Hospitality workers tell The Staff Canteen they don't get enough mental health support

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

This week, we asked you, hospitality workers, whether you feel like you're getting the support you need to deal with issues affecting your mental health. An overwhelming majority - 80 percent - came back to us and said that no, you're not.

On Wednesday, a new charity, Hospitality Health, was launched in Scotland. Complementing the work being done by Hospitality Action across the UK, the group hopes to help tackle issues affecting hospitality staff - mental illness, but also addictions and coping with loss - and by extension, the effects these problems have on business owners and managers.

We spoke to chefs Scott Smith, Dean Banks, Matthew Whitfield and Hospitality Health’s founder and Glasgow College Dean, Gordon McIntyre, to discuss why mental illness is such an endemic problem in the hospitality industry, and what should be done to address it.

Tough working conditions are an indisputable factor in triggering mental health issues in the industry. Staff often work long, antisocial hours, and must endure highly stressful conditions. This applies to chefs and front of house staff: the pressures may be different, but can have equally devastating effects.

All of this is made worse by sleep deprivation, and, the more fame and recognition a restaurant gets, the more its staff has to face criticism.

Most have only one, or two days off a week, and in most cases, these are weekdays, and rarely in a row.

What’s more, the old tradition of taking difficulty in one’s stride lives on: the 'get your head down, toughen up and get on with it' approach has been the way ever since Escoffier’s military-style code of conduct set the standard for kitchens around the world.

People are left with a fear of being stigmatised and bullied for speaking out, especially in male-dominated kitchens, where the archetype of masculinity lingers on.

To make things worse, mental illness can be caused by more than just working conditions, and rarely manifests itself in isolation. Alcoholism, drug and gambling addictions are rife within the industry.

While employers have most often been employees themselves, even if they do have compassion for their staff, they are rarely trained counsellors.

And, as Fhior chef patron Scott Smith remarked, business owners may have their own constraints to worry about; if they are already operating on a skeleton budget, paying sick leave might not be an option. "It's a horrible thing to have to think about,  but it can really have an effect, especially on small businesses," he said.

Some, like Gordon McIntyre and Dean Banks, Masterchef: The Professionals 2018 finalist, think that the issue is perhaps an indication that employees are less resilient than previous generations, and less able to deal with the stress and difficulties of the job.

Gordon said that back when he was training to be a chef,  things were different.

Gordon McIntyre: “You would get knocked down and you'd be given bad news but you'd sort of give yourself a shake and within the next day or two, you would be fine.”

"I think young people, the generation we've got working and training with the industry, they wouldn't have that ethic or that resilience to cope."

Meanwhile, Dean said the problems could come from "something deeper," naming education and upbringing as factors. Nonetheless, he added: "Mental health is a big issue around the UK and I would love to help. Sometimes all it takes is a chat."

For Scott Smith, there are better ways to learn how to cope 'than having them beaten in to you'.

Hospitality Health launch LR Peter McKenna Gordon McIntyre Namara Robertson
Chef Peter McKenna, The Gannet,  founder Gordon McIntyre and Grand Central Hotel team leader Namara Robertson
at  the Hospitality Health launch  on Wednesday


Where to next?

Most will agree that raising awareness of the issues at hand, and creating a climate in which staff feel comfortable talking about their problems is a good place to start.

Another means may be to teach employees how to deal with the setbacks and pitfalls of hospitality work, giving them the tools to cope.

This is the purpose of employee assistant programs, workshops and seminars offered by charities, as well as another service known as signposting, which involves linking to other groups offering different support.

One thing was clear in our followers' responses on social media: some employers are better at dealing with these problems than others:

But business owners and managers have things to learn too, such as how to recognise signs that their staff needs help and how to address it when they do.

It is here Hospitality Health hopes to help, with its wellness charter for employers given to businesses that can demonstrate that they are actively working to create a supportive culture, enabling people to report their experience of mental health issues without concern of stigma or discrimination.

Light at the end of the tunnel


Finally, adapting working conditions might be another way of ensuring that staff feel nurtured – giving them time to interact with their families, exercise, and rest - and it could benefit employers, too.

Matt Whitfield said switching to a four-day week was the first thing he did when he returned to the Montagu Arms, and that this allowed them 'to maintain a standard within the restaurant and within the food and have the same team five days a week'.

Scott  Smith: “It's a very easy thing to do and just say to the public 'well look what we're doing, we're doing good things' I'm not saying people who're doing that are doing it for the wrong reasons, I'm just saying that it can be for the wrong reasons.”

He added: "It also gives the team two days to relax, two days with their family, and we get a split shift every day so they go home and they see the family and they relax and then they come back fresh and new."

While cutting down working days can improve working conditions for chefs, it must be done for the right reasons; as long as it's not just virtue signalling. 

"It's a very easy thing to do and just say to the public 'well look what we're doing, we're doing good things.'" 

"I'm not saying people who're doing that are doing it for the wrong reasons, I'm just saying that it can be for the wrong reasons," Scott said. 

By Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 1st February 2019

Hospitality workers tell The Staff Canteen they don't get enough mental health support