Shake Shack’s chief people officer shares concrete advice on maintaining employee well-being

Covid-19 pummeled the restaurant industry. Here's what Shake Shack offers to keep employees feeling physically and psychologically healthy at work.
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· 5 min read

Despite companies dumping buckets of money into employee well-being, an April Gallup poll found that the percentage of American workers who believe that their organization cares about their overall well-being halved between 2020 and 2022, falling from a record high of 49% early in the pandemic to a near decade low of 24%.

Gallup categorized these findings as “critical” to organizations, given that their data suggests employees who believe their companies care about their well-being are less likely to search for another job or experience burnout.

One company that understands the ROI of well-being acutely and how the pandemic has disrupted even the best-laid plans for employee experience investments is the fast-casual restaurant Shake Shack.

Prior to the pandemic, Shake Shack rolled out initiatives to reduce turnover (a problem that frequently plagues the restaurant industry), such as piloting a four-day workweek and promoting from within.

Then, Covid-19 walloped the restaurant industry. In 2021, the company put its four-day workweek pilot program on pause and laid off or furloughed over 1,000 workers—Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti told Fortune that it was the first time the company had made such a move.

Now, after company sales have bounced back and the furloughed workers have been hired back, we sat down to talk with Diane Neville, Shake Shack’s chief people officer, to discuss how the company supported workers through the last two years and thanked them for sticking it out through the tough times.

This interview was conducted for HR Brew’s May 17 virtual event on the topic of “Blending Workplace Well-being and Productivity.” It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Diane Neville smiles

We’re coming out of a pandemic, and you work with people who have to be in the field. How do you ensure the psychological safety of people coming in every day?

We have to say, “Here’s where we are, what we’re going to do as an organization to make sure you feel safe to come to work,” whether that’s the PPE on hand [or] how you keep distanced…Then there’s the mental toll that the last few years has taken on everyone. So what are the resources that we can provide…[like] our HR hotline…[or] employee assistance program, which is a third-party program that gives you those resources.

The other piece is guiding our managers to check in. Think about your teams. Make sure they know that you care about it, and you’re really actually listening…People often ask, “Why do people leave an employer?” There’s really one thing, and it’s, “Do they feel valued?” They feel valued when you listen.

Let’s talk more about your EAP. Nationwide, there’s a low number of employees that actually use an employee assistance program—rates hover between 3% and 6%, depending on who you ask. Do you find that employees at Shake Shack use the employee assistance plan?

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We are finding a good adoption and the adoption did go up in the COVID moment. Generally, it is anywhere from 3% to 6%—but it also depends on the employee assistance program you’re offering. Ours is a little more robust. We have it for legal counseling; we have it if you’re considering a divorce; we have it for financial wellness; how to build a budget…One of our differentiating pieces for our EAP is sometimes you can call one [EAP, and] it's more like a hotline, and you may get a different representative every time [you call]. We actually set you up with the same individual for six free visits… So we feel great about that, because now somebody gets to know you as a person and an individual.

I am glad that you mentioned the financial wellness component of it. Y’all put more money in your people’s pockets—$9 million for your hourly staff. Tell me how you decided to reevaluate wages, why 2021 was the time, and how finances play into the conversation of well-being?

We always want to make sure we are competitive in the marketplace. So we always look at it biannually…It’s become an even more competitive landscape with the Great Resignation over the last nine months…Our biggest piece was [focusing] on an elevated guest experience, and the only way you provide an elevated guest experience is making sure your team members feel like their experience is elevated. So we knew if we supported them in this moment and gave them 10% extra raises and end-of-the-year bonuses, they would understand that we were valuing them, which in turn then works for our guests.

And then it’s a safety piece. I know I have a job. There was a period of time where many restaurants didn’t know if they were going to make it. Do I have a job tomorrow? Many individuals were laid off—we wanted to make that commitment. And when you feel secure in your job, it allows you to feel more secure at home, it allows you to have that financial savings…

The second piece was, it was a big thank-you: “Thank you for sticking through it with us. Thank you for being who you are, and taking care of our guests.”

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.