Healthier, happier hospitality12 April 2021
Even before the pandemic, more than half of hospitality workers did not make their employers aware of their mental health issues. Throw in the financial insecurity and social isolation caused by continual lockdowns and it becomes clear that the hospitality industry could be in the midst of a looming mental health crisis. Elly Earls speaks to Tim Etherington-Judge, founder of Healthy Hospo; Sue Harmsworth, founder of ESPA; and Mark Lewis, CEO of Hospitality Action, about how hoteliers can support staff and guests during this difficult period.
From the outside, it looked like Tim Etherington- Judge had it made. As global ambassador for a drinks brand, he was flying from exotic destination to exotic destination teaching people how to select whisky. ‘How did you manage to land a gig like that?’ was a question he had to field all too frequently, while inside he was asking himself how he could get out of it. He was in the air more than he was at home and his almost constant travel schedule had led to a toxic combination of poor nutrition, little exercise, irregular sleep and social isolation, on top of excessive alcohol consumption, which eventually culminated in a suicide attempt in a hotel room in 2016.
Unfortunately, this was far from an isolated incident. When Etherington-Judge started talking publicly about his experiences, he received hundreds of messages from other people in the hospitality industry telling similar stories. Because he had opened up and been vulnerable, they felt they could too.
Research from Hospitality Action, a charity that offers mental health support to employees in the industry, shows that they weren’t the only ones suffering in silence. A 2018 survey revealed that four out of five hospitality employees found their job stressful some or most of the time, and half found it stressful most or all of the time. Four out of five also believed stress levels had increased in the past three years, while over half (56%) did not make employers aware of their mental health problems.
It is even more concerning that suicide – already the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – disproportionately affects hospitality workers.
“Hospitality is an all-consuming industry to work in – more of a vocation than a job,” says Mark Lewis, CEO of Hospitality Action. “It still often demands long hours, total dedication and hard physical work. The adrenaline rushes and crashes of service can send stress levels soaring. In terms of reputation, the stakes are higher than ever: thanks to social media, you’re only as good as your last dish, cocktail or guest stay, placing employees under constant pressure to deliver to the highest possible standards.”
Etherington-Judge founded Healthy Hospo in 2018 to try and build a healthier, happier hospitality industry. He says that starts with sleep – arguably one of the biggest issues for hospitality employees. “If you work in an office, you work nine to five every day; your entire working world is set up around a natural circadian rhythm,” he explains. “In hospitality, you’re often awake when your body wants to be asleep and vice versa. Sleep is the recovery process for the body and mind, it’s a fundamental biological need.”
Irregular hours can also lead to isolation and loneliness. “Because you work outside of the nine to five office hours, you not only feel excluded from society, you can quite easily become excluded from friends and family,” he says.
In addition, poor nutrition has ironically become a mainstay of the hospitality sector. “It’s built into those phrases like ‘never trust a skinny chef’,” Etherington- Judge says. Some US studies have also shown that hospitality has the highest level of drug abuse of any industry and the third-highest rate of alcohol abuse, while bartenders are more likely to die of alcoholrelated disease than any other type of worker. “Drinking is never the cause of the problem. It’s either the result of an existing problem or it amplifies existing problems,” says Etherington-Judge. “It’s the ease of access that makes it a problem.”
Of course, all of this is stacked on top of an industry built on unequal financial foundations. “It’s not just the frontline workers who get paid the lowest pay of any workers in the industry; it’s also the owners and operators who are working on very thin margins,” says Etherington-Judge. “When something like Covid comes along and everything is forced to close, there’s no rainy-day fund and the industry collapses.”
Rebuild the industry
All that said, Etherington-Judge wouldn’t have founded Healthy Hospo if he didn’t believe things could change. In fact, he believes Covid has given the sector a chance to rebuild itself in a healthier, more compassionate – and more profitable – way. “Embracing that opportunity is really key as we come out of this. We need to ask ourselves what kind of industry we want to work in,” he says.
“If you look at the corporate world over the last ten to 15 years, they’ve realised that their staff are their number one asset and that investing in staff delivers multiples for their bottom line. Although hospitality is one of the most people-focused businesses you can find, it hasn’t done that to the same extent.”
