How General Mills is relying on neuroscience to tackle worker stress

This is the fourth in a series spotlighting five leading companies that relied on HR innovation to confront the challenges of the pandemic and to continue transforming their workforces. Read about:

  • Bank of America’s work with disabled employees here
  • Verizon’s efforts around working women here
  • How PWC relies on wellbeing here


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Last spring, employers around the world shuttered in-person operations, challenging HR to help remote workers navigate their new reality. At General Mills, however, HR faced a different task: keeping factory workers physically safe, mentally sound and engaged in their work during such a high-stress period.

While operations slowed in many industries as the pandemic took hold, high demand for grocery products last year drove up the need for all-hands-on-deck at General Mills manufacturing plants.

HR quickly saw fatigue set in among workers, as many worked overtime and avoided taking time off to meet product demand.

General Mills announced in April 2020 that on-site employees would receive daily bonuses and that non-manufacturing employees would be invited to work in factories to alleviate some of the burden.

Kristina Morton of General Mills

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To boost morale and keep employees engaged despite the conditions, Kristina Morton, vice president of HR, supply chain, at General Mills, says the organization turned to the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed consultancy. Dr. David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the organization, advised General Mills to create solutions focused on both rewards and autonomy.

When you activate “reward networks” in the brain, he says–such as by giving employees a choice in a matter, letting them think about that choice, make it independently and then enjoy the consequences of that choice–it can fuel satisfaction.

In keeping with that strategy, General Mills rolled out the Gift of Choice initiative to approximately 10,000 workers in its North America manufacturing plants. Employees were given three options: They could take an extra paid day off of their choice, receive a $250 bonus or direct the donation of $250 to a charity of their choice.

Ultimately, 59% chose the day off, 39% opted for the bonus and 2%–about 120 workers–donated the money.

The program was a boon for engagement, Morton says.

“It really demonstrated that the extra effort to make this happen was worth it,” notes Morton. “The science gave us confidence to test out this idea. We are excited about what we are learning and are now bringing similar concepts into our recognition and retention efforts.”

See also: How much are employers investing in wellness programs?

David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute

Rock adds that introducing the autonomy concept to rewards and recognition programs can “help people manage their stress levels and the chaos that’s been in the last year or so. We’ve been briefing HR teams to solve for autonomy: It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

As organizations around the country plan for a post-pandemic world, that may mean giving employees a choice of where to work.

“It can be tempting for business leaders to try to regain their own sense of autonomy by trying to force everyone back to the office,” Rock notes. “We think that’s a mistake.”

Related: Register here to learn more about how leading employers are leveraging tech to address worker burnout at HR Tech, Sept. 28-Oct. 1 in Las Vegas.


Writer Carol Brzozowski contributed to this story.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].