Is retail in danger of getting burned out?

Photo: RetailWire
Oct 21, 2021

Improving compensation may seem like the obvious place for retailers to start when they are attempting to retain employees. For the majority of workers who were on the way out the door in July and August, however, it was not about money, according to a new study.

Many retail workers who reported that they were planning to leave their jobs over the summer were doing so primarily because of burnout, this year’s annual Global State of Frontline Work Study from Axonify found. The survey of 2,500 frontline retail workers in the U.S., UK and Australia found that half were planning to leave their jobs and that 58 percent cited burnout as the top reason. Lack of appreciation from management and peers came in as the second most popular reason at 53 percent. Low pay came in at 52 percent, tied with a lack of interest in daily work.

A soon to be released RetailWire study of employee engagement found similar sentiments. Compared to two years ago, prior to the pandemic, fatigue and burnout was cited by retail management as the number one challenge causing employee turnover (48 percent).

In August, 4.3 million U.S. workers left their jobs, according to CNBC, representing 2.9 percent of the workforce. This was an increase over July’s 2.7 percent. Among those who quit their jobs were 892,000 foodservice and accommodation workers and 721,000 retail workers.

News sources have dubbed this mass churn across the U.S. job landscape “The Great Resignation.” While August was the biggest single month for quitting on record since 2000, more than 20 million workers have left their jobs since April.

In a piece discussing the phenomenon in The Wall Street Journal, Danny Nelms, president of the Work Institute, said that the physical and mental toll of the pandemic has caused workers to start reflecting on their life and their career and consider making changes.

The shakeup comes even as major retailers and QSRs have begun boosting minimum wages. Retailers had been moving in this direction after years of pressure from labor advocates, but have acted more quickly in the wake of COVID-19’s reshaping of the employment landscape.

Other reasons for a lack of job satisfaction in retail have also come to light. For instance a recent New York Times article reports that much dissatisfaction stems from retailers failing to provide a clear career path for low-wage employees.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What can retailers do to address burnout among staff? Will the rate of burnout diminish if things continue on a path to normality with COVID-19 or should retailers think about addressing the issue as a long-term part of staff retention?

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"Retailers who are astute enough to recognize the change in attitude among their staff can begin to address the dynamics of the shift in employee satisfaction."

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17 Comments on "Is retail in danger of getting burned out?"

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Bob Amster

Most retailers have been at least one step behind other industries in demonstrating their appreciation for their frontline employees, often treating them as dispensable resources. Some retailers have come to realize that much more is needed to be done to make employees feel wanted, engaged in the company’s business and trained, and that it is important to provide a pleasant working environment. This is a watershed moment for all retail to put those concepts into practice.

Bob Phibbs

People who don’t learn burn out. That’s the truth. Considering employees disposable and believing that “anyone can do it” have brought many retailers to become less desirable places to work. But the winners like Lululemon, Starbucks, and many others are showing the need for training, engagement, and being very clear on what you are delivering on to your employees and customers.

Ken Morris

If I were burned out from retail and had anything close to good math skills, I would enroll in the first data science course I could find. The demand for data scientists and related roles is skyrocketing. Retailers in particular have (or should have) petabytes of data to work with. They should know more.

The other side of the human equation that’s leading to these retail “resignations” is respect. Customers treating workers like, um, I mean poorly, might have something to do with it as well. Retailers who have committed to seeing in-store and behind-the-scenes staff as skilled professionals are seeing major results. Those who aren’t doing this yet just need the right guidance and commitment to make it work for them.

I saw a set of Amazon commercials recently that addressed this problem: full tuition, flex schedules, full benefits, and better pay with a career path. This sounds like a recipe for retail success.

Neil Saunders

The pressure on frontline retail workers is very real and it has been for well over a year. A lot remain worried about the virus and their potential for exposure. On top of this, workloads that increased during the pandemic are now increasing further as retail battles with increased demand and not enough staff to service it. Everyone is expected to do more with less. What adds insult to injury is rude, unreasonable and inconsiderate customers. From all my chats with those who work on the shop floor, the bad attitudes of a minority of customers can be the most upsetting aspect of their jobs.

Liza Amlani

Retailers are starting to move the needle on compensation and addressing issues of retaining resources but it’s not enough.

As retailers continue to push retail workers to their limits with extended hours, non-competitive compensation, and new roles such as fulfillment in-store, burnout will continue to be a very real issue.

Training and upskilling, investing in employees, and empowering retail workers to love what they do is still lacking. Once more retailers think about long-term retention through job satisfaction, training, career paths/goals and providing workers with a living wage, retaining resources will not be an issue.

Investing in brand ambassadors and building a deeper connection with retail workers WILL differentiate one retailer from another and will reduce burnout.

Georganne Bender

Working retail can’t be easy these days. Many of the stores I have visited lately are short staffed, the sales floors are a mess, and customers are abusive. Increasing salary in these conditions helps, but even more money can’t combat the physical and mental exhaustion that leads to burnout.

Frontline associates have always complained about the lack of interaction with store management. This is not the time to throw associates on the floor without proper training and daily interaction and motivation. If they want associates to stay, retailers need to provide them with more than a paycheck.

