Pandemic Highlights Importance of Mental Health Support for Grocery Industry Employees

May 17, 2021

By Maggie White, Director, NGA Foundation

While the impact of the pandemic and other national events is surely being felt by people across the country, essential workers have been especially vulnerable to stress and mental strain over the last year. During the pandemic, grocery workers suddenly found themselves on the front lines, risking their health and safety, and dealing with the difficulty of abiding by, communicating and enforcing new and changing rules and guidelines. While grocery as an industry has been resilient, our supermarket superheroes have faced a lot.

For Mental Health Awareness Month this May, Human Resources professionals from independent grocery retailers weighed in on how companies can support employee mental health after such a difficult year.

What comes to mind when you think about mental health as it relates to your employees?

“What comes to mind when you say ‘mental health’ is an employee’s state of mind and their comfort and safety,” says Frank Ray, vice president of human resources for Springdale, Ark.-based Harps Food Stores. “If they’re coming to work and they’re worried or there is something going on at home, it affects their mental state. Just like physical health, a person who has good mental health is going to be a way better employee, and be efficient and friendly, so we want to help our people achieve that as much as we can.”

Customer service is a crucial skill in our industry, but in a year where employees were responsible for enforcing mask mandates, and often dealing with customer opinions on those mandates, the ability to remain calm and collected becomes even more important, Ray notes.

“If they don’t have it together mentally, there’s no way they can focus on taking care of customers like they’re capable of. They’re not going to interact with other employees positively. All of that has an effect on not just them but on their co-workers and the customers. It’s hard to hide when you’re experiencing poor mental health, it comes out somehow and can have a negative effect on the whole workplace,” he says.

How do you think an employer can support the mental health of their employees?

“It’s 100% about the supervisor or the organization building relationships with employees such that they can spot when an employee is distressed,” Ray says. “If a supervisor has built that relationship with the employee, they’re much more likely to come to the supervisor and share, whether it’s issues at work or even issues at home. We see that every day here, sometimes the relationships are such that the employee will come and talk to the supervisor about what’s going on and sometimes you don’t know until something bad has happened.”

In fact, nonprofit group Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace report cites supervisor support as one of the most important factors in employee mental health, recommending open and honest discussions with bidirectional feedback between supervisors and employees for creating a healthy work environment.

“We spent lots of time talking people ‘off the cliff,’” says Jodie Felter, vice president of human resources at Quincy, Ill.-based Niemann Foods Inc. “My job was to remain calm and assure them it was going to be OK, even though I didn’t know for sure that it was. Being a constant support to our stores and communicating all the changing rules was our number-one way to support employees. They needed a sounding board and we tried to be that.”

What benefits or perks does your organization provide to support employee mental health?

Ray shared that Harps Food Stores offers comparable benefits to other grocery retailers, including health insurance, vacation and sick pay for full-time workers, with a program that offers vacation pay for part-time workers as well. A worker’s job would be protected under FMLA in an instance of a mental health crisis that required an individual to take leave, he added.

Did you increase or change any benefits or policies during the pandemic to support employee mental health?

When COVID hit, Harps Food Stores did several things to support employees during a difficult time including granting special leave to elderly employees who felt unsafe coming to work, providing additional hours of sick pay for anyone who tested positive or had an exposure to COVID and additional bonuses.

“We felt we had to reward [our teams] for staying with us and working through all this,” Ray explained. “It’s not an easy thing to do but as much as a company can I think they need to be flexible to support their employees. We’re flexible with scheduling for students on staff who can’t work during school hours. It’s to our benefit to have people working when they want to work.”

For recognition and moral support, Harps CEO Kim Eskew created videos thanking employees for staying with them through hard times, which were distributed throughout the company via a communication app.

According to Mental Health America, “Feeling acknowledged and accepted at work was most strongly correlated with the healthiest overall workplace health scores,” and “Employees who feel acknowledged at work are less likely to seek out other employment opportunities.” Being aware of employee mental health is a key retention tool, one not to be overlooked in an industry with consistently high labor demands and high turnover.

“What has been positive is the fact that we had so many people who were not afraid to come to work,” Ray says. “Business has been and continues to be good and our employees are appreciative of what we’ve done.”

For companies and professionals interested in learning more about how to support employee mental health, a number of organizations provide valuable resources on the topic, from breakroom posters and fact sheets to free trainings on Mental Health First Aid:

Mental Health America – Mental Health Awareness Month Toolkit

Mental Health Resources for Employers

COVID-19 Leadership Checklist: Mitigating Team Stress

Mental Health First Aid