Why manager burnout should be retail leaders’ #1 priority

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

Do you see retail managers experiencing brain fog? Or feeling fatigued, overwhelmed and constantly stressed? Are your management teams struggling to meet the demands of frontline workers and retail leadership? You might have a problem with manager burnout—a workplace reality that’s rampant on the frontline.

To address manager burnout, it’s essential to define it, explore the retail management experience and the elements contributing to it and then investigate how it’s impacting not only the associates but the business by hearing real-world insights from managers who are living through it.

Manager with hand on head looking upset

What is manager burnout?

Manager burnout is a lot more than feeling a bit tired at work. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and labels burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” 

According to WHO, burnout is characterized by three symptoms: 

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
  3. A sense of personal ineffectiveness and lack of occupational accomplishment. 

With 54% of retail managers revealing that they feel burned out on a daily basis, the people who function as a crucial middle intermediary are in trouble, which has a ripple effect that reaches their direct reports, their lives outside of work and overall mental health.

The retail manager experience: overstretched, burned out and in survival mode

Retail managers have unique skill sets and intense roles. They’re required to be operationally savvy and business-minded in managing responsibilities like growing footfall, meeting sales targets and preventing shoplifting. They’re also responsible for managing large teams of associates, each with their own skills and career goals—which requires empathy, compassion and first-rate communication skills. 

So while retail managers were already keeping multiple balls in the air, the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of stress and anxiety as rules and regulations around temperature checks, opening hours and social distancing became retail’s new reality for several years.

While the pandemic exacerbated the issue, retail manager burnout was already a growing concern. Why? Let’s dig into the retail management experience and understand the lofty expectations of this crucial role. 

Middle managers: the pivotal go-between

Middle managers function as central touchpoints for all areas of the store. They act as a filter from corporate leaders to associates and share top-down, company-specific information, such as product info, news from HR executives, new launches and cultural changes or initiatives. Retail managers also act as an upward funnel from associates to corporate and are responsible for delivering employee feedback about health and safety concerns, knowledge gaps, best practices and more back up the chain. 

Retail managers wear many hats—and many of those are intrinsically connected to core business functions. For example, the responsibilities of middle management include overseeing the onboarding of new associates, upskilling and reskilling direct reports to prevent churn, managing operations and ensuring that stores are fully staffed and operational at all times. Talk about a hefty workload.

Managing communication on-shift, off-shift and after hours

The pandemic significantly blurred the line between work and life, and businesses had to adapt quickly and find solutions within fast-changing government guidelines. For deskbound workers, this sometimes meant working from home. But for retail workers, that wasn’t an option. The retail industry had to figure out how to implement and navigate new processes to ensure shop floors remained not only operational but also compliant

Communication between retail associates and middle managers became more fractured as businesses scrambled to find new ways of keeping on top of operations. And what started as a stop-gap solution has become commonplace with some managers, like Sarah Jones who works at a global retailer, using personal devices to communicate with employees.

This has added to her stress levels and often prevents any sense of a possible work-life balance. 

“It’s 6:30 am, 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.”

While sharing information on personal devices impacts manager burnout, distributing company information on unsanctioned networks also means communication is outside of company control. With no access to reporting or analytics to help address issues as they arise, this creates more work for middle management.

Messaging and communication that’s delivered through such ad-hoc systems don’t match the needs of large-scale workforces. When frontline employees receive the bulk of their information from in-person conversations, text messages, phone calls or email—as research reveals is the case—this puts the burden on middle managers to distribute and track it all, which takes time away from operational execution and efficiency. 

With only 51% of frontline workers feeling in the know about what’s going on in their organizations, who’s responsible for leveling up employee knowledge? Again, it’s the manager. This situation creates a vicious circle where retail managers are under constant pressure to perform in their roles while leading teams and managing the enablement of their workers—without the proper tools and systems in place. 

Supporting burned-out retail associates

With ever-widening socioeconomic, cultural, technological and political chasms making people feel more isolated, not to mention tangible threats like violence and natural disasters, the constant stream of mostly-bad news and social media severely impacts our mental health and well-being.

Sarah has noticed a recent increase in her retail associates needing more and more emotional support from her. And she’s admittedly not equipped to properly deal with it all. 

