Stress, pressure from above, disregard, abuse from customers and more are all daily fare for most supermarket workers. Add in job insecurity across the sector, and it is small wonder that psychosocial risks are taking a toll on a growing number of employees.

"All staff have access to an onsite occupational health unit which offers massage and reflexology. The company also subsidises gym membership for their staff," reports UK supermarket chain Safeway, while its rival Sainsbury claims that "There is no stress here because we constantly listen to staff." These are extracts from press releases issued in 2001 as ripostes to a report criticizing British companies for their failure to engage with the rise in work-related stress.

Eleven years on, has anything changed? Have supermarkets faced up to the scale of the problem and finally asked questions about their responsibility? Perhaps not, if a European report on the retail industry is anything to go by. Published in July, the report by the Dublin Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions finds a connection between the emergence of psychosocial risks and the growth of contingent employment in the retail sector, and specifically the spread of fixed-term and part-time employment (especially among women). Longer trading hours and more store opening days are also singled out as eating away at work/life balance.

Two epidemiological studies have looked at the mental health of workers in France’s mass retail industry. The Epigrandis study was launched in 1998 and involved 768 employees of supermarkets located in the Rhône department (Lyons region). Five years later, a new survey was done among 1002 employees of 86 supermarkets in the Centre region. Both surveys were done using the same type of mental health assessment tool: the General Health Questionnaire, which was administered to the workers via occupational doctors.

The outputs of both reveal a concerning level of mental health problems among a significant share of French supermarket workers. 35.3% of participants in the Epigrandis survey display signs of psychiatric disorder and 10.7% signs of depression. The 2003 survey in the Centre region found a quarter of supermarket workers were suffering from mental distress, rated as significant in 6.2% of cases.

The Centre region survey revealed a number of risk factors for work-related illness, they are: gender (30% of women versus 18% of men), age (31% of over-40s versus 24% of under-40s), experience in the sector (31% of those with over ten years’ service with large retailers against 22% of those with under 10 years’ length of service), and store size (32% of hypermarket workers against 23% of supermarket workers).

The study also provides a link between mental distress and work experience and work organization factors. The risk is higher among respondents who reported they have been or are being bullied at work, do not feel fulfilled, feel unfairly treated, see no career prospects, feel that their suggestions are disregarded, feel that others (colleagues or others) are unfairly treated, get no recognition from management, do not have enough time to do their job, etc.

Added to these findings are those of other smaller-scale surveys which reveal significant levels of dissatisfaction with methods of work organization that put human factors second to productivity-chasing. Testimonies from workers and their union reps confirmed this groundswell of discontent in the sector.

Time pressure

The feeling of "forever rushing" is extremely widespread among supermarket workers. A 2008 trade union survey of 782 workers in the Liège region (eastern Belgium) found that 45% thought they did not have enough time to do their job during working hours and 70% thought that extra demands were forever being made of them. Another survey funded by the French federation of retailers and supermarkets, and so not calculated to put a blot on the situation, actually found close to 80% of workers feeling that they had to rush their work and 47% were unable to stop and take a moment’s rest outside official breaks.

A target of scanning 3,500-odd items an hour through a checkout (nearly one item a second!) would seem to leave the staff of hard-discounter Aldi little time for chatting over coffee and biscuits. "It’s a notional target set by head office and new employees tend to cotton on pretty quickly that it can’t be done," says Cathy, a shop steward in a southern Belgium store.

The health impacts of this maximum productivity demand are offset slightly by multitasking – Aldi’s other golden rule. All Aldi supermarket employees have to alternate between checkout operation, goods pallets unloading, shelf-stacking and even store cleaning. It is a way of avoid monotony and reintroducing a form of freedom of job organization.

"So that some of our colleagues who have bad backs can keep working and not get sacked on medical grounds, we arrange it so that one of us whose health will stand it will do more pallet unloading and give their checkout hours to their colleague," says the union rep. This way of reclaiming ownership of work time organization can obviously only happen where there is strong solidarity in the workforce, which seems to be the case in the German discounter’s Belgian stores (see Box).

Manuel has worked in volume retailing for 36 years. He started out in a Belgian supermarket which was taken over in 2000 by the French giant Carrefour. He sees the well-being of workers declining as a result of flexibility requirements and puts that down to the change in the company’s shareholder structure. "Checkout assistants work only 25-hour weeks, but have to be available Monday to Saturday. You get very few breaks, and they aren’t paid now. It’s all about just in time and squeezing out any idle time," argues the union rep.

Relations with bosses and customers

Having work rosters set by management is a big stress point in supermarkets, because rostering can be used as a means of punishment. This is especially feared by women workers, not just for the personal inconvenience, but for the upset it can cause to family arrangements.

