NSCA Foundation

Young workers at the COVID-19 frontlines

Friday, 26 June, 2020

Young workers at the COVID-19 frontlines

Working with young employees presents a number of challenges, especially for those in the retail sector. The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the challenges employers face, especially with regard to safeguarding the mental wellbeing of their young workers. Psychologist MARCELA SLEPICA offers some focus points for retail employers and managers to help them maintain the wellbeing of their young workforce as the sector faces perhaps its greatest challenge in living memory.

Sectors such as retail offer great perks for workers, like flexible working hours and the chance to gain transferable skills, while also presenting an opportunity for people with no formal qualifications to gain their first step into the working world. It is also a sector where young people make up a large part of the workforce, where one in three workers is between the ages of 15 and 24, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics trend data. But at the best of times, this work can also be challenging. Expected overtime and physically demanding work can take its toll on employees, potentially resulting in burnout. Therefore, the psychological health of these workers is fundamental and, with the demand that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has placed on these workers, has never been more vital.

As many jobs have been lost as a result of COVID-19, many young workers have been called to the frontline to help with the pressures of increased volumes of shoppers and panic buying, especially in our supermarkets. As a result, many have experienced instances of verbal and even physical violence, which can have damaging effects on their mental health, as they do not have experience dealing with this type of behaviour. In addition, they may have their own anxieties and fears around contracting the virus.

Risk factors

There are a number of risk factors associated with young workers and because of the large numbers employed in the retail industry, employers and managers need to be especially aware of these dangers to ensure the wellbeing of their staff. Young members of the workforce are a particularly vulnerable group in the workplace and can find themselves at risk due to their limited experience, their physical and psychological stage of development, and lack of training and awareness. Managers need to provide them with the necessary tools to make sure they are able to do their job efficiently.

For many young people, a job in retail may be their first experience in employment. According the Federal Human Rights Commission, this can make them vulnerable to bullying, abuse and exploitation. The commission noted that up to 35% of young people experience some form of workplace violence or bullying and almost 20% report experiencing some form of discrimination in the workplace. Young people often find it more difficult to speak up and can face pressures from managers to stay quiet when they do report an issue.

Every employer has a duty of care to its workers, and those who employ a high proportion of young people need to create a workplace culture where they feel safe to speak up. It is important that managers acknowledge the additional emotional pressures that young employees may be experiencing during this time. For example, anxiety and fear of losing their jobs and an overwhelming sense of financial stress. These fears may discourage workers from speaking up and further impact on their mental health, leading to more serious problems in the future.

Focusing on mental wellness

Here are my four focus points for retail employers and managers that will help maintain the wellbeing of our young workforce as they face these unprecedented conditions in their careers.


As many retail workers are entering into employment for the first time, a comprehensive induction is imperative. Potential risks or hazards should be highlighted and policies and procedures should be explained in full — this applies particularly for those young employees who have been brought on to bolster essential retail services in the COVID-19 crisis.

Employers should also offer training in: how to identify new risks, de-escalating potentially harmful situations and reporting incidents of abuse, bullying or workplace injury. This training should be ongoing so that personal safety remains a focus. Most larger employers are good at this but small retail businesses may not feel they have the time.


In any stressful circumstance, management should model behavioural expectations. As a manager or employer you should be well informed of the developing situation and relay any changes in procedure to your staff, while managing the high-level stress about the impact on the business and a worker’s position in it. Try a buddy system with a more experienced employee — this will be very important in helping to create an environment where inexperienced workers feel they can speak up if they are concerned or uncomfortable.

Leaders should be reassuring their team and managing their own internal anxiety. This also includes self-care; although it is unrealistic to expect leaders to have all the answers, their people often do just that. Recognise your own stress signature and give yourself the time and space you need to recover and restore when you can.


Managers and employers have a duty to respond to reports of abuse or bullying in a supportive manner. With an increase of verbal and physical abuse occurring in the retail sector, particularly in supermarkets, young workers are having to de-escalate situations they have no experience in; therefore, abuse from customers also needs to be handled appropriately and not condoned.


It is important for employers to check in with their team members. Regular check-ins help people to feel connected and are a way for managers to provide structure for employees. The situation is constantly changing and evolving, so reassuring people we are in this together is vital.

Inform employees where they can get support if they are struggling or feeling overwhelmed. Emotions will be heightened and there is a range of emotional responses that are normal under these times of crisis. Normalising reaching out for help at this time should be a priority.

Building resilience

Australia has not yet had time to rebuild its resilience following the devastating bushfires. Now social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19 is pushing the nation further apart. As such, resilience in the workplace will be impacted and tensions will be rising. Therefore, it is important to recognise these heightened emotions and to adopt new ways to effectively manage and support our young frontline workers at this time.

Marcela Slepica is Director of Clinical Services at AccessEAP.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/estradaanton

NSCA Foundation is a member based, non-profit organisation working together with members to improve workplace health and safety throughout Australia. For more information and membership details click here
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