It’s the dead of winter and the slowest time of the year for coffee shops, and Starbucks baristas are feeling the pinch. Employees are posting online about how shift cuts and understaffing has them working espresso machines at an unreasonable rate, while scrambling to pay rent and qualify for full benefits. In recent weeks, Starbucks workers have revived a petition demanding that Starbucks do something about its “lack of labor” and “sinking morale.”
On Monday, in the midst of these complaints, Starbucks announced a new mental health benefit to its employees: free access to the trendy meditation app Headspace, which has been valued at $1 billion, and costs subscribers $69.99 for an annual subscription.
“As of today we’ve added Headspace to our suite of comprehensive benefits and resources to support our partners, as research shows many mental health-related benefits of meditation,” the company wrote Monday on its website. “Partners can sign up for a free Headspace subscription and have access to hundreds of themed sessions and easy guided meditations on everything from stress and sleep to focus and anxiety.”
A spokesperson from Starbucks told Motherboard that 30,000 workers signed up for the app within days. "The development and decision to expand our mental health benefits have come as a result of direct engagement from out partners in the US and Canada," the spokesperson said.
It’s no surprise that the app has become a favorite of big employers in recent years, as companies look to retain workers in a tight labor market—and improve business in ways that appear socially responsible. Starbucks is the latest of several hundred corporate partnerships the app has with companies including Adobe, LinkedIn, and General Electric.
On its website, Headspace advertises its “proven” ability to make more efficient workers by increasing “focus” while decreasing “stress.” “Three weeks of Headspace shows 21% more compassionate behavior, and cuts aggression and reactivity to negative feedback by 57%,” Headspace says on its website. In other words, Headspace helps quell employee disgruntlement that could lead to employee organizing, and helps improve worker efficiency, which employers like Starbucks love.
Unlike many other low wage fast food chains, Starbucks already offers many benefits intended to improve employee retention, including in-patient and out-patient mental health services—and six free visits to a mental health counselor. And last year, it launched a campaign to improve employee mental health, perhaps to avoid more of the union campaigns it faced in the early 2000s. (Last November, Chipotle announced the launch of mental health benefits for workers.)
Alongside Monday’s announcement about Headspace, the company said that in the coming months it will “reimagine” its short-term mental health counseling program with feedback from workers and mental health experts, as well as provide mental health training for all U.S. and Canada store managers.
But Starbucks avoids the real problem in its plan for improving employee mental health. Workers are fed up with irregular schedules, reduced hours, and understaffing—all things which, of course, increase stress, anxiety, and depression at work.
"We know these seasonal impacts don’t have a one size fits all solution," the spokesperson from Starbucks said. "As we always do, we take our partners feedback to heart and want to do our part in making sure we are providing the best experience for our partners and customers."
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Starbucks.