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Occupational health and safety - 04.10.2021 klo 10.54

Workers’ ability to cope has deteriorated as the Covid crisis grinds on

”Sexual harassment is usually insinuation, propositions, touching, pinching and slurs", says Sini Heikkinen, health and safety representative at Alko.

The pandemic is still with us, and this is reflected in service sector workers’ everyday lives. Customers’ nerves are often frayed, and workers are on the receiving end. At Alko, there has been a surprising increase in sexual harassment of employees.

When the Covid restrictions came into force 18 months ago and bars and borders were closed, customer numbers in Alko and other retail stores were well above normal in some places. The situation normalised for a time, but then continued, causing uncertainty among customers and staff alike.

“As Covid drags on, both physical and mental coping have been put to the test. The work is fairly strenuous, with everybody doing a bit of everything: onloading deliveries, lifting goods on to the shelves and moving heavy boxes. Wearing a mask makes working more strenuous because it’s harder to breathe and you perspire, but you can’t take it off even in the storeroom unless you’re alone. All surfaces and rooms also have to be cleaned continually", says Alko’s full-time health and safety representative and PAM Executive Committee member Sini Heikkinen.

“But you still need to cope and be friendly and knowledgeable with the customers, and smile, even though you can’t see the smile behind the mask. Sometimes you really have to make an effort to appear friendly in your eyes and voice”, she continues.

Heikkinen herself thinks that being busy is less stressful than being afraid you’ll lose your job.

Work at Alko is fairly physically demanding, because the work includes shelving and moving heavy loads.  Picture: Heli Sorjonen

Increased disruptive behaviour a stress factor

Some customers’ behaviour has worsened, which increases the mental strain. Like other service sector workers, Alko sales staff have had to deal with bad customer behaviour and abusive language before. As Covid drags on, bad behaviour has got worse and is more common.

“Alko already had clear guidelines on what is improper and unacceptable behaviour. There is zero tolerance of improper behaviour. The company emphasised this at the start of the year when we noticed that harassment has increased.”

Alko’s new procedures and systems, put in place during the Covid crisis, are still in force and improper behaviour towards sales assistants is being monitored closely.

Sini Heikkinen hopes that in future staff won’t hesitate to report harassment.

A line that mustn’t be crossed

“Unions in the retail sector have jointly recommended that employees must be able to protect themselves from harassment.

Working communities should get together to define at what point customer behaviour has gone too far. These  situations should be practised in the working community because customer service workers can’t step out of line either.

You need to think about and agree with management what wording to use with customers to show that their behaviour is offensive, and if it doesn’t improve they won’t be served. It’s a form of warning to the customer.

All employees need to know that they have this right, and they don’t need to and shouldn’t accept improper or disorderly behaviour. It’s hard to know where to draw the line because people see things so differently.

That’s why you need to discuss this at the workplace level and exchange experiences. This way you can reach a consensus on what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

Erika Kähärä

Text:: Riitta Nikkola