3 strategies to fight burnout and foster engagement in frontline grocery associates

Posted on: October 1, 2020Updated on: June 12, 2023By: Axonify Team

First came the item limits and shortages. Then long lines and social distancing rules. And of course, masks. 

Grocery stores have been a flashpoint of the pandemic, and frontline workers are bearing the brunt of the public’s anxiety, stress and anger. 

The strain is starting to show. An August 2020 poll found that 58% of US workers are experiencing burnout, compared to 45% at the beginning of the pandemic in April. Grocery associates report feeling exhausted, overworked and scared. “I cry before work” reads the headline in a recent Guardian article covering burnout in essential workers. Meanwhile, pandemic-related stressors show no sign of going away. 

Prolonged stress on the job leads to disengagement. And disengagement leads to a host of business issues, including high turnover, absenteeism, lower productivity and lower customer satisfaction.

So, how do you keep grocery associates engaged as the pandemic wears on? Safety measures, pay raises, bonuses, time off and health benefits are critical pieces of the puzzle. But sustainable employee engagement stems from giving employees a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose in their work—and training plays a big role in that. 

Here are three ways to use training to foster engagement on the frontlines: 

1: Empower associates to handle current challenges with confidence.

Picture this: A grocery associate finds out about a new mandatory mask rule for her store. Staff are tasked with enforcing this rule. Trepidation builds as she heads out onto the floor. Her mind is full of what-ifs. Customers have questions, and she doesn’t know the answers. A few customers resist the new mask rule, and she does her best to explain, but they end up getting upset and yelling at her. By the end of the day, she feels like a human punching bag. 

It’s easy to see why employees in this situation might start to check out.

Here’s a different scenario: A grocery associate finds out about a new mandatory mask rule for her store. She gets a full explanation of the reasoning behind the rule and simple steps outlining how she should approach mask-less customers. She learns the 5-step SCARF strategy for de-escalation, then runs through some practice scenarios. Then, she heads out on the floor 

It’s still not a fun job—and she’ll inevitably have to deal with some irate customers. But with the right information and training, she can handle these situations with confidence. And, she knows she’s playing an important role in keeping the store safe for everyone, giving her that crucial sense of purpose. 

The unfortunate reality is that the first scenario is much more likely than the second. Even though grocery associates are being asked to take on a host of tasks outside the usual job description, only 27% of frontline grocery associates have received training for their new role or task. It’s no wonder that 39% do not feel prepared to do their job properly in the current environment. 

Feeling unprepared and out of your depth at work leads to confusion, frustration—and ultimately—disengagement. On the flip side, employees that feel a sense of mastery over their role have more pride in their work and higher engagement

It’s crucial to give employees the training and information they need to succeed in their roles. But, it shouldn’t end there. 

2: Invest in associates’ long-term success with cross-training.

Let’s face it: Working on the frontlines at a grocery store involves plenty of repetitive tasks. Repetitive tasks get monotonous over time. People feel ‘stuck,’ with no room for growth. Inevitably, they check out. 

Cross-training employees in various areas of store operations is a powerful antidote to disengagement. For frontline employees, it provides opportunity for advancement, allows people to take on roles with more control and responsibility and keeps people motivated. By getting exposure to more parts of the organization, associates see how they fit into the big picture. Most importantly, the investment in training shows frontline workers they’re valued. All of this imparts a sense of belonging and boosts engagement on the job. 

Fortunately, cross-training is also good for the business—especially when it comes to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. For example, given the vigilance around the COVID-19 virus, grocers are dealing with higher-than-normal “sick-outs.” Having staff trained on multiple roles means that you can quickly shift available employees to the roles you need filled, adjusting to staffing fluctuations on the fly. This reduces the need to hire and staff extra people for sick-out coverage. 

A cross-trained frontline workforce also gives you the agility to respond to changes in consumer demand (for example, exponential growth in your click-and-collect services)—which is key to business resilience.

Get these key pieces in place to start rapidly cross-skilling your frontline.

3: Support and recognize “the whole person.”

The pandemic has melded boundaries between the personal and professional. Those who work from home are now used to  seeing the odd child, dog, or spouse in the background of video calls. There’s growing recognition that we’re all just humans showing up for work with emotional baggage in tow—health-related fears, childcare or eldercare worries, financial insecurity, grief and more. 

The same can be said for your frontline associates. And the strain can be even greater for those who put on a friendly smile and interact directly with customers all day long. 

Your support for the frontline shouldn’t end when they punch out for the night. Rather, top employers aim to support “the whole person.” This means providing training and support that goes beyond associates’ day-to-day job—for example, financial literacy training or mental health resources. 

A good old-fashioned “thank you” goes a long way, too. When it comes to the cart sanitizer spending most of their shift in the parking lot, or the stockist working through the night to keep shelves full, it’s all too easy for their good work to go unnoticed. A message from the CEO or the management team showing appreciation helps to motivate employees and connect them into the bigger mission. 

“We’re all in this together” has been a common refrain throughout the pandemic. By looking out for associate’s well-being on and off the job, you prove that it’s not just a feel-good slogan. And in helping employees to be their best selves through training and support, you also help them do their best work—a win-win-win for associates, your customers, and for the business. 

Find out how leading grocers use Axonify to deliver associate communications and training that actually works.

Axonify Team

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