Addressing New Challenges in Managing Retail and Service Employees Post-Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought more changes to the retail and related service sectors than any other event in recent memory. These situations continue to impact the retail environment and especially its employees. Retail managers now face employee management and safety challenges that require additional tools and oversight.

The New Retail Environment

During the pandemic, retailers added face mask requirements, set up social distancing rules for checkout lines and increased cleaning protocols for employee and customer safety. This brought additional responsibilities for frontline employees to enforce the new procedures and ensure customer compliance.

Research indicates that situations related to COVID-19 are responsible for a wave of new cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly among frontline employees of retail stores. Since 2020, there has been an unfortunate trend toward increased safety threats to retail employees. A recently released National Customer Rage Survey indicates that retail customers are getting more frustrated and more likely to be angry during employee interactions. In some cases, they may physically assault employees.

In recognition of the growing number of these situations, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union recently negotiated a contract clause allowing employees to defend themselves against patrons who become violent. That means employers cannot terminate workers who use reasonable force to protect themselves in specific situations.


Retail managers must address these incidents’ effects on employee morale and retention. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data from September 2021 indicated that the “quit rate” among food service workers reached 6.6% of that sector’s entire workforce, the highest on record and nearly double the quit rate (3.4%) for all private sector employees. Stress around safety issues at the workplace is likely to be a significant contributing factor to employee turnover.

What Employers Can Do

The emotional effects of traumatic interactions often linger past the healing of physical injuries. There are many options that retail managers can pursue to mitigate the additional stresses faced by their workforce.

One is ramping up communications with the workforce about employee assistance programs (EAP). EAPs are services employers offer their workforce to assist employees with personal matters that may impact performance, including mental health and substance abuse issues. Regular email reminders about EAP services offered – particularly after an incident at a store – can be helpful. Affected employees may not consider using the EAP unless prompted to do so.

Embracing compassionate leadership – a philosophy recognizing that every employee is valued and contributes to the business’s success – is also incredibly important. Prioritizing empathy is an essential step toward compassionate leadership. This means providing opportunities to listen closely to employees and taking proactive steps to address their needs. Providing this support helps mitigate the effects of onsite incidents on employees and improves employee retention.

Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is a service that can help provide support when an incident does occur. CISD is a multi-step group process led by a trained facilitator that includes fact-gathering and a method for affected employees to discuss the incident in a safe environment. Employees are encouraged to use their EAP and other available counseling with CISD as part of the recovery process.

When critical incident stress debriefings occur within 72 hours of an incident, data suggests that participants tend to experience less short- and long-term crisis reactions or psychological trauma. As a result, it stabilizes morale and minimizes business interruptions related to employee absences, productivity, and turnover.

Management can also communicate with the company’s workers’ compensation provider to ensure they recognize the complications around treating employees injured during workplace violence incidents. Affected employees can develop emotional or behavioral issues that can slow their recovery. Case managers must consider mental and emotional well-being when developing effective treatment plans. Taking this holistic approach can bring about a faster, more complete recovery.

What the Future may Hold

It’s possible that the spike in workplace incidents is temporary and may ebb as the world continues to transition out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, retail and service sector managers should proactively address its impact on frontline employees. Providing supportive resources like EAPs and offering CISD services can reduce the impact on valued employees. 

Karen Thomas, RN, MSN, CCM, CorVel‘s VP of Clinical Solutions, is a visionary for developing new care models to heal injured workers and restore function. With 34 years of clinical experience, focusing on case management and technology solutions in various settings, Thomas has taught nursing and case management at the university level. She oversees CorVel’s case management services, including early intervention nursing, utilization review, return-to-work coordination, disability management, and life care planning. Thomas leads the development of machine learning, clinical codification and patient applications to improve medical and claim outcomes for injured workers, employers, and payors.

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