Managing mental health in the retail and hospitality industry

Ask anyone who has ever taken restaurant orders, cooked in a kitchen, stood behind a cashtill or stocked shelves and they will tell you that the retail and hospitality industry is a stressful one to work in.

This is backed up by data and research that shows poor mental health is rife in the retail industry and hospitality industry. This is a trend that was exacerbated by Covid-19, and in a recent report 8 in 10 (84%) of retail staff say that the pandemic damaged their mental health in some way. This is underpinned by the fact that according to the University of Cambridge a quarter of those in hospitality have some kind of mental health illness or issue, compared to 1 in 5 in the general population. Our own research in Australia, All Worked Up, found 36% of retail employees have moderate to severe anxiety, and 41% depression. The numbers for hospitality are 33% for anxiety and 32% for depression. This compares to national averages of 31%. One in three self-report burnout.

These customer-facing industries have unique demands and stressors that can affect employee mental health.

High-stress environment

The retail sector and hospitality sector are often fast paced and employees have to deal with high customer volumes, with targets to deliver a great customer experience at speed and do it well. This can lead to burnout. Customer interactions may be stressful, as other people’s needs are put before managing your own mental health. Workers in these sectors frequently have to manage and suppress their own emotional responses to provide a positive experience and customer satisfaction, which can lead to emotional exhaustion. All of these factors make the sector a high stress environment.

Shift work and hours

Trade union Unite in the UK found that long hours are the norm with almost half (44%) working over 44 hours a week and a sixth of retail, hospitality and kitchen workers busy for over 60 hours a week. Shift work is known to be bad for our health and is associated with considerable impacts on sleep, depression, anxiety, substance use, impairments in cognition, lower quality of life, and even suicidal ideation. It can disrupt social and home life, which can lead to an imbalance in life, which can exacerbate issues for those struggling with mental health.

Low pay and job insecurity

Many positions in retail and hospitality are lower-paying, part-time, or temporary jobs, which can contribute to financial stress and a sense of job insecurity. We know that financial wellbeing plays a huge part in employee mental health, and that this socioeconomic determinant of mental health and there are calls to make support to employees facing job security issues a priority. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that job insecurity due to COVID-19 was related to greater depressive symptoms. The average base salary in the retail industry is less than $15 an hour, and for hospitality it’s under $17, compared to the average hourly rate nationwide of $28.34.

Physical health

Retail employees and hospitality employees are often on their feet for many hours, creating a sense of emotional exhaustion. Infrequent breaks make it difficult to eat healthily, which can result in weight loss, weight gain, or nutritional deficiencies. Poor physical health is highly correlated with poor mental health, so the two elements of wellbeing need to be thought of holistically.

Festive periods

The festive period can exacerbate the workplace mental health of employees in retail and hospitality. Festive seasons often mean higher customer volumes, longer hours, and greater pressure to meet sales or service targets, intensifying stress levels. Customer expectations and behavior can become more demanding during holiday seasons, potentially leading to confrontations and increased stress for employees. Working during festive periods may mean less time for family and social engagements, which can affect emotional wellbeing and lead to feelings of isolation or resentment. In some cases, the change in seasons itself can affect mental health, with conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder being more prevalent during winter months when many festivities occur.

Impact of workplace mental health on businesses

Poor employee mental health can adversely affect the business in a number of ways, and pose risk.

If people are stressed, burned out, overworked and unhealthy they are more likely to make mistakes at work, which can have a negative impact on customers, and pose even an insurance risk if anyone is harmed.

Absenteeism and presenteeism are much more likely when physical and mental health issues are at play. Studies show that presenteeism costs 2-3 times more than direct medical care, yet often goes unnoticed, with employers preferring to have someone working even if they are ineffective. The problem is that this often pushes issues down the line so that employees find their symptoms or health are deteriorating, resulting in worse and more risky problems. 

Organisations who neglect the mental wellbeing of their employees are more likely to encounter a rise in personal injury claims from their workforce – or customers as a result of mistakes being made. If a retailer or company is known for poor management of workplace mental health, this could exacerbate staffing shortages and result in lasting harm to both the business and its brand reputation.

