How to Save a Disengaged Grocery Store Worker

It’s critical for grocery store leaders to support their essential employees through these tumultuous times, or risk an unhappy workforce, sudden staff turnover and a loss of profit.

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Unprecedented layoffs and furloughs, anxious customers, strict but necessary COVID-19 precautions, pay cuts and longer hours are just some of the things grocery store workers face on a day-to-day basis as a result of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. In the beginning of the pandemic, consumers anxiously searched supermarkets for items in high demand and short supply, but essential workers continued to provide support, exemplifying what it means to be resilient. Now, grocery stores are preparing for a second wave of panic buying given the new rise in COVID-19 cases and the start of the holiday season.

As grocery store employees continue to work on the frontlines of a pandemic, one of the biggest challenges they face today is the public’s false sense that life may be returning to “Normal.” This promotes a premature sense of recovery and can cause grocery workers to feel pressure to return to previous levels of productivity, despite the fact that most are experiencing continuous change and ongoing uncertainty about the future. Ultimately, this is a detriment to their engagement at work.

General anxiety brought on during this time of crisis is fostering a volatile work environment that many have never experienced before, giving rise to new employee engagement challenges—especially for those working in the food retail industry. Low employee engagement can create a higher turnover rate, ultimately increasing hiring and onboarding costs. What’s more, disengaged employees alone cost employers anywhere from $450-550 billion per year in lost productivity. With an estimated 31 million Americans out of work due to the pandemic, businesses may think the fear of unemployment will retain grocery workers for the time being, but the truth is, this industry is experiencing notoriously high employee turnover rates.

It’s critical for grocery store leaders to support their essential employees through these tumultuous times, or risk an unhappy workforce, sudden staff turnover and a loss of profit. Luckily, there are tactics employers can take to help reengage disengaged employees. Here are some strategies to support and save disengaged grocery store workers.

Extend gratitude on a regular basis

As of Oct. 2, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) confirmed among its members, nearly 16,000 grocery workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19. Essential workers are risking their health to continue serving customers and need to know their efforts are appreciated and their safety matters if companies hope to retain them through the uncertainty of the pandemic. In fact, during the pandemic more than one in three (35%) employees say they are looking for appreciation for their contributions. Despite this, two in five (40%) employees say they don’t feel appreciated for the work they’ve done during this time. 

No employee should feel unappreciated; managers need to consistently provide personalized, authentic recognition. In practice, this looks like recognizing specific actions and explaining why they deserve to be acknowledged. For example, perhaps an employee provides exceptional support to a higher-risk customer (i.e. seniors and older adults) by wiping down their shopping cart, offering hand sanitizer and escorting them to the front of a checkout line, so they can get in and out of the store more quickly. In this situation, a manager should recognize the employee in a timely manner and explain how their exceptional customer service improves the store. This type of meaningful feedback resonates with employees far more than a broad “thank you” or general pat on the back.

Encourage time off

The stress of the global health crisis, longer work hours and new protocols are likely leaving grocery workers feeling overwhelmed, which is detrimental to engagement. While more than one-third (35%) of employees say they want better work-life balance during the pandemic, more than one-third plan to save their vacation for later in the year, and more than a quarter plan to take less time off this year due to the pandemic. For those who haven’t taken vacation in a while, managers should reach out and encourage them to take their deserved R&R time, even if it’s just for a staycation. Some time away from “work” can help reduce stress and prevent burnout, helping employees to return to their next shift refreshed and engaged.

Establish organizational resilience

As food retail stores move out of the initial reactive stage of the pandemic, many may feel pressure to begin focusing on recovery, but a full return to “normal” times may not yet be a reality. As a result, grocery workers are likely to feel added pressure when asked to meet unrealistic goals (i.e. proactively building special sale displays, volunteering to cover shifts, working overtime, etc.), further exacerbating the rampant uncertainty-induced mental and physical stress facing our workforces. Establishing and nurturing organizational resilience – the ability to recover quickly from, and thrive through, adversity – is key to both organizational and individual success during this unprecedented time.

In order to effectively establish resilience, there needs to be open and honest communication between store owners and staff. Managers should set aside time on a weekly basis to facilitate activities where staff can connect in a meaningful manner, such as hold an open forum to discuss challenges or difficulties on the job. Maintaining this level of human connection with employees is critical to engage staff and promote resilience during a time where some grocery workers report morale is at an all-time low. 

It is important to remember that engaging employees is an ongoing journey and grocery workers’ level of engagement will be tested as many anticipate a second wave of the virus to emerge this fall.  Successfully implementing strategies and tactics to fix low levels of disengagement takes time. However, by continuously practicing the methods above, employers will begin noticing a more engaged workforce, and the benefits of this extend far beyond a happier workforce.