To Tackle Workforce Issues, Retail Leaders Need to Display Their Vulnerability

Workers are increasingly prioritizing mental health. Now is the time for retail leaders to display their vulnerability.
Photo credit: Parradee -

With our Editors Perspectives column, you’ll get insights and opinions from the Retail TouchPoints editorial team as they dig into the latest trends in retail, marketing and tech.

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

This is a quote from author Brené Brown’s best-selling book, Rising Strong, and it perfectly encapsulates why Brené’s work resonates with so many people around the world — especially business executives. I know I personally struggle to show up authentically and vulnerably when things feel chaotic or uncertain; it’s far easier to smack a smile on my face and carry on. And it’s why I’ve been on a decade-long journey of living and working with anxiety.

I know I’m not alone. More than 40 million U.S. adults (that’s 19% of the population) have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). But for decades, we have perceived anxiety as a weakness that connects to a lack of focus and performance, especially in the workplace.

I’m thrilled to see that’s starting to change, thanks to Gen Z and a small (but growing) number of business leaders who actually lead through vulnerability.

Gen Z Brings Mental Health to the Forefront

Increasingly, young people are becoming more aware of their mental and emotional well-being. With most people developing anxiety symptoms before age 21, and 7% of children aged three to seven experiencing issues every year, young people are becoming the clear changemakers and champions for mental health in the workplace.

I recently attended the Retail Influencer CEO Forum, which featured a range of fireside chats with retail executives and panels that included Gen Z founders and retail practitioners. I was heartened by how in tune these speakers were with their own mental and emotional states, and how they incorporate self-awareness and self-care into everything they do. And yes, that includes how they show up at work.

Data from multiple sources indicate that this is a much broader trend, one that all executive leaders should understand and plan to respond to. A Monster survey of 1,000 new and soon-to-be college grads revealed that 54% would turn down a job offer if an employer did not offer work/life balance. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 61% of Gen Z workers would strongly consider leaving their current job if offered a new one that had significantly better mental health benefits.

Putting Retail in the Spotlight

The retail industry in particular has a unique opportunity to lead in the charge toward workforce wellbeing. After all, one in four Americans work in the retail industry, which means a good portion of our workforce has retail ties. However, retail has scored in the bottom 10% for workforce mental health, and more than 80% of retail workers reported declining mental health in recent years.

While HR policies and benefits packages undoubtedly play a role in all this, we simply cannot overlook the important role of managers, mentors and executive leadership in this critical discussion. Gen Z ranks “empathy” as the second-most important trait in a boss, according to Deloitte Digital research, but one respondent noted that she felt “the focus was more on productivity measures than who she is as a person.” She expanded that she has never felt respect since “the management has more of a ‘Do your job and get it done’ mentality.”

In other words: it doesn’t matter how you feel; buck up, grin and bear it.

Luckily, some business leaders are changing the narrative around mental health, especially within the retail industry.

In his keynote at the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo, entrepreneur Johnny Earle (founder of the brand Johnny Cupcakes) shared his insights on creativity and scaling an indie brand that fans all over the world love. While he was comical in his delivery and let his passion for retail and the creative process shine, he sprinkled notes of humility and vulnerability into his talk that resonated deeply with the audience.

“I’m always three mistakes away from crying in the Trader Joe’s parking lot about how to meet payroll,” Earle admitted. “But my $10,000 mistakes often lead to $100,000 ideas. Failures are experiments, and experimenting is how we grow.”

Bonobos Co-founder Andy Dunn also recently completely rewrote the narrative surrounding entrepreneurialism with his book Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. There are many tomes from founders and CEOs in the retail and tech sectors; stories of how they’ve embraced “hustle culture” to claw their way to the top. Andy has taken a completely different path; he used his book to share how he raised tens of millions of dollars, built a digitally native DTC brand — but eventually had to face his bipolar disorder diagnosis and combat his feelings of “unspeakable shame.”

As bestselling author Adam Grant shared in his review: “Many leaders and founders struggle with mental health, but few have the courage to open up about it. Burn Rate is a must-read not only for entrepreneurs but for anyone who has ever hesitated to seek help and support.”

I had the chance to hear more of Andy’s story at the Retail Influencer CEO Forum, and it was inspiring to hear how he overcame this hardship, and is turning his experiences into positive leadership lessons for others.

Hopefully the transparency and vulnerability of Andy, Johnny and a strong few in the industry will help us collectively transform the retail industry. Who else is ready to rise to the occasion?


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