Shep Hyken

This is what the “Great Resignation” is about. People want a different lifestyle. They want balance and less stress. That said, there are some who want to work. They enjoy it, or know that it is a means to enjoyment (when they are not working). Look at what Target has done. Just a few weeks ago RetailWire reported that Target is seeing its lowest employee churn rate in years. They’ve found a way to make employees want to work with them.

Joan Treistman

The first question retail management should ask themselves is what keeps them from having burnout. The answer will provide a bit or a whole lot of insight as to what makes the difference for their staff. Chances are, as this article suggests, it’s not about making more money. This is now a long-term challenge for all companies. We all look forward to the time of “post-pandemic” but the impact will be with us forever. Retailers who are astute enough to recognize the change in attitude among their staff can begin to address the dynamics of the shift in employee satisfaction.

Lisa Goller

Retailers can initiate and welcome candid conversations about the personal and organizational pain created by burnout. Reaching meaningful solutions means directly discussing the issue — and helping employees feel cared for and safe to tell the truth.

Doug Garnett

Managers too easily forget that employees want the whole job to be rewarding. For many, that means being appreciated for their ability to make good decisions and to lead shoppers to have a better store experience.

Money doesn’t do this – seeing digits on a check every two weeks is not as rewarding as feeling your work is being appreciated. But business schools too often create managers who believe only money can motivate. What managers ignore is that assuming employees are only motivated by money is incredibly demeaning. The message to employees is that “we think you are money grubbing” instead of being a signal of appreciation.

Mel Kleiman
Mel Kleiman
President, Humetrics
1 year 1 month ago

More pay is a short-term fix for a long-term problem. More pay will get workers in the door but if it is only more pay that got them in the door then more pay won’t keep them from walking out the door.

The answer is simple and it has not changed over the almost 40 years I have been dealing with the challenge of finding, hiring, and retaining frontline workers in all industries.

What employees want besides fair pay is:

  1. Great managers and fellow employees;
  2. Growth and opportunity;
  3. Interesting work;
  4. Work-life balance;
  5. Recognition.

These items may be in a different order for different employees.

Cathy Hotka

Burnout was a key topic at the Store Operations Council meeting last month. Remedies for HQ staff included camera-free Fridays, mandatory days off, and other concessions for people who work long hours. These actions cost so little and can help ensure that valuable staff stay in place.

Ryan Mathews

Burnout is, I’m afraid, a permanent condition — especially among younger employees raised to believe that the work/life balance scale should always be tilted in favor of life. It isn’t that older generations didn’t burn out, they did. It’s that they were more likely to suffer in silence. Adequate compensation, professional pathing, educational options, etc. are getting to be table stakes for retention. So what can retailers do? Build stress relievers into the daily routine, extend paid vacation and days off, and perhaps support the pursuit of mindfulness, meditation, and stress management.

1 year 1 month ago
This is really a “no win” situation. There are just so many retailers who can afford to increase wages AND offer upward mobility—for what are essentially commodity-level employees. Seriously, just how many mid-to-upper management, buyer, and more engaged roles can even the largest employers offer hordes of workers? And what smaller-scale operations can spend enough to keep staff, with their solvency constantly being threatened by those bigger players? Meanwhile, unless yours is the kind of specialized store that sells things that a sizable amount of customers need some guiding of purchases (as common folk might need when buying land-tilling equipment at a Tractor Supply store) versus “who needs guidance further than directional” when it comes to shopping at, say, Target? Which, for the latter, only portends that even those interactions could be replaced by an electronic kiosk, and as most actual sales can be handled by self-service registers. That can be overseen by, maybe, one person. Whose required skills amount to intermittently rebooting machines and handing out paper (or plastic) bags. Nope, as the pandemic… Read more »
Ananda Chakravarty
Retailers don’t measure burnout. Burnout has become acute because of the increased awareness of living conditions and constraints that Covid introduced. Employees seek more than being treated like cannon fodder and have realized that there are options and choices and most importantly demand for their skills. The retail space is no exception and burnout has become more elevated in the consciousness. However, the retail market doesn’t have either the reputation or the means to address this concretely. Increased pay and benefits are minimal steps, but the real step is making the employee feel valued. Not all employees are focused on work-life balance (though it’s becoming more attractive) HR becomes a much more important part of the retailers profit making arsenal because people are still their top cost and resource. Will the rate of burnout diminish? Who knows. I know of no retailers who measure the effects of or causes of burnout — most are still trying to hire their next department manager or cashier and with the holiday season coming up, that’s all they’ll have… Read more »
Patricia Vekich Waldron

Retailers have started to upgrade wages and benefits, one of the main factors of associate attrition, and are trying to give more flexibility and/or certainty in schedules. What’s tougher to track are esteem and appreciation for associates efforts, rude customer behavior and the continued uncertainty of the Pandemic that is wreaking havoc on buying patterns, surges and supply chains.

John Karolefski

Burnout? Maybe. But perhaps some of the in-store personnel in grocery stores see co-workers losing their jobs as cashiers and stock checkers due to cashierless checkout and robots. Perhaps they feel they are next as automation eliminates jobs that were traditionally done by human beings.

"Retailers who are astute enough to recognize the change in attitude among their staff can begin to address the dynamics of the shift in employee satisfaction."

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