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Choppy Waters

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

1 in 4 people working in the hospitality sector suffer with some form of mental health problem.

Let that sink in. 1 in4.

Mental health of employees continues to be a pressing issue across the modern workplace, and the hospitality sector is no different to any other. In fact, with long hours and high-pressure working environments, working in a hospitality business can challenge the mental wellbeing of even the happiest of workers.

First up, let me say this - I am no expert on this subject, so any statistical information is taken from official sources. Being an expert though, is not what this post is about, This post is about being an average Joe, with a good heart. The average Joe who cares enough to try and understand the pain that some in our society are going through. I wouldn't be the man I am without these qualities, I couldn't be a close confidant without this quality, and I definitely shouldn't be anywhere near a business leadership role without it. I love my career as a leader in hospitality and retail, and the thought that 25% of my staff suffer so badly breaks my heart. When I think about it further, that's at least 1 person in every single average family unit... Now that is frightening.

in 2022, it is at last OK, to not be OK and ask for support

Each year Mental Health Awareness Week has its own theme. Whatever that is, be it nature or well-being - for me it will always be about doing that one thing for better mental health - that one thing could simply be about offering the best support I can provide to those in distress. I say this because whether you personally suffer from depression, or suffered with loneliness, or know someone who suffers in silence - it is important to educate yourself & also essential for our society to be able to help those around us.

You see, our mental health is just like our physical health: everybody has it and we need to take care of it. There appear to be more and more people using the phrase 'I have a problem with my mental health' than ever before, the stigma around acknowledgement has been reduced, and as I said at the start, in 2022 it is at last OK, to not be OK and ask for support. Being told to 'man up' just won't cut it I'm afraid.

"Mental health problems affect around one in four people in any given year. They range from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder" - Mind

What about the leaders, and the people that work in our brilliant hospitality businesses. Managers and teams alike. What about them? I believe more intensely now than I ever have - we are facing a crisis. This crisis is not just about a pandemic hangover and the ongoing after effects of the cost of living crisis - but also the impact those things have on our mental well-being. Our restricted movement, and our restricted social interaction adding to the ongoing rise in cases of loneliness for example.

Only yesterday, I was having a conversation with a leader in a hospitality business who was saying how much he had missed going to watch football during lockdown. He had decided to fill his time differently, volunteering through the pandemic and dedicating his time to personal and family well-being. He is a lucky leader, emotionally intelligent and self aware. So many are not. So many fell into despair, and are still struggling to get out of that dark place.

It is a sad statistic, that many people, and the number is rising dramatically, that work in the hospitality and retail sectors suffer from depression, anxiety and loneliness.


Hospitality life on edge

They lead their lives as normal; smiling, laughing, polite and level headed people - performing well at work. A major part of their personal make up is around socialising. Their work dictates social interaction, and so it stands to reason that they are more than most, highly leveraged social butterflies after work also (or were before it all went tits up in 2020). The fall into depression and anxiety, lonliness and fear within this sector, through and beyond the pandemic, has been heavy and quick. In 2019 a survey of 2,000 workers was conducted by job seeker site CV Library in hospitality businesses, specifically around mental health issues. The results are a huge wake up call for all of us, as we chase to repair the damage done, and prevent further harm.

55% of hospitality workers believe their boss wouldn’t care about their concerns around mental health

This is a particularly damning statistic, and if retaken now, in 2022, following all the working; not working; furlough; consultation and redundancy chat - I believe that today, the result would be worse. The full survey pulled out 5 rather damning statistics for all hospitality and business leaders, with 5 key points worthy of note for me.

  1. 62% of hospitality professionals are too afraid to tell their employer that they’re suffering with poor mental health

  2. 33% of hospitality workers fear they’d be judged unfairly if they told their boss about their concerns

  3. 28.6% simply believe their employer is unapproachable.

  4. 18.9% of people fear their bosses reaction to asking for time off

  5. 55% of those surveyed said their boss 'wouldn’t care' or would show indifference toward their concerns around mental health.

