Expanding Our Understanding of Sustainability: What We Can Learn from the Retail Food Industry about Employee Wellness

By Samantha Veide

As members of the coffee industry we have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to consider our impact on local communities and workplaces, as well as the communities from which we source coffee. Tracy Ging, deputy executive director of the SCAA, asks a key question, “We’ve spent a lot of valuable time talking about how we are doing in relation to the farmer, but how are we doing in our own backyards?”

Indeed, we cannot forget our efforts at origin, but are we looking enough at the environments in our own cafes? “As an industry, much of our initial effort towards being more responsible businesses focused on social justice and environmental issues,” Ging adds. “But as we’ve matured along with the field of sustainable development, there are flusher expectations for business. Business responsibility includes how it conducts itself in the marketplace, how its practices affect the environment and how aware and responsive the business is to the communities in which they work. However, another core area of impact for any business is its own workplace. Work conditions, equal opportunity, employee benefits, and training opportunities need to be part of the equation.”

Where We Were Following (Not Leading)

What does it mean to be a coffee professional in this evolving environment? And where can we look for good examples of groups who are looking within their four walls for ways to be more socially responsible? An industry that is receiving much attention lately for their progressive employee practices is the retail food/grocery industry.

Each year FORTUNE Magazine creates a list of the “100 Best Places to Work.” This year four of the top 100 companies were in the retail food/grocery industry. Most of a company’s score (two-thirds) is based on the results of the Institute’s Trust Index survey, which is sent to a random sample of employees from each company. The survey asks questions related to their attitudes about management’s credibility, job satisfaction and camaraderie. The other third of the scoring is based on the company’s responses to the Institute’s Culture Audit, which includes detailed questions about pay and benefit programs, and a series of open-ended questions about hiring practices, internal communication, training, recognition programs and diversity efforts.

Certain sectors are frequently showcased on this list. For example, the technology sector is often praised for being progressive. In contrast, retail is often plagued with a reputation for perpetuating low wages, dead-end part time labor, poor employee work/life balance and long hours. As coffee shop labor is a retail industry job, it is worth looking at how four companies are attempting to do retail differently with associate wellness in mind.

Here is a list of these four concepts and some of the reasons why they ranked as a Best Place to Work:

Whole Foods Market (#32). FORTUNE said that Whole Foods made the list (for the 15th year in a row) for its equitable pay structure, noting that the company caps salaries of executives at 19 times the average full-time salary. They are also noted as one of the most diverse workforces, with a workforce made up of 44% women and 43% minorities. Finally, employees appreciated perks like gym membership discounts, compressed work weeks, and gay-friendly policies and benefits.

Nugget Market (#34). This concept was recognized for its competitive and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the service leadership mindset. Nugget offers its associates a strong benefits package—free health insurance, industry-leading wages and a 10% discount on groceries. They also understand the importance of job security in fostering associate well-being; Nugget has never had a layoff in its 85 years. Nugget also shows their commitment to local communities by offering high quality products at low prices. In their effort to be transparent about these costs, they invite customers to participate in a “price survey” that encourages customers to compare Nugget to local competitors. The impressive results of these surveys are displayed on a price survey board in every store.

Wegmans (#4). This grocer is known for promoting wellness in their workplace, not only for their associates but for local communities as well. Along with offering health benefits, scholarship programs and employee discounts to local fitness centers and cultural events, they open up their facilities to offer programs for children in their communities around healthier food choices. For example, the Veggie Patch Cooking Class is aimed at local Scout troops teaching them how to create age-appropriate recipes with fresh seasonal ingredients. They also offer 4th grade Eat Well Live Well in-store tours that focus on developing the knowledge and skills that motivate children to make healthy food choices.

Publix (#78). Publix is recognized as being the country’s fourth-largest grocer and the largest employee-owned company in the nation. Employees get generous annual stock infusions. Stated in their mission statement is their commitment to being “dedicated to the Dignity, Value and Employment Security of our Associates.”  An example of how they accomplish this end is through their generous tuition reimbursement program for full-time and part-time associates.

