Service with no smile: Hospitality’s strained mental health

Worldwide: Working in a service industry has never been an easy profession. The combined balancing acts of being efficient, courteous, welcoming and adaptable for a long shift create mental friction for even the most tenured professional. This goes double for those who work in hospitality, whose hours are irregular, whose efforts are expected to be extraordinary, and who work in businesses with extremely thin margins. These are all recipes for stress.

According to research from the Royal Society for Public Health [RSPH], four out of five hospitality workers report increased stress from their work, with one out of five listing it as a cause for major mental health concerns. Owners may experience additional layers on top of this, due to financial worries and beyond.

These are under normal circumstances as well. With the global pandemic essentially putting the industry on a freeze, those typical problems are now compounded with a lack of income, lack of work, lack of connection and an additional layer of uncertainty, meaning that right now may be the worst time ever for hospitality’s collective mental health.

Stress is a part of life, but it is a more significant part of a hospitality worker’s life than average. But the industry is not set up in a way that can effectively manage mental concerns or reduce the impact that it has on its employees.

Getting to this point is understandable when you consider the nuances of hospitality on a large and small scale.

Hospitality is, at its core, a tense industry to work it- whether you serve a barback, a a cleaner, or a general manager. The act of managing and dealing with customers while keeping both a positive attitude and keeping tabs on a wide variety of demands is stressful without considering additional extenuating factors.

Laura Capell-Abra, founder of events wellbeing think-tank Stress Matters, said: “One of the biggest issues is workload and client demand- the pure nature of the deadline driven industry we work in is that there is constantly work to be doing. But in terms of pressures, that isn’t going to change- there is always another booking, another event, another group of people coming along.”

While the nature of the industry is stressful, there are also few checks within the industry to ensure that wellbeing and mental health is being accounted for. While many individual managers may be caring, the lack of institutional support and specific provisioning for mental wellbeing allows many to fall through the cracks.

Furthermore, Hospitality Workers often struggle to get the key building blocks of wellbeing as a result of the way they work: Sleep and healthy eating.

Tim Etherington-Judge, founder of industry wellbeing advocacy group HealthyHospo, said: “Mental health and physical health are linked- whether you get good sleep will affect your mental health, what you eat can affect your mental health.”

Hospitality workers on most levels tend to work odd hours due to the nature of the industry. This schedule affects their ability to maintain consistent circadian rhythms, which in turn can raise their average stress.

From that lack of consistency comes an inability to be able to eat both regularly and with a strong diet. Etherington Judge adds: “You’ve just worked a long shift, you’re exhausted; the advice is to go cook at home, but I don’t want to spend an hour in the shops and then more cooking.”

This is not limited to just employees- those in positions of leadership are subject to the same mental burdens as those working at the ground floor. Managers have a greater level of responsibility for their teams and Hotel Owners, with stakes in the business, will feel every single mistake in their own finances.

That level of added responsibility can weigh on their staff, with 33 per cent of hospitality staff claiming that poor management is a contributing factor to their stresses with regard to work.

Jonathan Walker, interim managing director of Kaleidoscope Hotels said: “From a leadership point of view, you take on the responsibility of ‘how will this affect my people, how will I get cash into the business,’ and the responsibility of others’ lives that goes along with it. I think that does affect your wellbeing.”

That added responsibility often comes with added tasks, many of which are outside the purview of the expected role. Small business owners are particularly susceptible to this- taking on the role of handymen and plumbers in order to keep costs low.

These are not just individual issues; they affect the businesses they are a part of. Struggles with mental and physical health impact the productivity of an employee and can lead to additional sick leave taken due to stress-related illnesses.

At the worst level, major mental health issues can lead to lifelong mental illnesses if left undiscovered and untreated. Nearly ¼ of those surveyed by the RSPH in hospitality claimed to have a mental issue which required medical or psychological help.

The global pandemic has obviously multiplied many of these underlying issues by adding the insecurity of furlough or joblessness, as well as isolation. Many hospitality workers are stuck at home, without knowledge of whether their job will come back once the pandemic is over, and without the usual social networks that humans are reliant on to manage their mental health and stress responses.

Dhruv Kullar, Physician and researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York said to The Guardian: “We have evolved to be social creatures. For all the history of humanity, people have been in family structures, people have been in groups, we’re evolved to kind of crave and rely on that interaction with other human beings.”

Hospitality Action notes that isolation, alongside the consistent barrage of news, has led to heightened anxiety within significant portions of the UK. According to research from the ONS, nearly half of Britons over the age of 16 reported high feelings of anxiety due to the pandemic, much of which is due to a lack of work and a lack of income.

People know, however, the nature of this anxiety and how these stresses caused by lockdown are not normal. Capell-Abra adds: “People are very aware they’re going through a little emotional roller coaster and realising that there are phases in this that we are going through at different rates.”

