Retail manager burnout: 5 prevention tactics for retail leaders

Posted on: May 15, 2023Updated on: May 31, 2023By: Claire Beveridge

Manager burnout is impacting retail at unprecedented levels. Over half—54%—of retail managers currently report feeling burned out on a daily basis, more than in other sectors like food service, manufacturing or facilities management.  

Corporate leaders have rated staffing issues and burnout as the top two most disruptive aspects of their business, with low sales and revenue coming in third. 

The weight of expectation that middle management must shoulder the burden of acting as a go-between for corporate and the frontline while managing fractured communication channels, supporting burned-out associates, training and upskilling on outdated systems and dealing with heightened customer escalations contributes to a highly-stressful situation.

A cashier handling a purchase made by a customer

Burnout not only impacts a manager’s ability to perform at a high level but, along with absenteeism, it’s a key contributor that’s negatively impacting sales, transactions and average basket value, according to Harvard Business Review.

Luckily, there are preventative measures retail leaders can take to spot the signs and mitigate the impact of manager burnout before it becomes severe and disruptive.

How to identify manager burnout

Leaders have a responsibility to ensure their managers’ wellbeing, provide positive working experiences and address workplace stressors. This includes identifying and managing burnout by keeping an eye out for these common signs identified by the National Library of Medicine

  • Feeling overwhelmed or emotionally drained
  • Lacking energy
  • Feeling empty and unmotivated 
  • Being unable to meet daily demands
  • Increase in irritability and relationship conflicts
  • Feeling stuck, exhausted and hopeless

Burnout might also manifest as physical symptoms, including sleeplessness, decreased appetite, backaches and headaches and loss of confidence and productivity even when completing basic tasks. 

So, how can those in the retail industry respond to this worrisome trend?

  • Educate regional managers and general managers on what burnout looks so they can watch for warning signs
  • Monitor drop-offs in communication or tool usage as managers become overworked and overburdened 
  • Run pulse checks or forums to hear specifically from your managers on how they’re feeling
  • Acknowledge the real-world implications of burnout and stay on top of trends

Five ways to prevent retail manager burnout

Ideally, retail leaders would be able to identify and mitigate burnout before it sets in—but at scale, that’s an impossible task. Those at the corporate retail level need to focus on the following progressive tactics that are easily scalable across markets to help prevent manager burnout. 

1. Improve outdated feedback systems

In retail, feedback is often broken down into three categories: structured (e.g., a pulse survey), semi-structured (e.g., a one-to-one conversation) and unstructured (e.g., a passing comment or conversation).

According to our Deskless Report: Retail Edition, unstructured feedback occurs over 80% of the time and generally focuses on HR issues, such as problems with coworkers and safety concerns. Not only does this mean that middle managers aren’t able to access crucial information from their frontline teams about revenue drivers, customer experience and operational proficiency, but they also have to deal with HR problems outside of the scope of their roles when they’re already overstretched and at capacity.

Managers also act as a continual go-between for corporate and the frontline. The Deskless Report revealed middle managers “shoulder a heavy load acting as the intermediary between corporate and staff,” as they’re expected to bubble up crucial feedback and employee insights. This adds an extra layer of stress and increases managerial burden and workload as they follow up and try to push for results.  

To unlock valuable feedback from frontline associates, access the operational benefits that come with customer-driven insights and relieve managers of additional workload that contributes to burnout, retailers need to build out scalable, fully-automated feedback systems that allow direct frontline communication with corporate. That way, managers can quickly and easily share feedback in a way that’s productive while eliminating unnecessary back and forth trying to get the right feedback to the right people. 

2. Implement training that focuses on upskilling and cross-skilling

Traditional retail training programs focus on outdated, deskbound methods that don’t account for personalized learning styles and don’t meet associates where they are: on the shop floor and learning on the fly. 

One retail manager we spoke to about burnout who works at a global chain says that she’d prefer if training was customized to retail realities. 

“In retail, you train in one location, and it’s all online or virtual,” says Sarah Jones, a manager at a global chain. “I’d love to see businesses bring back more personal, collaborative training instead of desk-based with some light check-ins, which isn’t a great onboarding experience for new associates.” 

With 43% of frontline managers saying that lack of employee training impacts their day-to-day work, it’s time to rethink the definition of frontline training and remove the responsibility of monitoring and measuring deskbound training from middle management who are already overworked and burned out.