According to Jeremy McCarthy, group director of spa and wellness at Mandarin Oriental, this is partly because of the difficulty of measuring the ROI of employee wellbeing programmes. While hotel groups that deliver these initiatives generally believe they have a positive effect on employee performance and the bottom line, he believes, it’s harder to gauge the direct impact of improved mental wellbeing compared with physical health. The knock-on effect is an environment where employees feel unable to put their hand up and talk openly about their mental health challenges. “‘It’s time to talk’ has to become a pan-industry mantra,” Lewis stresses. “When people internalise mental wellness challenges, they’re more likely to grow and manifest themselves in symptoms like alcohol or substance abuse, lateness and loss of focus in the workplace.”
Lewis advises hotel bosses to send some team members on mental health first aid training, lay on mindfulness sessions and show their teams they’re welling to create an environment in which they don’t feel stigmatised for struggling with their mental wellbeing. “Lead from the front: we all experience stress and anxiety from time to time, and when a manager or owner is frank about their own experiences, it gives other people the permission to do the same,” he says.
The challenge of defining wellness
There is a slight irony here, given that phrases such as ‘mental wellbeing’ and ‘individual welfare’ are well used in hotel spa brochures and meditation workshops. With these kinds of facilities at their disposal, hotels are arguably the best placed hospitality businesses to support their staff emotionally.
“Hotels need to talk to their spas, because all the tools for deflecting negative energy and dealing with anger and emotional issues are there and can really help them,” says ESPA founder Sue Harmsworth, who now sits on the boards of the Global Wellness Institute and the Global Wellness Summit as well as consulting with hotel brands. “You’d be surprised how much of a difference it makes if a spa director leads a morning meditation or some breathwork. Find out your therapist’s skills and start using them.”
In recent years, Mandarin Oriental has had a robust colleague wellness programme in place, which delivers a range of guest wellness initiatives to staff, including meditation and mindfulness lessons. The latest is its ‘Inner Strength – Outer Strength’ course, which is divided into physical, mental and character strength.
The challenge for both staff and guest wellbeing programmes, according to Harmsworth, is knowing the difference between what she calls ‘light wellness’ – eating a healthy diet, doing some yoga, having a great massage, keeping up with an exercise programme – and when somebody needs greater support.
“There’s going to be an over-marketing of wellness, mental health and sleep programmes because everyone is trying to get on the bandwagon,” she says. “As an industry, we’ve got to take it seriously. Many hotels are offering sleep programmes at the moment and I think that can be dangerous if you can’t recognise the signs [of a deeper problem].”
She believes investment in therapist training is going to be crucial, particularly as the emotional impact of the pandemic become clearer. “Spas will have all these things thrown at them – bereavement issues, anxiety issues, mental health issues, resilience issues – and they don’t know how to deal with it any more than cancer,” she says.
Support for hotel employees
Together, Healthy Hospo and Hospitality Action cover both bases for staff. The former’s mission is largely preventative. “We’re standing at the top of the cliff trying to stop people from falling off in the first place,” Etherington-Judge explains.
This is done through physical workshops and a digital app, both broken down into pillars. There are lessons on sleep, nutrition, exercise, human connection, stress and anxiety. But users can also access business management modules on how to build healthier businesses – for example, writing smart rosters where the health of employees is taken into account.
Hospitality Action agrees that, where possible, problems are best resolved before they become acute, but it also offers a range of resources, including therapy and grants, designed for hospitality employees who are in difficulty or crisis.
“I beg every manager to tell their teams about Hospitality Action’s online mental wellbeing resources,” Lewis says. Its current centrepiece is a ‘Lockdown Lessons’ video featuring hospitality staff talking frankly about their own mental health challenges and coping mechanisms. The charity also offers a paid-for Employee Assistance Programme that allows employers to invest in the health and wellbeing of their team members.
When Etherington-Judge was going through therapy after his suicide attempt, he remembers his therapist telling him he should leave the hospitality industry, that it wasn’t the right place for him. But after reading hundreds of stories just like his, he couldn’t stop asking himself what kind of man he would be if he walked away and ignored such a common problem. “Maybe I’ve started to make an impact now,” he says. “Let’s see how far I can take it.”
Hospitality staff did not make their employers aware of their mental health problems.