Craig Prentice, founder of mum and now pause said: “Whilst we’re all in the same boat, a lot of people feel very alone, and feel like they’re in a very unique situation. Every person I speak to has an experience completely unique to them.”

With all these factors, those who seek to return to work in the post pandemic period may come with cumulative struggles on top of their regular career stresses. Fortunately, though, the industry’s understanding of and resources for mental health struggles may be the best it’s ever been. Though many may find few resources around them, organisations such as HealthyHospo, Mind, Hospitality Action and more have a wide array of resources targeted to help improve the lives of those struggling.

These groups are also willing to serve as advocates for hospitality professionals as a whole and attempt to address systemic issues in the wider industry. For some, this includes advocating for a wide shift

Etherington-Judge added “Over the last 20 years, we have built our industry on the back of very cheap and vulnerable labour with rasor thin margins for operators. I think we have an opportunity to ask now ‘is that the right model,’.”

Others are providing opportunities for those furloughed or otherwise stuck at home to either upskill or simply keep active during this time. HospoLive organises many fitness and wellbeing courses, Caterer and Healthy Hospo are partnering for an article series about wellbeing, while Mental Health Aware UK has launched a targeted set of Covid-19 wellbeing courses. StressMatters offers a programme called Buddies Matter, which partners events professionals up to give them people to talk to during this time.

Groups like La Maison Wellness and Club Soda have introduced a combination cocktails and mindfulness programme. Caterer, UKHospitality and more are offering their platforms to either teach new skilled to furloughed workers or convert their skillset into tools to combat the virus.

Certain companies have aspired to different scale, such as RedDoorz, who are providing counselling to owners, employees and company staffers, via online mediums. They hope to tackle these issues in the Asian market, where in China, 53.8 per cent of surveyed individuals rated the impact of the pandemic as severe. Apex Hotels in Edinburgh, with their emphasis on wellbeing, have partnered with a mental health focused social enterprise to improve the accessibility and conversations about mental health within the industry as a whole.

Most important for any business is of course ensuring that there is a constant line of communication between management and workers. Many hospitality businesses already manage that successfully, even if it is not phrased in the language of health and wellbeing.

Mark Pennels, owner of Chiseldon House in Swindon said: “You need to have key people working alongside the team every day who are on a daily basis approachable. From a more senior base, such as myself, it’s taking the time to have a coffee with someone, for a catch-up, for a chat. Everyone who works for me has my mobile number and knows they can call me for a private, confidential chat, either for work or personal reasons.”

While individual efforts may be able to improve the problem, Industry level changes are necessary in order to ensure that mental health can be prioritised. For some, a shift away from the low margins and inconsistent work will solve much of the problem.

For others it’s ensuring that the shift is one of culture- making wellbeing a priority in the minds of the industry’s leaders. This may require less of a systemic overarching view and more of a specific view depending on the businesses being run. Individual businesses may need to ensure that their culture is one where openness is possible and have team members in place designed to be points of contact.

But this doesn’t inherently need to be an enormous overnight shift, small opportunities for improvement are essential.

Frazer McGlinchey of HospoLive and Happysense notes: “One thing I’m very conscious of is Accessibility- it needs to relate to how people in the industry actually live and work. There’s no need to tell people to go to bed at the same time every night when they can’t actually do that. If we can raise the base level of kindness, of how people treat themselves and each other, then that becomes the norm.”

Improving this part of our industry not only makes it a kinder industry to be a part of, it can also decidedly improve tangible elements of business. In addition to reducing sick days, a strong focus on mental health and people centred culture can reduce turnover rate within a business and give people a chance to grow within the industry as a whole.

Within this, Covid-19 may be able to force those within the industry to focus on mental health in a way it had not previously. The shared trauma of isolation and insecurity can provide a common platform to not only build up that base level of kindness, but to also to create a healthier, better industry in its wake.

Prentice adds: “I think this will separate the wheat and the chaff in so many different ways. I think one of those will be mental health and wellbeing.”

There are signs already that some have made mental health a grander priority. Julia Hart of Ayoola Serviced Accommodation predicts that shifting the conversation around mental health is essential both for staff and for guests following this crisis. The shift by many platforms, such as Airbnb and Fairytrail, to virtual experiences is in part driven by that desire to reduce anxiety during these troubling times.

These signs are promising, demonstrating that the hospitality industry is shifting to become more aware and responsive to mental health needs. However, many of the underlying issues, the insecurities and beyond still need to be addressed. Hospitality prides itself on being an industry about people, about ensuring that our guests are well taken care of and that their worries can go away while they spend time at our properties. It is only fitting that we take that mentality to our people as well.