By Katherine Rich, Chief Executive, NZ Food & Grocery Council

"The food and grocery sector puts a lot of emphasis on health and safety. Be it on the farm, in the factory, in the distribution centre, on the road, or in the supermarket – involving everything from farm-bike safety and forklifts, to driving skills and stacking shelves – there are always processes and information being upgraded or shared.

But some areas are more obvious than others. We can see them, and best practice can be updated and improved by a training course or even a poster or diagram on a workplace noticeboard. For the most part, it’s working, with total accidents in the grocery sector on the decline, though there’s still much to do.

But what’s been concerning me of late is that which is not so immediately apparent – the mental health part of health and safety. Potential risks to mental health in the grocery sector may be less obvious than forklift accidents but can be just as debilitating, sometimes devastating.

Grocery retail today is a high-tech and fast-moving environment where a lot needs to be done in a short time to make the store ready for the customers. So, the pressure is on, particularly for workers such as merchandisers and sales reps. Store culture will vary. Some are excellent, but in some, there are certainly major opportunities to stamp out poor treatment and bad behaviour directed at merchandiser and sales rep employees. I would call some of the behaviour deeply concerning. As an industry, we can do better. We must do better.

Over the past ten years, I have received regular reports about the treatment directed at these staff that is less than professional. It ranges from plain rudeness, shouting, and swearing, to shaming, bullying and harassment. Leaving reps to wait for hours on end (3.5 hours is the worst reported) is also unprofessional and disrespectfully poor time management. All this is behaviour that should not be acceptable in any modern workplace under any circumstances.

It concerns me that a lot of poor treatment is directed at merchandisers, most of whom are women who get up at 2 am to work part-time on low wages for a few hours before their children wake up. When parts of the role are unattractive due to the unsociable hours, adding abuse and poor treatment only adds to the challenge of recruiting people to undertake this important role.

Let me be clear: this sort of behaviour isn’t occurring in all stores. Many have a positive culture and actively work to encourage it, but one store allowing such poor treatment is too many.

With increased health and safety responsibilities on suppliers and supermarket owners these days, the onus is on them to consider the mental health and wellbeing of everyone in the supermarket workplace.

Mostly, suppliers deal with these issues directly, though FGC has also raised specific issues regarding individual store culture and behaviour when we’re made aware of them. Of course, we would rather things didn’t get to that point, and that stores did more to make sure their staff are getting the message about treating people in a more positive, courteous, and respectful way.

We talk a lot about how difficult it is to get people to work at such unsociable hours, but that’s not going to improve if this is the sort of environment they’re being offered. Why would anyone want to get up at 2 am to get shouted at?

I believe it’s part of FGC’s role to start talking about a better and more respectful culture because our industry is judged on how our most vulnerable and lowest paid are treated, so that’s what we’re going to do.

This was a topic of conversation at our recent annual general meeting, and as a result, a more positive work environment for merchandisers is something we have chosen as one of our themes for the year.

We rely on merchandisers and sales reps, and we expect them to be treated with respect and be supported when they call out inappropriate behaviour. We all have a role to play, from the store or company manager to people on the shop floor. Let’s do better for them."