Agile training models that prioritize upskilling and cross-skilling create opportunities for a new generation of managers who are prepared to be deployed on the frontline with little notice. Manager off sick? Give an upskilled frontline worker a career experience leading the shop floor. Had a few managers quit in succession? Promote your high-performing, cross-skilled employees and save time on recruitment in a challenging labor market. 

By upskilling frontline workers, middle managers also have more resources they can pull from when they need creative solutions to on-the-floor challenges. For example, on a busy Saturday afternoon with the shop floor is near capacity, an on-shift manager can deal with an escalation and confidently hand off another customer inquiry to an upskilled frontline worker. Delegation frees up time for managers to focus on the key elements of their jobs rather than feeling overwhelmed from taking on too much. 

To leverage the power of upskilling, retailers need to explore a new technology-driven training ecosystem that’s systematic and scalable for large workforces. This solution ensures that middle managers have support when they need it most, which is especially helpful during busy periods of high turnover and onboarding. 

With 47% of frontline workers open to using updated technology to improve employee training, retailers have a unique opportunity to review and operationalize frontline learning management systems and create agile, in-the-moment training for managers and associates alike. 

3. Focus on improving team alignment

Teams across corporate, management and frontline need to be aligned to drive solid performance. What actually tends to happen, though is managers receive information from corporate about new initiatives and have a minimal amount of time to spend training and learning the updated process—whether that’s introducing a new rewards program, implementing large-scale merchandising changes or launching a new product. 

Retail managers are then expected to retain all that information and relay it to the frontline. Talk about added stress and stolen time. 

Leaders at HQ and associates on the frontline are also mismatched when it comes to feedback which means it’s up to (once again) middle managers to decipher what the frontline actually needs and what corporate has prioritized—adding more to their already-full plates.

The solution is simple: get corporate and the frontline on the same page to ensure that worker needs are being met, then take time to update training methods and communication processes for managers to ensure better alignment. 

4. Reexamine recruitment strategies

While recruitment might be happening at the corporate level, it’s often the job of middle managers to get associates into the building and onto the shop floor—another high-stakes responsibility on the already overburdened manager’s to-do list. 

Businesses of all kinds, but especially retailers, are struggling to retain employees and keep staffing levels high enough to help mitigate burnout in a challenging labor market. Unfortunately, commonly used tactics aren’t working—54% of retail leaders surveyed for the Deskless Report revealed cite staffing and retention issues as very or extremely challenging, with 52% of frontline workers sharing the same sentiment. 

To counter this, businesses need to prioritize recruitment at scale and focus on fostering an inviting company culture that gets frontline workers excited about coming to work every day. This will help overextended managers close recruitment gaps and keep them from hustling for new hires. 

5. Level up your tech stack

What are you usually doing at 6am on a Tuesday morning? Depending on what industry you’re in, perhaps you can squeeze in a morning run followed by a quick breakfast with your family before heading to the office. 

If you’re a retail manager, chances are you’re living in a very different reality that might involve being woken up by texts from your staff asking about switching shifts, taking a sick day or last-minute coverage—regardless of whether or not it’s your day off. 

“It’s 6:30am, and you’re woken up with a text message or phone call. Most of the time, it’s nothing urgent,” says Sarah. “But if that’s my day off or you’re calling me in the middle of the night, I’m panicked.”

The lines between work and home life have become blurrier over the last three years and with it, communication methods have become equally scattered. Many managers end up using personal devices and unsantioned WhatsApp messages or texts to share shift schedules, opening times, closing procedures and cover sick leaves because they don’t have the right tech to reach the frontline in way that’s scalable and consistent.

The solution is streamlining and solidifying all communication in one channel and using a technological tool that’s built for retail, with managers in mind. 

Managers shouldn’t have to be everything to everyone without the right support; putting this expectation on middle management is a sure-fire way to let burnout into your stores. Prevention tactics like being open-minded to new feedback channels and upgraded tech, prioritizing associate skill-building to fill labor gaps across various departments and aligning teams to business values and company culture are a few ways retail leaders can get ahead of the problem to spot and address manager burnout.

Claire Beveridge

Claire Beveridge is a freelance writer whose 12-year career has taken her from the sunny shores of Brighton, England, where she launched and edited a digital food magazine and hosted radio shows, to the rainy, unceded land of Vancouver, B.C., where she helps software and technology companies produce in-depth, highly researched content to help business leaders thrive.