The Benefits 

The implementation of programs for employees not only is the right thing to do, but a smart business investment. There is increasing evidence that associate engagement and happiness leads to higher profits and sustainable performance for the organization. According to a recent feature in The Harvard Business Review, “For companies, happy employees mean better bottom-line results. Employees who score low in ‘life satisfaction,’ a rigorously tested and widely accepted metric, stay home an average of 1.25 more days a month…This translates into a decrease in productivity of 1.5 days a year. In addition, researchers at Gallup found that retail stores that scored higher on employee life satisfaction tests generated $21 more in earnings per square foot of space than the other stores, adding $32 million in additional profits for the whole chain.”1

Christine Smalarz, a former associate and loyal patron of Wegmans, tells a story of how the owners of Wegmans made a commitment to shake every employee’s hand over the holidays as a thank you for the work that was done over the year. To keep shaking hands with the almost 40,000 people now employed in the Wegmans’ stores they have to begin their hand shaking in October! “As an associate I was proud to work for a company with strong values and one that cared about me beyond the work day…the positivity created by the culture and the people translated into a loyal workforce and one of the best food retailers in the world.”

Having a positive outlook at work greatly increases your happiness and your chances of success. Working for organizations that foster a culture where positivity was valued saw an increase in productivity and happiness. According to research cited in the HBR, one of the most effective techniques in cultivating happiness was engaging with people in a social network. This isn’t surprising, but what was notable was that, “even more important to sustained happiness and engagement was the amount of social support that students provided [not received].”

The research showed that employees who score the highest on providing social support are 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion in the following year, report significantly higher job satisfaction, and feel 10 times more engaged in their jobs than people who score in the lowest quartile.” This suggests that organizations not only benefit from providing for their associates, but also reap benefits when they create opportunities for associates to give to others—whether it be fellow associates, community members or customers.

As we continue to seek ways to minimize our environmental impact and combat social justice issues it is important that we are also taking care of the employees “in our own backyards” that make these efforts possible.

How To Do It

So, how do we do it? This is no doubt a difficult question as there is often real financial impact to undertaking many of the programs that contribute to employee wellness. Perhaps a good place to begin is where The Best Places to Work starts when they assess workplace excellence. According to The Best Places to Work, “From studying the world’s best workplaces, we have learned that trust is the key differentiator. Trust is the defining principle of great workplaces—created through management’s credibility, the respect with which employees feel they are treated, and the extent to which employees expect to be treated fairly. The degree of pride and levels of authentic connection and camaraderie employees feel with one another are additional essential components. This applies to all organizations regardless of national culture, industry, size or age.”

Mark Stell, managing partner of Portland Roasting, the 2011 Roast magazine’s “Roaster of the Year,” agrees that creating an environment where employees’ feel respected and proud of their work has contributed to their success. Further, establishing this environment of trust, pride and camaraderie doesn’t necessarily require large financial investment and therefore makes it an accessible first step for other coffee companies that desire to make employee wellness a larger part of their business model.

“The most difficult part of running a company is keeping your employees motivated and happy,” says Stell. “We focus on a positive work environment and pride in one’s work. We try not to micro manage and we hire people who can take their job and make it their own. We give focus and education to the employee but also leave it up to him/her to make it better. Key is our company’s commitment to ‘making the job bigger than the individual.’ Employees are encouraged to ask themselves if what they are doing will help others in the workplace or around the world. For example, as a company we work on some fun community event each year and all employees are asked to help in some way.”

Stell also gives us some small steps that he thinks we can all take to move forward on this journey:

Try company-sponsored volunteer events. This encourages employee camaraderie, improves job satisfaction, and establishes good will in the community.

Give employees regular feedback. A company needs to have regular employee reviews to understand issues before they become unmanageable for both the employee and the company. Make these “bottom up” not just top down; at Portland Roasting an employee can request a job review at any time.

Promote regular, open communication. Every month Stell runs an all-employee company meeting to discuss any issues and, just as important, to have fun. At Portland Roasting these meeting include lunch and games.

Encourage camaraderie and mutual respect. At Portland Roasting, they pick a MVP for the month. The employees, not the managers, reward this MVP for going above and beyond their scope of work.

Perhaps an even simpler place to start is to ask oneself what your business can do to better engender trust in employees, in the community and in the larger coffee industry. Being trustworthy means functioning with integrity, being worthy of the sentiment “I can count on you” and thinking beyond “me.”  This benchmark will serve coffee communities, and our own cafes, extremely well.

Samantha Veide joined the Mars Drinks Global Research & Development team in 2009. In her current position as Global Drinks Education Manager with Mars Drinks she oversees the design and execution of coffee, tea and sustainability training programs in five global markets for associates and business partners. She also helps Mars liaise with the larger coffee and tea community by keeping her finger on the pulse of global trends in the beverage industry for the Innovation and Technology team.