Bookstore Owners, Managers on Balancing Employees’ Mental Health Needs With Business Concerns

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May is national Mental Health Month, so Bookselling This Week recently reached out to bookstore owners, managers, and booksellers to discuss how they are working to meet the needs of employees with mental health issues while still running their business practically and profitably.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a given year, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness, and approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with one or more major life activities.  

With an issue that is this prevalent throughout the country, it is understandable that employers are being confronted with the task of developing correct HR practices that sufficiently balance the imperative to keep their stores financially afloat with providing support for employees with mental health issues. BTW recently spoke with six different booksellers to discuss their experiences with this challenging balance. It is important to remember that bookstore owners, managers, and booksellers should always seek out sound human resources advice prior to making any employment decision.

Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop

“Mental health issues have always come up at work, but in the last two years it seems that every bookstore owner I know has had crises at their store,” said Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. In her experience and that of other owners, this can take the form of employees whose anxiety causes them to quit unexpectedly, whose depression makes it impossible for them to respond to e-mail, or who because of mental health issues have trouble communicating effectively with customers.

When a bookseller is going through a crisis in their personal lives, it can affect their ability to function day-to-day, said Geddis, and, unlike a more apparent physical health problem, when a mental health issue results in an employee not being fully effective at work it’s much more likely that colleagues may feel resentment.

Geddis said that as an owner, she always tries to figure out the best way to meet an employee’s needs without overburdening the rest of the staff, while at the same time doing her best to keep that staff member’s situation confidential.

“It’s a strange balance because, at the heart of it, I’m so concerned about making sure my staff is healthy and is getting the mental and physical help that they need, but, at the same time, you can’t let the team suffer because one person isn’t able to perform well,” said Geddis. “[Managing this] is so complicated and it weighs on my mind every day; I really want to be the best boss and leader, but I can only do that if my business stays in business.”

Geddis told BTW she has noticed actual financial effects on the store’s bottom line due to staff mental health issues, from missed publisher discount opportunities to smaller sales totals to botched orders.

“For instance, for some people with anxiety disorders, rather than opening their letters or e-mails to see what is there, it becomes more logical not to open them at all; I’ve been there, too,” she said. “When that happens, we can miss out on sensitive orders or opportunities just because the recipient of that notification wasn’t in a mental state where they could actually take on more stress. So that kind of thing has happened a lot.”

When it comes to human resources challenges at Avid, Geddis teams up with Rachel Watkins, the store’s operations director, and operations manager Luis Correa, who help her oversee the 20 employees at Avid’s two locations, half of whom are full-time. Geddis said she periodically organizes non-mandatory, off-the-clock social events, which has led to more openness, discussion, and understanding among staff. She and her management team also do quarterly check-ins, bimonthly staff meetings, and more informal check-ins.

One policy change that has helped mitigate HR issues over the past year, said Geddis, is making the system for taking time off much more formal, as well as adding family leave and paid time-off policies for full-time staff to help make clear that if people need time off they can get it. 

Drew Sieplinga, events coordinator at Wild Rumpus Books

Drew Sieplinga, events coordinator at Wild Rumpus Books in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said she is personally passionate about the issue of mental health because she has been active in the disability community since she was a teen, and has a mental health impairment and a physical disability herself.

“Mental health impairments are disabilities,” said Sieplinga, who worked for a disability nonprofit prior to her job at Wild Rumpus. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that. They don’t think about invisible disabilities in the same way that they think about physical disabilities.”

In the course of her work at Wild Rumpus, Sieplinga has worked to make sure the store follows federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, which prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, and has furnished staff with disability awareness training via a local disability nonprofit the store fundraised for in the past. She recommends that other booksellers around the country visit the ADA National Network website to find webinars, online resources, and contact information for their regional ADA Center, which may offer in-person training.

According to ADA guidelines, if an employee has disclosed a disability to an employer, and is not performing the responsibilities of the job, that employer has the right to terminate the employee, but only if they have already made reasonable accommodations for him or her. Such reasonable accommodations are legally required as long as doing so would not come at a significant difficulty or expense for the employer. If an employee does bring a discrimination lawsuit, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the ADA, may decide to initiate an investigation. Booksellers can read the entire ADA law here.