9 ways employers can support retail and hospitality staff

Given that many of the psychosocial stressors that workplaces provide are directly correlated to risk of mental ill health, and how significant these stressors are amongst retail and hospitality staff, employers have a duty to support their employees with any mental health challenges. 

The World Health Organization advocates a three-pronged approach to managing mental health at work:

  • Prevent risk to mental health
  • Protect and promote mental health by strengthening manager capacities
  • Support people with mental health conditions to thrive at work.

Here are a few practical actions employers can take.

1. Training

The Retail Trust reported that over half (54%) of managers felt unequipped to deal with their team’s mental health issues and 40% of retailers don’t have a wellbeing strategy in place. Providing training and education to managers and senior leaders on the signs of poor mental health, what risks mental ill health can pose, and how to approach an individual who seems to be struggling or even in crisis is essential for creating organisations that can manage the health and wellbeing of employees in a responsible and effective way to ensure that they are empowered and employees are confident that their mental health is a priority.

2. Flexible scheduling

Recognize that everyone needs down time and mental health days are essential. Offer flexible scheduling and ensure employees have enough rest between shifts, especially during busy periods. In more senior positions it may be that not everything needs to be done on site, so hybrid working could be an option. But equally ensure that retail associates and restaurant staff do not feel that there is a two tier approach to psychological health between the more and less well paid workers. 

3. Work-life balance

Acknowledge the importance of work-life balance and support employees in achieving this, particularly during periods when they might be expected to work more, such as during peak season. Ensure employees take regular breaks to rest and recuperate, particularly during long shifts.

4. Tools and resources

Digital tools like Wysa are ideal for busy people who work shifts and long hours and so may not have as easy access to traditional methods of support. Wysa allows people to check in and get support at any time of day or night for structured AI CBT guidance, and use the self help and wellbeing resources available.

Many Employee Assistance Programs go unused, so ensure yours is fit for purpose and supported by a wraparound program of communications and awareness so that people know what is available for them. Remember that often stigma prevails, so anonymous tools are key to getting take up and enhancing health in the retail and hospitality sectors.

5. Awareness and advocacy

Great workplaces have structured mental health awareness programs in place – and back it up with action. Promote a healthy workplace through advocacy systems such as webinars on managing mental wellbeing, and Employee Resource Groups made up of volunteers who are committed to furthering mental health and support within the organization.

6. Reduce stigma

One of the key barriers to seeking support is stigma. One in three of those surveyed in All Worked Up in the US, UK and Australia report that the reason they have not got help is due to embarrassment. A psychologically safe workplace where everyone is comfortable and free to open up about any difficulties either at work or with their health is essential to reducing the likelihood that fear will hold people back. Foster a supportive and positive work environment, where teamwork is encouraged and employees feel valued. You can do this through regular meetings and an open door policy.

7. Communication

Communication is key, and uncertainty can lead to worry or stress. Maintain clear communication regarding shift patterns, expectations, and any available support, which can reduce concern and anxiety.

Being open to hearing any concerns or potential criticism is also key. No organization is perfect, and recognizing that you may get valuable feedback from your employees, and making it known you take it seriously, fosters an open and collaborative work environment where everyone is working towards a shared goal and has a sense of ownership and investment.

8. Professional development

Invest in employee growth and development to improve job satisfaction and provide a sense of career progression, which can be a buffer against stress. No one wants to feel like they are not progressing, so ensure that everyone has access to high quality training, and gets the benefit of a sense of achievement.

9. Recognition

Many large organizations have awards such as ‘employee of the month’ or provide bonuses for outstanding work. Recognize and reward employees for great work or customer service, to make them feel valued and acknowledged. Ensure that this is not just for long hours, or something that can actually cause mental wellbeing to deteriorate. 


Where so many Employee Assistance Programs fail is that they don’t measure the level of need in their organization, and thus have no idea on where best to direct resources. Start with the Wysa Employee Mental Health Barometer, a free tool that uses clinically standard questionnaires to get a snapshot of mental health in your company. Regularly measure and review your employee mental health, through the data in Wysa and employee feedback to get an accurate understanding of what works and where best to direct resources.

Schedule a demo with Wysa to find out how clinically robust AI mental health support can transform your business.


Image by PixelsEffect from Getty Images Signature, Canva.
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