Unlucky 13 For Retail Workers

By Terry Streather | Personal Safety

Nov 28

Triskaidekaphobia (TRIS-kye-DEK-ə-FOH-bee-ə) is the fear of the number 13. For a whole host of reasons, thirteen is notorious for being considered an unlucky number. And now it seems workers in the retail sector should also be wary. According to new statistics, 13 will suffer injury in a violent incident at work every day! Worse still is that this number has doubled in just one year.

A 2017 Survey by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) found that 67% of retail staff have suffered verbal abuse.

‘It’s just part of the job…’

Really? Do people still say that?

Being shouted at, threatened or abused is not a part of anyone’s job… it’s a serious risk to wellbeing, mental health, morale, personal safety, and an employer’s reputation, to name but a few. And if there’s a risk that staff are likely to encounter this kind of confrontation due to the nature of their role, then reasonably practicable steps must be taken to reduce, if not eliminate, that risk.

Advances in ‘mobile technology’ mean that lone working is an increasing reality for a growing number of people. Make no mistake, for many individuals, and for retail businesses, it makes complete sense in terms of convenience, flexibility and, very often, sheer operational efficiency. In most cases, everyone stands to benefit. But for every silver lining, there’s always a cloud. The increased exposure of lone working individuals and the risks associated must be a key consideration for every employer.

“Okay,” I hear you say. “Thirteen violent incidents every day is shocking and unacceptable, but surely there are millions of retail workers in Britain, so how serious is this statistic?” Glad you asked. I took a long hard look at the latest Retail Crime Survey (for last year, 2017) produced by the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

First, we should understand the staggering scale of retail in this country. Renowned Scottish economist, author and moral philosopher Adam Smith (in 1776) and Napoleon Bonaparte (around 1794) are both credited with referring to the British as a “nation of shopkeepers”. Contrary to popular belief, neither was being disparaging and, depending on your interpretation, arguably both were right. The retail industry in this country accounts for no less than 1 in 10 workers in the UK but supports millions more indirectly.

Perhaps a ratio would me more useful. 6 in every 1000 retail workers is injured as a result of  physical attack. And there’s no telling how many cases go unreported (more on that in a moment) or the exact number of people who suffer serious mental abuse that stops short of physical attack – the BRC cites this as 40 incidents per 1000 workers. And that’s the second-highest level ever recorded. Disgraceful!

Looking after your lone workers…

It may be obvious that a lighthouse keeper in the Outer Hebrides is a lone worker, but what about the sales assistant on the menswear floor of a 4-storey fashion outlet in the middle of a shopping complex? Or being left in charge of a small shop during a colleague’s lunch break?

The Health and Safety Executive tell us that Lone Workers are:

those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision.

For employers, identifying and understanding the risks of lone working, and mitigating against them, needs to be at the top of the HR agenda. Every business that uses this employment model should create a Lone Working policy. Those that have done so already must review it – frequently. How good is your Lone Working policy? Does it really work? Do you know the daily risks your staff may face? I provide a bigger checklist further on.

Looking after employee wellbeing and personal safety is so much more than simply ‘the right thing to do’. It makes sound business sense. According to the Health & Safety Executive, stress, anxiety and depression accounted for 49% of all working days lost to ill health in 2017. Among the key reasons reported are lack of support, pressure of work, and dealing with difficult customers, along with violence and threats of aggression. But maybe we are just scratching the surface?

According to one survey, up to 95% of workers chose to blame other reasons for their absence: like flu or an upset stomach. That must mean a large volume of unreported cases, where no one has identified the true reason for the ‘illness-related’ absence. I’d rather tell them that I can’t get off the toilet than ‘I’m finding things really challenging’. Not so long ago the standard response would have been something like “Man up” or “It’s just part of the job, if you can’t take it you know where the door is”. Thankfully that’s changing I think…slowly.

The walking dead?

Presenteeism. We’ve all seen it. Maybe you’ve experienced it (though I hope not). Someone at work who’s in the building, or at a desk, but achieving next-to-nothing.

The Centre for Mental Health suggest that a worker how is there but not performing is costing you more than if they weren’t there at all. Almost double in fact.

The HSE defines workplace stress as: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.” We become stressed and anxious when feelings of safety or self-esteem drop. It’s instinctive. It’s linked to our fight-or-flight response, which is designed to keep us safe.

Therefore, it stands to reason that if we can create a safe, supportive working environment, stress and anxiety will remain low, moving the needle on absenteeism and presenteeism rates.

Click here to download our ‘Looking After Your Lone Workers’ PDF checklist. Its free and we don’t even need your email address. 

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.