Sieplinga said she has arranged for several employees to have reasonable workplace accommodations in place to make sure they can succeed in their jobs; the store also does monthly check-ins to make sure those specific arrangements are still working.

“It’s really important to make your environment supportive and make sure your employees know that they can come to you and disclose a disability and work with you on individual accommodations,” said Sieplinga. “Actually, an employee’s right to have their employer make reasonable accommodations is covered under the ADA.”

Some of the specific accommodations owners and managers can make include, for a bookseller with social anxiety disorder, splitting up a lunch break into several smaller ones spread throughout the day, or, for a bookseller with ADD or short-term memory problems, communicating instructions in writing rather than just verbally. For someone having an anxiety attack, Sieplinga suggests they be allowed to move on to a task like shelving that does not involve as much interaction with customers.

Other accommodations might include making arrangements for a staff member who needs to eat when taking medication or adjusting a shift start time for someone whose morning medication makes them groggy. Owners can also designate a quiet, private space in the store where staff can go if they are having a mental health emergency, are feeling overwhelmed, or need to take medication.

“Reasonable accommodations are not just good for people with a disability or a mental health impairment, but they can be good for the business overall,” said Sieplinga. “For staff, it can increase retention and productivity, and usually the cost is very minimal. Doing these simple things can actually make your store a better and more profitable business.”

Amy Kesler, bookseller, various stores

After Amy Kesler, then a bookseller at Ada’s Technical Books in Seattle, suggested at the 2018 Winter Institute Town Hall in Memphis that there should be more support for booksellers with mental health issues, she was pleasantly surprised when other booksellers came up to her later to express support and to share similar feelings.

Kesler is a longtime bookseller who has worked at a number of stores while dealing with depression, under what she would characterize as both good and bad managers. Depression has caused her to miss days of work and have difficulty with tasks, but she said she felt blindsided when she was let go from a previous bookselling position (separate from her employment at Ada’s). However, Kesler acknowledges that these kinds of confrontations and discussions can be very hard for owners and managers because such private, personal issues can be uncomfortable to bring up

In her opinion as a bookseller who has personally suffered, Kesler said it is her belief that owners and managers should not shy away from their employees’ mental health.

“A lot of owners and managers say, ‘Oh, these are really, really personal, private issues that I don’t talk with my employees about,’ and I’m saying that you have to. You have to confront them and have an open dialogue in a friendly, caring sort of way,” sad Kesler.

When it comes to employees who seem to be having a hard time, speaking as someone who has disclosed her mental health condition to previous employers, Kesler said, “Don’t assume that giving them privacy is what they need. Owners and managers shouldn’t assume a hands-off position, because if you’re concerned about depression or anxiety or any of those mental health issues, that employee is not always going to be proactive about it — it is up to you, if you want to keep this employee. It’s going to feel like you are interfering in their life, but I think that’s partially because we’re not really used to this kind of interaction as a society.”

The odds of having a depressed employee in this business are significant, she told BTW, but there can be numerous clues to tell if someone is struggling. 

“One big thing to look out for is general quietness, or an employee who is boisterous one day and really quiet the next day; this sling-shotting is a tell. Crying is another one, which seems really obvious,” said Kesler. “On the job, it can mean shrinking back from engaging socially with co-workers. Also, physical exhaustion or being extremely tired, not being able to keep up with the physical side of the job, poor hygiene, and not dressing their best can all be signs that something is wrong.”

Andy Laties, co-owner of Book & Puppet Company

Andy Laties, co-owner of Book & Puppet Company in Easton, Pennsylvania, has worked in bookselling since the 1980s, and told BTW he has been happy to observe that negative stereotypes of people with mental health needs have lessened greatly over time.

“When I started there was a tremendous stigma around the idea that somebody might be mentally ill, and today it is absolutely common [for the topic to come up] during conversation,” said Laties. “I think it’s so wonderful and healthy that there is this kind of frankness and self-awareness and empowerment people have developed.”

