after just one sessions, burnout decreases by 14% after four sessions, and stress decrease on average 32% after 20 days of usage. After two months, 46% of users see depressive symptoms decrease.

But how can managers and companies encourage their employees to take advantage of mental health assistance and programs — digital or otherwise — once a company begins offering them?

It starts with destigmatizing mental health care and issues, and that often involves getting managers and executives more involved in talking about mental health, openly incentivizing participation and making information and goals shared through the programs private.

At a large Seattle-based retail coffee maker, Headspace put together a fireside chat-style video that featured the company co-founder and CEO when it rolled out a new program with the company, creating a space for the CEO to discuss candidly his mental health journey. Ultimately, that honesty and openness sparked “unprecedented” and continued engagement rates with that retailer’s employees.

In Borenstein’s view, offering varyied content and options is also a key component to getting employees involved and invested in wellness. Just like employees and their stressors, solutions are not one size fits all, and neither are employee wellness goals.

Since stress and mental health issues impact the whole body, Grokker offers everything from guided private and group exercise classes to counseling and expert mental health sessions. It is also quick to develop new offerings when it observes new wellness trends or increased interest in particular programs.

“What we’re really in the business of is trust,” said Borenstein. “How do we help the employer develop a better trusted relationship with its worker, and the way we do that is make sure we are an incredibly trusted provider and brand to the employees. …

“You have to provide a sense of ‘you’re not alone’ and ‘we’re going to be here for you no matter what you’re suffering from and no matter what your achievements are. We’ll support you through that, too.’”

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