Grocery Store Employees Need Mindfulness, Too

Skills like meditation, kindness, and gratitude can improve mental health and morale at work—including for retail workers. Anthony Sartori shares his experience of both the joyful and challenging moments while unrolling a mindfulness program at a grocery store.

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A grocery store isn’t considered a typical place to practice mindfulness. I know—I worked in one. Still, my coworkers and I saw firsthand how much of a positive difference this practice can make.

For professional grocers, their daily work environment is challenging at best, and often traumatic. There’s the physical stress of manual labor: stocking, shelving, cleaning, ringing up groceries, and moving eight hours a day, five days a week, week after week after week. Then there are the emotional burdens: the racism in the parking lot, the sexism in the aisles, the homophobia at the register, eight hours a day, five days a week, week after week after week: a work environment that fosters constant employee turnover. 

And then, the pandemic. 

The pandemic changed what work looks like for all of us, and grocery-store employees are no exception. Retention isn’t valued for waged workers, and so many staff were quitting that it felt like a revolving door. As someone who deeply values coworker relationships, I found that the weekly cycling of names and faces in and out, without time or space dedicated to welcoming or saying goodbye, made it more difficult to keep showing up to work. And as someone who needs community to thrive, I felt the negative impact when the store’s internal systems were unable to nourish a healthy work culture.

A Vision for Mindful Grocery Stores 

In September 2020, feeling disconnected and on the verge of giving up, I started thinking about what we could be doing differently. While working in MOM’s Organic Market (MOM’s), I was also launching a mental health nonprofit, Evolving Minds, with the mission to create a culture of care. Taking inspiration from my own mindfulness practice and training, I pitched a program idea to the MOM’s corporate team. With their support and a shared vision, we built Mindful Grocery Stores.

Mindful Grocery Stores reimagines mental health at work by empowering store leaders with mindfulness techniques to nourish a healthy work culture.

Mindful Grocery Stores reimagines mental health at work by empowering store leaders with mindfulness techniques to nourish a healthy work culture. It means intentional space and time carved out of the workflow to build meaningful work relationships, community, and care for one another. Trained leaders deliver mindfulness skills during the morning and nighttime team huddles on a daily rotating schedule. Our mindfulness curriculum combines positive psychology skills—such as Seeking Gratitude, Sharing Joy, and Seeing Goodness—with mindfulness meditation techniques, ranging from paced breathing to tuning in to the five senses

Pass Me the Lemon

The first week of piloting Mindful Grocery Stores, I knew we were onto something special. 

It was about 9:30pm after an eight-hour shift. The in-store team, about 15 of us, circled around the produce aisle, some sitting, some standing, some squatting. The skill of the night was Seeing Goodness. The manager picked up a lemon from the shelf and asked, “Where do you see goodness in our MOM’s team?”

The lemon flew across the space as each person answered the prompt. 

Team members voiced appreciation, recognized each other for their hard work, and thanked the team for their help. Employees talked about how they had turned a negative customer interaction into a positive experience, acknowledged the sense of safety they felt with the team, and told stories about how past retail experiences were harmful, but how here at MOM’s it was much better. When the lemon landed in my lap, I spoke of the goodness in a team member. I shared how much I appreciated them, how their goofiness made me laugh and the importance of that for me in a work environment. 

Near the end of the share, the lemon landed in the palms of our manager. They opened up about how they were having a difficult mental health week, and how one work night, it was tough just to drive home. They told us that showing up and working with us made them feel a little bit better. 

Just as our manager was about to wrap up and put the lemon back, another employee, waving excitedly, said, “Here, here, pass me the lemon, pass me the lemon!”

The lemon soared across the space. 

“I just want to say, you are an incredible manager and I see the goodness in you and everything that you do for the team, and I am so grateful for you.” 

With that, everyone started to cheer, clap, and snap. An explosive uproar of care resounded through the store. This was a communal work experience I had never felt in my entire time at MOM’s. I left that meeting with an enormous smile on my face. A feeling of wholeness. 

The Mindless Side of Retail 

Thankfully, I have many of these stories to tell now. But the harsh reality of retail makes moments like that seem like a fairy tale. Every day, our store faces enormous operational challenges that prevent us from bringing everyone together to share in these miracle moments. Multiple callouts every day, unpredictable truck arrivals, customers shopping before we open and after we close, tons of pallets to stock, and the business responsibility and unrealistic expectations of moving $50-100k every single day, 4am to 11pm. 

Our mindfulness skills dissolved toxic ‘us vs. them’ thinking and humanized the team by boosting a sense of morale and camaraderie, a feeling that we’re all in this together.

Initially, the program had strong momentum. The mindfulness skills were being integrated into the workflow every couple of days, and in the two-month pilot period we saw a dramatic reduction in the number of employee absences from our store: over 50%. With that monumental statistic came significant and compelling employee anecdotes about the importance of what we were doing. I had the opportunity to sit down and conduct 30-minute interviews with 23 of my team members to better understand the impact of Mindful Grocery Stores. What I heard again and again was how our mindfulness skills dissolved toxic ‘us vs. them’ thinking and humanized the team by boosting a sense of morale and camaraderie, a feeling that we’re all in this together. 

Immediately following these interviews, however, crucial managers who championed and believed in what we were doing the most were moved to another store. As the entire management team cycled in and out, the program fell into an abyss. Six months of stagnation. I was often frustrated. The leaders at the store now wouldn’t facilitate the mindfulness skills or even just bring us together to pause for less than one minute. 

Finding the Time to Be Human 

On every shift that I worked, I went up to the closing manager, looked them in the eyes, and asked, “Can I lead the mindfulness skills tonight?” Gathering team members together, sitting cross-legged on top of our customer service desk, milk crates, and ladders, I kept it going.

Now, a year later, I am deeply worried about the long-term success of a year’s hard work because of the destructive norms within retail systems. The single greatest resistance that we’ve faced in bringing people together to be human and practice mindfulness in the grocery store has been the immense operational pressure, fueled by profit to the exclusion of well-being. 

In my time at MOM’s I learned that, for our retail mindfulness model to have a chance to thrive—in grocery stores and beyond—antiquated business systems must evolve to value our common humanity. Businesses that don’t prioritize their employees’ mental health will soon be a thing of the past. 

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