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Retail staff abused for implementing COVID-19 safety measures

A new study has found two thirds (64%) of shop workers are frightened to implement COVID-19 safety measures due to the threat of abuse from customers.

All non-essential shops in England are due to open next week, yet research from manufacturing company Reveal found retail staff are concerned for their wellbeing at work.  

The growing threat of abusive customers has meant 60% of returning retail staff feel anxious, stressed and frightened about going back to work from 12 April.

A further two in three (63%) said the fear of abuse or assault had resulted in them failing to implement COVID-19-related regulations in the last year.

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A number of UK retailers raised concerns about the extent of aggression experienced by their employees, with one business citing more than 1,000 violent incidents in the week face coverings were made compulsory in stores.

In February this year, 69 retailers, including Asda and Costa Coffee, signed an open letter to the prime minister to highlight concerns about the increasing problem of violence and abuse being experienced by employees.

Reveal’s research also found one third of respondents said they had been too frightened or intimidated to ask shoppers to wear a mask or stick to social distancing guidelines on at least one occasion.

Supermarket worker Alison Chown from Huddersfield said dealing with abuse from shoppers has become part of her job since the pandemic began.

She said: “Everything causes conflict, from asking people to wear a mask to offering hand santiser when they enter the store. I get customers shouting and waving their arms at me when I ask them to keep to a safe distance.”

Chown said retail workers shouldn’t be going to work dreading who they’re going to have to deal with.

The majority (76%) of shop workers in the study agreed tougher action should be taken in England and Wales to protect retail workers from customer abuse.

Tacita Small, managing director and senior HR consultant at The Small HR Company, told HR magazine abuse of retail staff is a serious issue that should not be overlooked for those who are returning to, or are new to retail next week.

She said: "Training should be offered in the first instance to all employees including line managers, so they can understand what to do in varied scenarios. 

"This will solidify the baseline response on how the company will support them when matters are escalated." 

Small said HR can and should engage with affected teams to understand and address their needs.

"This may include more comfort breaks, regular pre-shift meetings, more communication channels and easily identifiable mental health first-aiders. 

"If employees are receiving abuse we would hope that HR can sign post support such as counselling via an EAP service," she said.