"The schedule is a reward tool, but more often a punishment tool for the staff: employees who had taken a sick leave, vacations or dared to claim their rights are punished with unfavourable shifts and work days (for example New year’s Eve)," complains a report by a Polish gender equality lobbying group.

This relation of dependency on line superiors is a clear breeding ground for high-handedness and a sense of injustice for those who are not in their manager’s good books. Jobs may be standardized, but working conditions are clearly personalized. "The work is organized how managers want," as Marlene Benquet sums it up in her book on checkout operators, Les damnées de la caisse.

What tips the balance of power even more against employees is the vulnerability to poverty of a growing number of them. Low pay and the spread of short-time – ver y common among women workers – mean that even workers on permanent contracts find it increasingly hard to make ends meet. Françoise, a trade unionist in a store recently taken over by the Mestdagh-Champion chain, inveighs against the persistent and increasing burden of poverty among her colleagues, especially divorced or separated women who may also be lone mothers. "A growing number of women workers do cash-in-hand cleaning to top up their pay-packets", she says.

The Belgian volume retail industry is highly unionized, but trade union leverage in pay and work organization bargaining seems to be on the wane. Different forms of enforced competition between stores in the same group – some more blatant than others – can be a way of quietly brushing demands under the carpet. The option of choice in Belgium is franchising. The chain contracts out the management of a store to a self-employed manager. He buys the brand’s products, but his staff do not come under sector collective agreements. It may be good news for customers, but not for the workers: the employees have no union representation, Sunday work is more common and not paid as overtime, and pay is often lower – up to 30% less.

Customer-facing work can go either way: it can be a risk factor, or promote well-being at work. Many workers complain of abusive language and behaviour by impatient customers, a commonplace occurrence at checkouts and service counters. "Customers want it and they want it now; they don’t want to wait. Irate customers will also take it out on us if the promotional products they came in specially for have run out," complains Manuel.

Conversely, contact with customers can be sustaining, give value to work, be a means of reclaiming ownership of the idea of service that has been obliterated by work organization methods designed to "squeeze out idle time" – read: waste the least possible time on customers. And where productivity demands and the proliferation of control methods (computers, CCTV, etc.) virtually rule out conversations with colleagues, any opportunity to interact with customers is valued.

"They are the last ones you can have a personal contact with. But it’s getting harder. Just enough time for a quick 'hello', and then you cut it short. We don’t like it, and nor do the customers, especially the older ones," reflects supermarket deli-counter worker Evelyse.

New technologies

Élodie Montreuil is a consultant with Secafi, a workplace O&M consultancy for employee representative bodies. In 2009, she was called in by the Health, Safety and Working Conditions Committee of a big supermarket chain that had just put in a bank of four self-service express checkouts.

"The introduction of self-checkouts has radically changed the job; it has turned checkout assistants into customer assistants. Some workers felt at a loss to cope with situations they were unprepared for. Their job is actually now to handle four clients at a time instead of one, and deal with problems from the machines going wrong or mistakes by customers unused to them," says the expert on psychosocial risks.

The stress of these situations was compounded by the employee’s loss of the protective barrier provided by the conveyor belt. "They found themselves alone, standing face-to-face with multiple customers and no alarm button to hand to call security staff," noted Élodie Montreuil.

The whole industry is now computerized, especially the distribution hubs where workers have become slaves to the machine. Order pickers no longer get their orders from a line supervisor but are computer-directed via a headset and a speech synthesis voice-picking system that tells them where they should be and what to do at every moment. Pickers no longer manage orders or even goods – they respond to a sequence of coded instructions.

"The two factors that shaped the job of order picking – responsibility for the order and the ability to plan ahead and reconfigure the flow system to put together a 'good pallet' – have gone (...) This purely reactive kind of behaviour is utterly abnormal both physiologically and psychologically. Only machines work like that," says Philippe Davezies, author of an enlightening report on the introduction of this new technology in distribution warehouses.

"Because it is anathema to humans to be ordered around by a machine the whole day long, workers tend to react by speeding up the pace of the voice control," observes Davezies, a research-lecturer in occupational medicine and health at the Lyon 1 University. He explains the paradox: "The gap between the work done and what the worker aspires to creates major distress. Forcing themselves to work faster helps them to stop thinking. It is a defence mechanism common among workers in Taylorist-type work organizations."

The inroads made by these new technologies across the mass retail industry heighten the feeling of dehumanization, the impression that customers and workers are just ciphers. "Everything we do now is controlled. You can’t talk with colleagues any more, and you’re scared to make a mistake because the computer system can directly identify the employee who made it", concludes Evelyse•.

Special report - Discounting the workers: conditions in the retail sector

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Workers feel used and abused