Shop workers are suffering major mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of violence in stores, which has surged to a five-year high, according to a report.
The report by academics at City, University of London, called on the government to urgently do more to protect people working in the sector, many of whom have suffered long-term anxiety after their experiences of violence.
The authors said that the strain of “constant abuse and fear of physical violence” is causing some shop workers to change working patterns, their place of work or, in the worst cases, quit their job entirely.
According to the Home Office, assaults and threats against the retail sector soared from 524 incidents per 1,000 premises in 2016, to 1,433 in 2017. Last year, more than 42,000 assaults or threats were recorded on retail premises, the industry’s trade body found.
One male store manager told the researchers of the latest study: “I have been punched in the face by a shoplifter, threatened with a needle by a guy on drugs, been spat at, and suffered verbal abuse more times than I can remember.”
Jean-Marie Hughes - a former retail worker who now helps other staff overcome trauma - said that in the last year she knew of colleagues who had been “physically injured with axes, needles, machetes and knives”.
“I know of colleagues that have been dragged through their store, who have had knives held to their throats, or been made to kneel down with guns or other weapons held at their head,” she said.
“They have been screamed at, threatened, and left scared to travel home from work.
“The impact of these incidents last a lifetime, not just on those directly involved but it affects their colleagues, their families and their communities.”
The Co-op, which funded the research, faced criticism from employees last year who said they felt like easy targets during shifts that left them alone on the shop floor late at night.
The company's retail chief executive, Jo Whitfield, said that the high level of attacks across the industry risked normalising violence in shops and said the new research shouuld act as a base for employers and government to tackle the issue.
Multiple sources of data now demonstrate that shop workers face an increasing amount and severity of violent attacks and abuse, said criminologist Emmeline Taylor, the report's author.
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“Often ignored as 'retail crime' and therefore somehow victimless, let's not forget that behind each and every statistic is a person who has directly experienced violence or verbal abuse while simply doing their job,” Ms Taylor added.
Keely Rushmore, a partner in the employment law team at SA law, said companies must also take stronger action to protect employees, prevent attacks and to help staff when incidents do happen.
“It’s highly advisable for employers to have a written policy that addresses preventing and dealing with workplace violence, and to ensure that staff receive training on it.
Taking practical steps to deter violent attacks before they occur, rather than ‘picking up the pieces’ afterwards is also important, Ms Rushmore said. This includes implementing clearly signposted security and surveillance systems.
She added: “In the unfortunate event of an attack on an employee, it’s crucial that employers ensure the wellbeing of all affected staff.
“It’s important to meet with them, providing pastoral support and taking medical advice as needed.
“Such support may be needed on a long-term basis, bearing in mind that violent incidents will often affect a victim for months, if not years.”