Retail leaders are well-versed in training employees on maintaining physical safety — and while that is an essential aspect of employee wellbeing, leaders must consider a broader view of employee safety.

The pandemic highlighted the need for retailers to implement more extensive and comprehensive safety protocols. Behavioral changes like wearing masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing and engineering ventilation and filtration controls were essential to help frontline retail employees stay healthy. Demand for another type of security for employees also emerged: protection against volatile customers who argued and even fought with retail employees when asked to comply with mandated mask requirements or provide proof of vaccine status. 

Retail employees have been hailed as “frontline” workers. But, unlike medical or military frontline personnel, retail employees were never trained nor expected to play the role of corporate, local, state, or federal policy enforcer. They didn’t anticipate facing volatile customers’ verbal and physical abuse over out-of-stock or slow service due to labor shortages. With supply chain disruptions and labor shortages expected to last at least through 2022, customer pressure is not likely to ease up. These new — and long-term — job responsibilities are taking a psychological toll on retail employees.

As retailers strive to retain employees, they must make the workplace one where employees feel not just physically safe but psychologically safe. 

Understanding psychological safety

Psychologist Amy Edmondson coined the phrase “psychological safety,” defining it as: “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In retail, the concept of psychological safety includes this internal view of how employees are treated by their managers and colleagues — but it goes even further. 

A great deal of psychological safety for retail employees is determined by how customers treat them. In a research from the University of Arizona found that customer hostility played a significant role in grocery employees feeling a lack of psychological safety. Employees should feel safe at work — in every aspect, and it’s up to employers to recognize it and ensure the workplace culture goes beyond physical wellbeing.

When employees feel safe, they — and the company — benefit. When employees work in a culture that emphasizes safety, they feel the company cares about them. That positive energy is reflected in employee performance, with numerous studies like “Staying Safe: How Safety Affects Employee Retention” by Perillon, showing a correlation between safety and engagement, motivation and retention. 

How leaders can create psychological safety

Not all retail businesses are at the same point in creating psychologically safe environments for employees. Some companies are working on complying with health and safety laws. Others have attained those goals and are ready for the next level — or perhaps they are committed to working on safety issues holistically.  These companies recognize they need engaged and motivated employees, which can be hard to find in a tight labor market. Providing employees with a well-rounded level of safety is a competitive advantage. 

However, while some leaders may have the innate emotional intelligence to provide psychological safety, other leaders may have to learn and develop those abilities. Companies like HSI offer a library of educational resources to help with skill development. 

One of the skills needed to create psychological safety is the acceptance – not fear – of speaking up. Employees need to know that if they have questions — whether they’ve seen something concerning or they’ve failed at something — they can bring the situation to their manager without fear of reprisal. Jill James, Chief Safety Officer at HSI, and former OSHA Inspector gave an example of how at one company, the expectation was that no matter how small an injury or illness, the employee reported it to the manager of worker health and safety. “Employees began to realize that the manager’s job was to ensure small incidences were addressed so they didn’t turn into larger issues. The employees understood that their safety and well-being were the goals,” said James.

Whole-person safety – creating the right employee culture

After the expectations have been set and the leadership team has the tools, skills and abilities to lead the way, retailers can create a holistic environment of safety. Physical safety is still a critical part of that. Beyond teaching or reminding employees of specific safety techniques, leaders must teach employees the “why” of safety. How does this safety guideline protect the employee and their coworkers?

Creating overall safety also involves appreciating employees who raise and address issues. Once leaders have worked hard to ensure employees speak up with concerns, it is vital to recognize that activity actively so it will continue and follow up with employees on how concerns have been addressed. 

Companies wanting to make a holistic environment of safety the standard must make safety resources and training accessible to all employees. Along with that, companies should incorporate psychological safety instructions alongside physical safety ones. 

Retailers are still struggling to keep employees. But those who create a holistic environment of whole-person safety will have a better chance of attracting, keeping and encouraging the highest performance from their valuable workforce.

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