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Staff mental health concerns ‘through the roof’ since COVID, says Arnold Clark boss

Eddie Hawthorne, Arnold Clark chief executive

Arnold Clark chief executive Eddie Hawthorne has said that mental health concerns among the AM100 car retail group’s staff have gone “through the roof” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking to AM this morning, Hawthorne said that the business’s leadership team had been called upon to harness all its managerial expertise in ensuring that it maintained a resilient operation and planned for appropriately for 2021.

But while the group has been forced to close six dealerships, make a number of redundancies and stall its annual recruitment of 400 apprentices, the mental health of the workforce has become a top priority.

“We have had to plan as we’ve never had to plan before”, said Hawthorne. “And, in doing that, we have found ourselves working harder than ever to address issues of anxiety and mental health among the workforce which have gone through the roof due to COVID.”

Hawthorne said that concerns about job security and exposure to COVID-19 away from the workplace were among employees' key issues, with some growing concerned about the imapct of positive test results among friends and relatives.

He said: “The simple truth is that we need a healthy and productive workforce and so these are things that we have been working hard to address.”

The National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA) this week opened up a HR survey in an effort to help address UK car retailers' employment concerns through a greater understanding of the sectors' issues.

Back in June, Hawthorne told AM that he initially felt that the COVID-19 crisis would be “over by Easter”, before acknowledging that it had fundamentally changed car retail.

Hawthorne described a series of COVID-prompted car retail site closures, some body shop closures and “a significant number of redundancies” as “extremely sad”, adding that he felt such measures were “not the Arnold Clark way” under normal circumstances.

But he also revealed that many staff leaving the business were nearing retirement – where possible – and had received enhanced packages.

“What we have tried to do is reach settlement agreements with staff,” he said. “That meant that rather than putting 30 people on 45 days’ notice and upsetting the wellbeing of them and their families, I’ve had conversations with three or four people about an enhanced package.

“Early on in the process we had seen the damage redundancies could cause to morale and productivity and realised that this was a far better solution for the team and the wellbeing of staff.”

Arnold Clark will have returned all its employees to work from furlough next week as the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme draws to an end.

Around 400 first- and second-year apprentices will be among those returning to the workplace, with efforts having been made to keep up their training during their absence from the business.

Hawthorne said that the business’ plans for 2021 were for “a normal year”, having taken action to reduce costs, and said that he felt Scotland was unlikely to be impacted by a Wales-style “fire break” return to lockdown.

He said: “I understand that the approach will be to adopt a tiered system reflecting that of the UK Government, but we are already subject to more stringent rukles than is the case in England.

“In Edinburgh and Glasgow it’s like Tier Three-plus, with no bars or restaurants open and no household mixing.”

For now, Arnold Clark is confident that its digital sales expertise will help it leverage any sales opportunity that exists in the market, however, with 20% of car buyers completing their purchase online and only visiting a retail site to collect their vehicle.

Hawthorne said: “The strides forward we have made in digital retailing have been really impressive this year and the shift in the mindset of the consumer has been marked.

“All we can do is keep working hard and continue to plan ahead the very best we can.”

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