Stressed-Out Employee in Aisle Three

In the retail industry, poor employee health can be exacerbated by stressful working conditions. Some companies are trying to alleviate this by changing their practices in areas such as time-and-attendance and workforce management.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
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Employing nearly 15 million workers, the retail industry represents one of the largest sectors of the American economy. Unfortunately, many of those workers aren't so healthy.

Three quarters of retail employees suffer from at least one chronic condition, according to a new report from the Integrated Benefits Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Only 26 percent of employees are getting treatment for their chronic conditions, while the economic impact of poor health -- in terms of sick days, disability leave and reduced productivity -- costs the industry just over $47 billion annually, according to the report, which is based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and academic studies.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that retail employers tend to have limited to nonexistent information on their employees' health status, according to the IBI."Employers have the opportunity to mitigate some illness-related productivity by developing benefit policies appropriate to the health needs of their workforce," says IBI research director and report author Kim Jinnett. "However, many retail sector employers have limited information about the health conditions within their workforce and the toll of illness on their day-to-day business operations."

Health-claims data and health-risk assessments tend to be the primary sources of such information, says Jinnett. However, many retail employers either don't offer a health plan or have one that's utilized by a fairly small portion of their employees.

"For employees who use a spouse's plan or don't have health insurance, you're not going to know much about their health," she says.

As for HRAs, those results tend to be skewed by workforce demographics, says Jinnett.

"The employees who fill out HRAs tend to be full-time professionals who use a computer during the workday," she says. "We've seen studies that indicate even when an HRA is sent out to a company's entire workforce, lower-wage workers tend not to be picked up in a lot of HRAs because if you're not working regularly in front of a computer, it's more of a barrier to participation."

Health status tends to correlate closely with income status, says Jinnett, with lower-wage workers significantly more likely to smoke and suffer from chronic conditions than their higher-paid counterparts. The median wage for retail sales employees is $10.29 per hour, according to the BLS, with one in three retail workers employed on a part-time status.

The cost of many retail workers' poor health is, ironically enough, driven up even further by the industry's most-profitable time of the year -- the holiday shopping season -- when the sheer volume of customer demand ratchets up stress levels, says Jinnett.

It's not surprising that retail employees are dealing with a lot of stress, says Sue Blankenhagen, wellness program specialist at Minneapolis-based Ceridian's LifeWorks division, which provides employee-assistance programs to corporate clients, including 150 retail firms.

"With retail stores, one of the main stressors is having to deal face-to-face with an upset customer," she says. "If you're faced with a difficult situation and you feel you don't have the tools or the knowledge to handle it well, that's going to cause stress."

Some retailers are changing the way they manage their workforce to help them become more productive while decreasing their stress.

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At Kronos, a Chelmsford, Mass.-based time-and-attendance vendor, the company is tweaking its enterprise workforce-management software to ensure its clients can staff their stores to more closely match peak customer demand, says Charles DeWitt, vice president of business development.

"It's always been elusive for managers to see the benefits of having more employees rather than less," he says.

Kronos' strategy involves taking its existing software offerings (time-and-attendance, scheduling, analytics) and using gamification to help retail managers see the link between having enough staff on hand to meet customer demand and sales revenue per store.

"It allows retailers to build on their intuition-many of them tell us 'I knew I needed to add more people, but I could never prove it to my CFO or Wall Street,' " says DeWitt.

Kronos is building on the work done by academics such as Zeynep Ton, an adjunct management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who argues in her new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, that organizations which err toward over-staffing instead of under-staffing and standardize their jobs while giving employees more autonomy will see a boost to their bottom lines.

Lots of variables can affect a store's profitability, and employees factor into most of them, says DeWitt.

"How much a person spends in a retail store depends on whether the product they're looking for is on the shelves, whether the store is clean, whether an employee was available to cross-sell or up-sell, whether the line for the cashier was too long," he says. "Right now we're doing studies with retailers to show them that relationship."

Ensuring that stores are adequately staffed to meet peak demand times, giving employees more control over their shifts and more training necessary to adequately answer customers' questions will reduce their stress levels, increasing retention rates and store profitability in the process, says DeWitt.

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