“I’ve had a lot of team members think that retail managers are here to solve every issue for them, and that’s very difficult,” she says. “You almost have to be their leader and manager and a life coach. This goes beyond the scope of our role. We’re not trained counselors, we’re not mental health professionals. And it’s really hard because you’ve got your heart saying, ‘I don’t want to see this person struggle,’… but you’re not a professional therapist.”

Because as much as Sarah wants to act as the go-to resource for her team, being pulled in so many directions by nearly 20 people takes its toll.

“This situation adds a whole new dynamic of stress and anxiety. I have my own life to manage—I can’t manage the life of 18 other people on my team,” she says. 

She regularly refers her direct reports to employee assistance programs and holds consistent one-to-ones to get feedback. But this doesn’t mean that the burden of managing employee well-being is resolved, and not all retailers have these support systems in place.

 “At the end of the day, you feel like you can’t turn off because you’re worried about other people’s issues,” Sarah says.

Her candid insights are echoed by a customer experience manager at a national retailer who cites a lack of training and preparation leading to an increasing sense of unrest.

“There’s a blurred line between managers and their roles. We’re expected to take on roles we’ve never been trained for or that we don’t really have experience in— so it’s a bit overwhelming.”

Dealing with heightened customer expectations

Not only are employees struggling with burnout, but the customer is also feeling the lasting impacts of a post-pandemic world. 

Sarah notes that in her retail store, there’s been a notable uptick in customer escalations, aggression and people saying whatever they want to employees—and indeed incivility is on the rise. 

“It’s a delicate balance working with the general public because you have a sense of needing a thick skin, but at the time, you’re not a punching bag.”  

With customers and employees both needing more assistance, it’s clear that retail managers are bearing the brunt of a degree of emotional support they’re ill-equipped to deal with, making them feel overworked and consistently burned out. 

How does burnout impact retail managers?

Over the past five years, Google searches for “signs of burnout” have increased in the U.S. by 300%, signaling that many concerned people are looking for more information to spot the signs themselves. 

According to a story in the New York Times, some signs of burnout include when “you start not functioning as well, you’re missing deadlines, you’re frustrated, you’re maybe irritable with your colleagues.”

For Sarah, she describes her own experience with manager burnout thusly: “There’s nothing left in the tank at the end of the day besides staring into the middle distance of a television show you’re not absorbing… it’s like your physical and mental quota have been spent.”

Manager burnout also impacts the ability to function outside of work and can spill into family life and zap the energy needed to perform basic levels of self-care. 

“When you get home, it’s sometimes like, ‘We’ve gotta get takeout tonight’ because I don’t have the strength or brain power to put something in a pan and cook it,” says Sarah.

The business impact of retail manager burnout

Unsurprisingly, manager and employee burnout lead to increased levels of absenteeism, which according to research by Harvard School of Business, “negatively affect sales, transactions and average basket sizes.” But the downsides of manager burnout don’t end there. 

The report also found that “employees’ lateness and absenteeism can “spillover” onto their coworkers, which causes them to stay past their original clock-out times.” This means that manager burnout and absenteeism have a knock-on effect on someone else’s work-life balance and can even result in employee burnout if it goes too far.

According to our Deskless Report, 39% of managers are looking to leave their jobs, which isn’t surprising considering all of the stressors associated with their roles as the catch-all intermediaries between corporate and staff.

With customer service being so integral to the success of any retail organization, anything that hinders the ability of managers to come up with creative solutions to challenging customer interactions is a red flag that could lead to lost sales.

“Burnout stops you from being able to give that little bit extra,” says Sarah. 

So what happens if all the pivotal intermediaries burn out and quit? Or stop being able to perform highly in their roles due to burnout? How will retailers stay afloat with limited middle management resources? 

Retail managers are faced with a triple threat: not only are they expected to act as a funnel and filter for corporate, but customers are demanding greater attention, employees need more emotional support and ineffective communication channels and wrong-fit technologies impact work-life balance. 

What happens now? It’s clear that there is an immediate need to properly address manager burnout with strategies that can mitigate the effects, unburden leaders and prioritize empathetic leadership with strong internal communications, systems and support that can build trust, community and belonging.

But the first step is acknowledging that there’s a problem and being committed to finding a solution that makes retail managers feel seen and heard.

Names have been changed.

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.