Moving beyond a mental health crisis in hospitality

As someone who has experienced mental ill health due to work stress in the past, it has been painful to lead through a two-year period where poor mental health has not just been common, but at times normalised. Hospitality workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s challenges; they have ridden the initial impact of covid, the isolation and financial impact of furlough, returned to a short-staffed workplace with the ongoing instability of new covid variants; all exacerbated by a rising cost of living.

I discussed these issues with colleagues from household name venues across the hospitality sector, including the Ivy Collection, BAFTA and the Royal Academy, as part of a series of Good Work dinners we are hosting at the House of St Barnabas, and whilst it made me downhearted that there was so much shared experience on this topic, the commitment to create real change reassured me.. There has never been a time where employees and employers have been so open about the importance of mental health in the workplace – and never has been there so much attention on what we can do about it. The hospitality industry has long had issues with some of its working practices, and this recent crisis gives us the opportunity for a fundamental shift in how we nurture the wellbeing of our teams.

Many of our teams have found themselves struggling with their mental health for the first time due to the combination of factors above. Managers and Head Chefs have been providing intense emotional support to colleagues daily, at the expense of business as usual. And many employees, particularly in kitchens, have soldiered on without accessing support as they didn’t feel able to ask for help. Some, despite being stretched, have taken on additional hours or second jobs to cope with the increasing cost of living.

As a leader in this context in hospitality, there is a constant balance between supporting the wellbeing of staff and delivering the expectations of customers and  a viable business. Hampered by two years of closure and restrictions, businesses have an urgent need to recoup recent losses and create financial stability. Customer habits have changed too, with bookings and cancellations at much shorter notice, making footfall much less predictable and harder to plan for.

Hospitality leaders were clear that they hadn’t lost hope, but some have made a conscious decision to stop communicating a timetable by which things will be better, as one unexpected challenge after another continue to make stability feel out of reach: a train strike, a covid surge, a heat wave.

But encouragingly, all the employers around the table were committed to the idea that work should be both mentally and physically safe, and fun, and we all had a responsibility to create this environment. There was a sense that we need to strap in for the new normal – and finding new ways of operating that do prioritise staff wellbeing alongside the customer experience had to be an absolute flagship of future models.

Although there was a shared recognition that things aren’t getting easier any time soon, here are 5 inspiring examples from colleagues across the sector of what works in creating physically and mentally healthy places to work in hospitality right now:

  1. Build a Mental Health Awareness Culture; prioritise and build awareness of mental health, training mental health first aiders and giving them the scope to educate others
  2. Be honest with teams that things aren’t perfect, avoid giving false hope or deadlines for when things that we can’t control will be different. Listen to the challenges and be transparent about what we can and can’t fix – and be honest with customers about what is – and isn’t – deliverable in this new context
  3. Recruit trainers in restaurants to take pressure of managers and work alongside junior staff to build skills and standards on the job, taking the pressure of managers in depleted workforces
  4. Celebrate the small wins, give daily feedback to individuals, and recognise the progress and success that is achieved every day, however challenging
  5. Recognise and resource HR, our people teams have carried us through these hard times and stayed strong for everyone else throughout. Let’s reward and resource them to keep developing.

We certainly aren’t perfect on all of these things at the House, but we are committed to getting there. And I’m excited that the hospitality sector will look back on the pandemic as a turning point for the better on employee mental health.

Read more about our series of dinners focused on Good Work here.


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