'You can either spiral up or spiral down. And it's a choice that businesses have to make'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Last month, The Burnt Chef project published the results of a survey of hospitality workers past and present on what they believe is driving the industry's staffing crisis.

Among the main takeaways, 40 percent of respondents said they have struggled with their mental health in the past year; 42 percent reported a decline in their mental wellbeing since reopening and one in five people said they were planning on leaving the industry in the next twelve months. 

A majority of respondents said an improvement of work-life balance and 'feeling valued’ would be the two most likely ways of improving recruitment and retention in hospitality. 

Chef Adrian Oliver's reaction to the survey was that "it's not rocket science." And yet, the chef feels that his ex-employers made mistakes.

"For me, it's a false economy,"  said the founder of the Cornish Field Kitchen, chef owner of Margot's in Padstow for 16 years and winner of the 2019 Great Sausage Roll Off. "People who pay a little bit more and provide better conditions for their staff get a better product and a better bottom line."

"But because the bottom line is so relevant and so strong in some people's mind, they don't see the bigger picture."

Where he worked, staff were made to feel indebted for the furlough they were being paid, even though most of it came directly from the tax-pot. 

"That was annoying," he said, especially seeing as in parallel, "they had a war chest for purchasing hotels, millions, hundreds of millions," "but they couldn't dip into that to pay their current staff." 

"When we went back, we were repositioned. I was salaried, and then it was, 'no, you're on a zero-hour contract' and there would be a 25 percent pay cut on anything over £15,000 a year - allegedly across the board." 

"It seemed quite a fair way of having a pay cut, if there is such a thing. I was just a little bit like, I don't know if you can legally rip up someone's contract and say, 'right, okay, now you're on zero hours.' But the tone was basically, 'that's all we can do, you can either accept it or not."

"It was accepted by pretty much everybody. And now there's a massive shortage." 

What with it being the year of staycations, Cornwall is "absolutely swamped with people, and we haven't got any staff," he said. 

"You think, 'well if you'd put more thought into looking after what you had at the time, you wouldn't be struggling as much.'" 

Comparing his former place of work with another hotel with a reputation for being a good employer, he said: "I think they pay a little bit better, but that's not the point. They seem to look after their staff a bit better and they're not struggling to find staff. And they have a better product.'" 

"It's probably easy for me to say because I don't own a chain of hotels," he said, but having employed people himself, "I always understood the value of them. I tried to look after them as best I could because without them I couldn't operate." 

To his mind, no matter the size of the business, "hotel chain or tiny bistro, the principle is always the same." 

"You're not going to get the best staff -  and the ones you do, you're going to put under pressure - if it doesn't feel like they're loved and appreciated. They will struggle and the whole industry will struggle."

And because the issues are affecting all businesses, not just the ones that aren't taking care of their teams, "there needs to be a fundamental change, but whether they'll react to that I don't know."

To his mind, any businesses that wish to be viable in the future need to step it up.

"The ones that do well will look after [their staff], pay them appropriately, things that are just sensible. They'll stand a far better chance of getting through to the other side." 

"As an industry we're known as being flexible and problem-solving. We do stuff on the fly and do what's necessary. It has to happen." 

Those businesses who can forge a reputation for taking care of their staff and paying them well, "will thrive." 

While he is convinced that now is the time for hospitality to learn its lessons, he said, "I'm not optimistic."

"My gut says the accountants will rule the roost and we'll end up having less and less skilled people in kitchens and front of house, because they won't be able to attract the right people because they won't pay people right or provide the right conditions."

In short, he said, "you can either spiral up or spiral down. And it's a choice that businesses have to make." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 24th August 2021

'You can either spiral up or spiral down. And it's a choice that businesses have to make'