Engaged employees enjoying a positive holiday work environment

How employee engagement can decrease seasonal stress and boost year-round retention

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The challenges of being a manager get a lot of attention. And rightly so — mentoring a team isn’t for everyone. There will be good days and bad ones, of course. But experienced leaders will tell you there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of watching a team of engaged employees do their best work.

Working in the foodservice and hospitality industries is as rewarding as it is challenging. Instilling teamwork, setting achievable goals and celebrating even small milestones will all positively affect your employee retention rate.

Bar graph showing 80% of hospitality workers experiencing burnout pre-pandemic

Even pre-pandemic, studies showed that 80% of hospitality workers were experiencing burnout.

But no amount of positive feedback can completely shield your team from burnout, and the holiday season is particularly grueling. The hospitality industry has had the highest quit rate since July 2021, consistently above 5.4%. The quit rate for the retail industry isn’t far behind, hovering close to 4%.

Whether you’re short-staffed, running on fumes for the holidays or just looking to create a better work environment for your valued employees, we’ve got tips to help you achieve company goals without sacrificing employee satisfaction.

Get practical about the simple ways you can improve your team’s well-being

When you want to motivate employees and keep them bought into being part of your business for the long haul, thoughtful, consistent changes are your best strategy.

Going the extra mile each day to address your staff respectfully, resist micromanaging and ask what employees want and need will make a lasting impression. Showing interest in their lives outside of work also goes a long way to create a welcoming work environment all year round.

Here are some simple ways to invest in your employees’ well-being:

  • Praise good work publicly, correct employee performance privately
  • Host family meals, or treat your staff to other perks on a consistent basis
  • Create contests and reward incentives for some friendly competition
  • Be an advocate for wellness: encourage breaks, lend a listening ear, provide flexibility on work schedules
  • Fix processes and policies that frustrate customers before they take it out on your team

There’s no one right way to show you value your team’s well-being. But however you choose to go about it, make sure it’s a daily practice instead of a one-time grand gesture.

Coffee shop manager pouring a drink for one of his team members

Set the tone with your behavior instead of mandating fake positivity

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, more than 47 million people quit their jobs in 2021 in search of improved work-life balance, flexibility, increased compensation and a positive company culture.

You may be thinking “OK! This is easy. I’ll focus on positive things. If we don’t discuss or dwell on anything negative, it can’t hurt our company culture.”

Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State, would caution you against that approach. “When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self.”

Grandey’s research shows that it’s incredibly difficult to impose positivity from the top and actually exert a positive effect.

Emotional intelligence coach Janet Fouts, who’s worked in restaurants since childhood, shares from her lived experience. “It’s common for emotional exhaustion to result in employees exhibiting obvious, forced emotions, which further erodes mental health.”

Your most effective tool is leading by example. The hours may be long, and the patience of your customers short. Frustrations and setbacks are inevitable in any job. But instead of forcing your staff to pretend, allow them to share openly with co-workers behind the scenes. Then model the behavior you want to see in front of customers.

Not only will you earn respect from your staff for following your own advice, but over time, you can build shared ownership of a supportive work environment.

Practice mindfulness and hold space when team members need it most

Smiling icon to represent mindfulness, the quality of being present in the moment without judging your thoughts and feelings

Headspace defines mindfulness as the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment — free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.

In short, mindfulness allows you to pause and take stock of what’s happening, giving you space between your emotions and next actions. When used appropriately, it can help you focus and feel better emotionally and physically.

Many experts say healthy emotional regulation and coping mechanisms are the future of work for restaurants and retailers. In fact, in an article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Hugo J. E. M. Alberts and his co-authors found that for those working in emotionally demanding jobs, mindfulness promotes job satisfaction and helps prevent burnout from emotional exhaustion.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
– Viktor Frankl

Working in a volatile, high stress environment with intense physical pressure for long stretches of time is undeniably tiring. Everyone has a breaking point, and being pushed beyond it can lead normally kind and composed members of your team to snap — at customers, co-workers or even managers.

Similar to mindfulness, holding space is giving someone else the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings with the intent to listen and empathize without “fixing” or weighing in with your opinion. In the same way you’d want to feel heard and understood even if you didn’t handle a situation perfectly, your employees need that same grace.

That’s not to say you can’t coach employee performance when the time is right. But in the heat of the moment, providing your staff with space to be heard without judgment can be a powerful tool to work through challenging employee experiences in a healthy way. It could also keep them from feeling the need to go to social media to work through their feelings — or in a worst-case scenario, deciding it’s time to find a new job.

Put yourself in their shoes to achieve true team building

Consumer patterns changed during the pandemic. Even now, there are swells and drops in demand, concerns about inflation and layoffs. Maybe your restaurant is back at full capacity, or you’ve decided to limit store hours because your clientele prefers to shop and pay online.

Your employees are likely worried about how any changes will affect them. Being transparent and communicating in advance whenever you can prevents unnecessary speculation, and the clarity it provides makes employees feel valued and — you guessed it — motivated.

As much as we wish it wasn’t so, workplace conflict among co-workers is inevitable. It’s even more likely than usual when tensions are high. Instead of letting resentment simmer, enforce a policy of cooperative conflict with your staff.

Cooperative conflict is the search for a win-win solution. Instead of trying to defeat each other, both parties join together to attack the problem with the goal of a positive mutual outcome. It makes your team better problem solvers and brings focus back to the big picture instead of an isolated disagreement.

Plant store owner referencing Heartland's Holiday Resource Hub

Take on the holidays with confidence

Running payroll with the right partner is easy. Unlocking the secrets to employee motivation? Not so much. You have some fresh strategies to boost retention and create a positive work environment, which is a great first step into the holiday season.

But as we all know, the work of an entrepreneur is never done. It’s hard to ever really feel prepared for the surge of traffic small businesses face during the end of the year.

Luckily, Heartland is your one-stop-shop for checklists, guides and plenty of other downloadable resources to make this your best holiday season yet. Be sure to check out the Holiday Resource Hub today!


Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at heartland.us