Laties, who is also the author of Rebel Bookseller: How to Improvise Your Own Indie Bookstore and Beat Back the Chains (first edition by Vox Pop, 2005; revised and updated edition published by Seven Stories, 2011), owned Children’s Bookstore, in Chicago, from 1985-1996, where he managed up to 33 staff members, and later managed up to 17 employees at Bank Street Bookstore in New York City. Since it is owned by the Bank Street College of Education, the store’s human resource issues were met by the college’s HR department, which had a range of fully articulated policies. Laties’ store now has a staff of five employees and operates within more of a family atmosphere than that of an institutional bureaucracy.

“There is a lot to learn from a large organization and how it deals with its employees using highly formalized communication strategies, and there is a lot to learn from a small business person as well,” said Laties. “Each store is different.”

The larger the store, the more formalized its HR policies should be since an owner/manager can’t be omnipresent, said Laties. Whatever the size, it is important to always maintain policies that help the store avoid engaging in illegal, discriminatory practices. When issues arise, these policies can include a series of warnings or mandated check-in appointments with an employee. It is also important to document everything, and to be upfront about the store’s attendance and conduct policies at the time of hiring, so that the procedural groundwork is laid if firing becomes necessary.

Kim Hooyboer, manager at Third Place Books, Seward Park

Kim Hooyboer has worked at Powell’s, WORD, Elliott Bay, and now as manager of Third Place Books’ Seward Park location. In that time, she said she has worked with many booksellers who have been dealing with mental health and other disabilities. This experience has convinced Hooyboer that when dealing with these often uncomfortable topics it is extremely important for a bookstore’s leadership to foster an environment of openness.

“Being open and receptive to staff needs to be of foremost importance,” said Hooyboer. “I’m pretty open with my staff about the fact that I’m going to therapy, and I think that allows them to feel normalized and comfortable coming to work and asking for what they need,” whether that is going home early, taking a break when they need to, or something else.

But even if you are adept at talking about these issues with staff day-to-day, should it come to the point where a bookseller has no more sick days, it is important not to shy away from the more difficult conversation that then needs to happen, she told BTW. Hooyboer said she tries to give employees a heads-up when they are getting low on sick days before bringing them into the office for a conversation.

“We’re a small Third Place location so we have seven people total, and I think folks understand the impact it takes on their colleagues when we have people absent,” said Hooyboer. “My hope is that I’ve been successful in cultivating open communication with folks, where they understand the needs of the store and I understand the needs of humans, and so, between the two of those, we’re able to find a nice balance.”

Hooyboer suggests that educating oneself can be valuable for employers who may not be quite so comfortable talking about the topic of mental health with staff. “There are books that people can read that will help them empathize more with employees. Wander through the health section and see what sticks out,” she said.

To start, Hooyboer recommends The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner); (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen (Algonquin Young Readers); and My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel (Knopf), among others. In the end, she said, “Educating ourselves is paramount in fostering empathy and patience.”

When it comes to tending to her own mental health needs, Hooyboer said she is grateful to Third Place Books owner Robert Sindelar for offering an insurance plan that allows employees access to low-cost therapy and medication. However, Hooyboer is also very much aware that not every store can afford to offer great health insurance, or any health insurance at all.

Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstore

When it comes to health insurance, Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of the new Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, D.C., said that providing affordable, high-quality healthcare, both physical and mental, to more booksellers is “one of our hugest crises as an industry,” although she acknowledges that there is no easy answer to the bookselling industry’s struggle to address healthcare, mental illness, and disability.

ABA has been exploring the feasibility of developing some form of group health insurance for stores to offer employees and is currently working with several other book industry associations to identify options for health insurance for their collective memberships. At a number of this year’s Spring Forum meetings, ABA CEO Oren Teicher reported that progress was being made, but that a number of questions remained about any potential offerings, including how affordable they might be for member stores.

“I don’t see this just as ABA’s problem, but the job of every manager, owner, and bookseller who wants to better their industry. We want to make it viable for people with mental health issues to stay in bookselling,” said Depp. “It’s a viability issue that has to do with inclusion, which means the ability to work at a bookstore if you want to.”

Bookstore owners, managers, or other booksellers who are interested in helping ABA develop education on managing employees with mental health issues and/or being an employee with such issues can contact ABA Senior Education Manager Lisa Winn.