Why companies like Kate Spade are giving mental health training to their store employees – Modern Retail

Reddit forums, viral TikTok and anonymous employee surveys all point to how retail can be a stressful job — from dealing with the public to unpredictable shifts. But a new program Kate Spade is rolling out wants to make sure the brand’s front-line workers are mindful of how they’re taking care of themselves. 
The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) at Work retail training program is a new offering from the National Council of Mental Wellbeing that aims to help employees identify and respond to mental health struggles in themselves and others. One of the first companies to sign up was Kate Spade, a brand that has made mental health the focus of its social impact portfolio.
“It’s something that our brand stands for, and it’s something that we advocate for,” said director of social impact Tayrn Bird. “We have to make sure that our people are able to not only talk about this work but cultivate good mental health for themselves.”
While the retail industry supports one in four jobs, per the National Retail Federation, many of these workers are dealing with stress, anxiety or other mental health challenges. Retail was one of the three unhealthiest workplaces, along with manufacturing and food and beverage, ranked in a Mental Health America workplace health survey of more than 17,000 workers. A 2022 Zipline survey of more than 500 full-time retail workers found that 48% were considering leaving their roles, 40% had worsening mental health and 42% cried because of stress over customers.
Meanwhile, Reddit forums like “retail hell” are overflowing with people describing how their mental health suffers due to stressful situations with customers, colleagues and managers that range from angry outbursts to harassment — while physical labor, unpredictable shifts and low wages and benefits can further exacerbate mental health concerns.
In response, the MHFA at Work program seeks to help address these concerns with its new retail-tailored offering it launched in January. Created by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, the training aims to equip store associates with language around their own mental health. It also identifies ways to spot a colleague who may be struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Kate Spade was among the first to sign up for the program, as well as Ikea.
Bird said the strength of the program’s content lies in its retail-focused experiences, like interactions with customers at the counter, in break rooms with colleagues or on warehouse floors. “I think a lot of times when people think about mental health and the stigma around even bridging the conversation, folks kind of back away a little bit because they think they have to fix something,” Bird said. “They did a really nice job with modeling very simple, direct, helpful language to bridge those conversations with coworkers or colleagues that you think might be experiencing a mental health challenge.
It also consolidates the original six-hour training program that it created for general use in office workplaces into two hours, accessible in a self-paced and mobile-friendly program. This can help workers accommodate it during their shifts. Additionally, the program collects anonymous survey data on how workers are feeling at the start of the program to help companies get a sense of how their employees are feeling.
Currently, Kate Spade has at least 130 employees trained in the MHFA program. By June, more than 900 associates out of its 3,200 store workers in North America will have completed the training.
The MHFA program has operated in the U.S. since 2008. More than 3 million people have completed its training to learn how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse. Its workplace training program was launched in 2016 and has been used by more than 400 companies. But interest skyrocketed after the pandemic, said Tramaine El-Amin, vp at the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The organization saw a 25% jump in the number of people becoming trainers and 50% more workplaces seeking to start a training program, El-Amin said. 
“We were banging down doors for workplaces to pay attention to this before the pandemic, and now everybody’s trying to find a solution,” El-Amin said. “But even with that, what we also saw is that those solutions are typically for corporate environments. They’re not really for the person at the Kroger or Harris Teeter, and yet they’re the ones being impacted every day.”
But the MFHA team noticed that some of the rush to address mental health was focused on office employees. And, there were gaps in existing training. A company with a suicide prevention program but nothing to address stress-reduction programs isn’t addressing the needs of all of its employees, El-Amin said.
El-Amin said the program is actively seeking new companies to sign up, especially given younger workers’ interest in erasing stigma from mental health and having resources to cope. About 73% of Gen Z and 74% of Millennials have used their mental health resources offered by work, according to a Securian Financial survey, compared to 58% of Gen Z and 49% of baby boomers.
“We can have health and good health without having good mental health,” El-Amin said. “That’s part of what I’m excited about — that folks are understanding that this is not a nice to have, but it’s a need to have.”
At Kate Spade, the first wave of trainings wrapped up in March. While official feedback has yet to be collected, Bird from Kate Spade said that workers who have used the training are already finding benefits in their own lives outside of work.
Bird said that making sure store associates know how to talk about mental health is important at this moment because of the added stresses that people are facing after the pandemic, which saw instances of depression and anxiety rise.
But it also calls back to Kate Spade’s other work in the area of mental health. For more than 10 years, the brand has invested in nonprofits that aim to provide mental health resources and support for women and girls all over the world. It increased those efforts after founder Kate Spade died by suicide in 2018; to date, it’s invested $31 million in such programs.
Bird said that the company will continue to seek out ways to address employee well-being, both in stores and in corporate environments.
“We’re trying things and we’re learning as we go through that process,” she said.
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