The UK is firmly back in business, with Covid-19 restrictions relaxed and stores fully open. For lots of people, this means a welcome return to freedom – but if you work in retail, you might be feeling under more pressure than ever.

Retail was the worse-hit sector in the UK during the pandemic, with at least 167,450 jobs lost. Studies show that retail workers’ mental health was severely affected, especially those working in distribution and warehouses, and lots of you reported that 2021 was the hardest of your careers.

Now, as we adjust to a post-Covid world, there are new pressures to face: from financial worries or the need to look for a new job, to worrying about illness, covering absences, and dealing with increasingly difficult customers. It means there’s still a lot on everyone’s plates – and many of us are struggling more than usual.

“Sadly, our retail colleagues have recently seen a marked rise in challenging customer behaviour, which of course, should never be ‘just part of the job’,” says Andrea Woodside, Retail Trust’s Lead Wellbeing Trainer and Consultant.

“People in retail are also, for good reason, very tired. We’ve been through an incredibly challenging time over the last couple of years, and many of our colleagues haven’t taken time out for self-care.”

In tough times like these, we need to look out for each other, as well as ourselves, and you might already have noticed changes in a colleague’s behaviour that you’re worried about.

“If you notice someone struggling, ask yourself what’s changed for them,” Andrea advises. “Do they seem quieter (or even more ‘up’) than usual? Are they less focussed than they normally are? Have you noticed that they’ve recently appeared tired, worried, or anxious?

“Any change from their ‘normal’ may indicate that reaching out could be helpful but be mindful: everyone can have a bad day. It’s when the changes are apparent over a number of days or weeks that the person might benefit from a listening ear.”

If you want to help someone you think might be going through a tough time, it can be hard to work out the best way to reach out. But before you approach them to offer support, bear in mind that your role is to listen – not to offer advice. Well-intentioned as it might be, you could accidentally make things worse.

“Those of us who work in retail tend to be natural fixers – we like to sort out problems,” Woodside explains. “This is useful at work, but when we try to fix other people’s personal issues, we can get in over our heads. Keeping it simple and safe means recognising that someone might benefit from external support and signposting accordingly.

“If you approach the conversation with an open and non-judgemental mind, maintain the other person’s right to confidentiality, and avoid giving advice of any kind, you’ll be demonstrating best practice.”

Stick to these six rules, and you won’t go far wrong – and if you want to talk to someone about your concerns, remember that you can reach Retail Trust’s Wellbeing Helpline on 0808 801 0808.

1. Don’t jump to conclusions

Don’t be tempted to diagnose your colleagues with specific issues, such as a stress reaction, or depression. “Your role is simply to recognise that they might benefit from specialist support, whether this be via the GP, a counsellor, or someone who can assist with practical issues such as debt,” Woodside says. “People can struggle for all sorts of reasons – and struggle doesn’t always equate to a mental health condition.”

2. Start an open conversation

Telling someone you’re worried about them might cause them to feel defensive, or even attacked. The best approach is simply to ask them how they are. “Open questions are useful – although try avoiding the word ‘why,’ as it can sound judgemental,” says Woodside. “Recognise that it might take a few approaches over time for them to feel confident and comfortable in talking to you.”

3. Avoid problem-solving

If you want to support your colleague, it’s crucial to remember that you’re not there to solve their problems, or even to give advice, beyond suggesting where they might consider looking for help. “You’re acting as a non-judgemental, compassionate listening ear, so you can get a good idea of where best to signpost the person for professional support,” Woodside says. “It’s not passing the buck – it’s the responsible and kind thing to do.”

4. Choose the right place and time

Don’t pounce on your colleague as they’re on the way out of the door. “Make sure you have the time for a conversation, and consider the space in which you have the catch-up,” says Woodside.

5. Don’t share your own issues

This is often done with the best intentions, to show the other person they’re not alone. “But this will only take the focus off the person who needs help,” Woodside warns.

6. Approach with kindness

It might go without saying, but whatever your approach, be sure to be kind. “Kindness isn’t rocket science, it’s rocket fuel,” says Woodside, “and when you start from a place of genuinely wanting to support someone else, you’ll find that the person is more likely to open up to you.”