There is no doubt these are choppy waters for hospitality businesses to navigate.

The pandemic decimated our industry, leaving a trail of unjustified redundancy and extreme worry on the workforces affected. Two years on, and those businesses that have survived are now facing a tsunami of soaring costs. In addition to rocketing energy prices, for example, operators are facing a 19% rise in labour costs; a 17% hike in food prices and a 14% growth in drink prices. While many are trying to absorb as much as they can, operators are expecting to have to pass on a significant increase in prices to consumers. There is no doubt these are choppy waters for hospitality businesses to navigate.

Even so - what does it say about an industry, when nearly 1 in 5 of staff actually fear your reaction to opening up how they feel? We should be ashamed. We are creating a vicious whirlpool where staff start to underperform, which only compounds their private struggles with mental health. Make-up, clothes and a smile are easy ways to mask the issues faced and hide them from everyone around us, whilst we may be anything but alright inside. The warning signs are there for hospitality leaders, especially when we consider that one in four people suffer mental health problems.

What are the practical things we can do to help, and what are the main causes for employees to feel the struggle with mental health? The 2019 survey suggested that poor work-life balance, long hours at low pay and high tensions in workplaces are just some contributing factors to everyday stress for those in the hospitality industry. It is interesting that low pay gets lost in the middle of this sentence, because financial burdens and worries about the cost of living crisis, are the main contributors in general to worsening mental health today - in hospitality this is accentuated by the relentless pace of work in one of the most under-staffed, lowest paid sectors. Regardless of the inflating cost of labour this is still true.

So, does providing adequate financial recognition improve mental health?

If you are sitting in a multi million pound profitable business, and arguing the point for shareholder dividend over team welfare, at a time of crisis for everybody - you deserve to fail.

Physical entities like money, which buys food, shelter and water, are often underestimated when it comes to workplace mental health. While money doesn’t buy happiness, it helps us manage our lives and keep them stable. Whilst money has a value, it also helps us feel valued when distributed appropriately. We all know what happens when we do not learn these lessons.

Recognition improves mood - Recognition Lowers anxiety

Be honest if you are a leader of business, and you do not see the value of recognition - you deserve to fail. If you are sitting in a multi million pound business, and arguing the point for shareholder dividend over team welfare, at a time of crisis for everybody - you deserve to fail. It can not be made any clearer than that.

If there’s one thing to remember, how you treat your employees in difficult times will be remembered for years, whether good or bad, and it’ll have a lasting impact on employee loyalty, engagement and productivity. For certain - serving up lip service to employee mental health issues, and dishing out virtue signals for the benefit of onlookers is not useful. Real, practical, honest care and attention is.

Further reading: 10 companies that took care of their employees at a difficult time


It takes real courage to tell people around you about your problems. You never know how they will react. We must encourage conversation, We must be supportive when people are brave enough to tell us. We must give our people a chance to trust us as their leaders, as a friendly ear or a substitute therapist. When was the last time you asked how somebody was, and really, truthfully, listened to their answer?

Robbie Williams - a well known sufferer of depression and anxiety says: "Depression isn’t about, ‘Woe is me, my life is this, that and the other’, it’s like having the worst flu all day that you just can’t kick"

I am yet to find a business that truly values employee mental health. Most big businesses that I know are still trying to manoeuvre around traditional processes of reward and recognition in order to protect some kind of mythical process structure. These are the ones that don't understand the people, they only understand the process; these are the ones that complain about the struggle, yet their own behaviour contributes directly to their struggle, and to the struggle of their employees. Paying lip service to your employee's mental health struggle is simply not good enough, we need to engage and accept reality - their reality, not ours.

This opinion is about encouraging all hospitality leaders to reach out and be kind. This is about using the opportunity of national mental health awareness programs to get the message out there.

Our team members rely on us all the time, and those in extra need, well they absolutely need to know they are safe in our hands.

Don't you think ?

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