Where did all the staff go?

Mel Beard
MD at Best Health Food Shops

Some left because they had to but many replacement applicants just can't be bothered, says Mel Beard

With all the extra challenges the pandemic has brought, the lack of staff and almost impossible recruitment has certainly been an unexpected one.

Back at the start of all this, in March 2020, along with many other shops and businesses, we lost a percentage of the workforce as soon as lockdown hit. This was either due to staff being vulnerable or suffering a medical condition meaning they could not work, or they were just not comfortable coming to work.

As we remained fully open throughout and things were manic on and off, and we were also doing deliveries, we were not able to furlough anyone as we needed all the staff. So, over the coming months in the first lockdown we lost a few staff for various reasons. So come September we decided to recruit some new staff, after having a bit of an internal reorganisation.

This recruitment was unlike any we had done before. Our first job advert that went out received an unprecedented 175 applicants in its first day. This was four or five times what we usually expect from advertising on this platform. We were lucky and had loads of great applicants to choose from, and we were successful in filling all positions within a relatively short time. We could take our pick. People were keen, eager to learn and wanting to commit to jobs.

Fast forward to April 2021 when lockdown eased and various other changes come about, we suddenly lost five staff in the space of a week! All for different personal reasons, but the main theme was people moving away, finding jobs in sectors that they had always dreamed of or going back to study in some form or another. It would seem, as people started to get their freedoms back after the restraints of the previous 12 months, some were now looking at employment differently.

We have lost other staff - about another four or five since April - all for similar reasons so we have spent the last six months recruiting. It has almost become a full-time job.

But recruitment is now nothing like it was last year - job adverts that would have got 30-40 applicants were getting less than 10 people applying. Gone were the heady days of 175 people applying for one job.

Now we are finding ourselves in completely unchartered territory when it comes to staff and recruitment. Of those applicants that apply, most turn out to be only partly interested and we have had so many let-downs, people deciding that working is just not for them and even some that accept the position and then just don't bother to turn up. Contracts are signed, offers accepted and some have even done a few shifts, but then people seem to just act like they are not that bothered and quit with no reason, sparing no thought for the time, expense, or the consequences for a small business.

We were starting to think we were doing something wrong - but having spoken to various other people in both retail and hospitality, it seems to be the same everywhere.

We have been hit so hard and been so short-staffed we have had to close the shops on some days as we just had no one to work. We have spent a lot of money on advertising positions, interviewing, and training only to be let down.

Most people we speak to at interview seem to not be interested in actually working. Is this just people re-evaluating their lives? Have they got too used to working from home, or being furloughed? Is it Brexit stopping overseas workers from coming to the UK? No one seems to have the answers.

The extra stress that this has put on the company and especially the existing staff has been tough. We have had to re-evaluate things ourselves to try to ensure that the existing staff feel appreciated, looked after and are being paid fairly in order to make sure they stay. This has meant us having to add in various new benefits, training and pay rises to try to keep existing staff and help to attract new, good staff.

Over the last six months, with sales being as bad as they have been, doing all these things has put even further financial strain on the business. So we are in a bit of a vicious circle!

We need good staff to help improve our customer experience, in order to keep up sales in the shops. We cannot rely on goodwill alone for the existing staff to stay committed and want to continue to do longer hours at the drop of a hat, while we continually train up new people. It is a balancing act for everyone.

This year has been much harder than last year on so many levels. For example, just when we got some good staff in one shop, we then had an employee testing positive for Covid and had to close the shop anyway due to track-and-trace!

Once furlough is no more and as things move forwards towards normality, everyone will have to re-evaluate again and realise that while there might be more to life than work and money, surely everyone has to come back to reality and find ways to pay their mortgages!

Let's hope that things take a turn in a positive way so that businesses can concentrate on other things to help them out the current sales slump and get ready for what will hopefully be a brighter last quarter of the year.

Melanie Beard runs five stores in Kent and Sussex with her partner Len Glenville. Both have recently taken up senior positions on the Council of the National Association of Health Stores.

Read more articles from our latest issue...