'It's been forced to come to the forefront, and we have to talk about it'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Talking about mental health can Make some people feel uneasy.

However, there are many good reasons to do it anyway. As people become more comfortable with talking about it, they become more knowledgable, learning to address their own struggles and to help others face theirs. 

At The Staff Canteen, we are hosting a series of discussions with The Burnt Chef project founder Kris Hall, and industry leaders who are breaking real ground and destigmatising discussions about mental illness.

In the first such talk, which you can watch here, our editor Cara Houchen was joined by Kris and Alice Bowyer, the executive chef at the Butcombe Brewery Company, a group of pubs spanning the south west of England and the Channel Islands. 

Earlier on in her career, Alice faced her own issues, not only using work as a means of avoiding poor mental health, but seeing them exarcebated by working in kitchens where bullying was commonplace and where she was subjected to antiquated sexist attitudes.

Her personal experiences as well as her time spent paying close attention to her teams' mental wellbeing have endowed her with knowledge of the challenges specific to pub dining environments - the fact that it tends to be more corporate than other settings, the emphasis on training which can be both a positive and a strain, and staff shortages.

Talking about it is the first step to breaking the stigma

The discussion about mental health issues in the hospitality industry is fairly new - a decade ago it was unheard ago. Both Alice and Kris agree that it was a long time coming, however, as the realities of working in the industry make its problems pervasive and entrenched.

"It is very recent that this conversation has come up," Alice said, "and it's probably because the industry was about to collapse." 

"It's been forced to come to the forefront, and we have to talk about it."

For Alice, taking action to address the issues simply "feels like the right thing to do," having unknowingly lost members of staff whose mental health was a problem for them.

Kris concurred: "Rather than just turn a blind eye and accept that that's hospitality, as we have done for forty-fifty years, it's a case of you guys leading the charge and going: 'Well we know that that's a problem, we've identified that that's not right, and here we are fixing it, and that should be commended." 

What steps can employers take to protect their staff's mental health?

While it is difficult to summarise, the main things to consider, Alice explained, are the very basics of listening and showing empathy, having a regular one-to-one chat, being mindful of employees' workload and giving them opportunities to train and upskill. 

"Chefs like to know what their job description is, what's expected of them, and know that they've got a career path and the tools they need to do their job, and I think that goes a huge way in making sure that they're content and not feeling stressed at work." 

Inevitably, it will take learning that while hardships are always going to be a part of the equation, it is possible to build resilience and to work in an environment that allows enough mindspace to deal with them.

Execs and head chefs, Kris said, should be "stepping back and looking at your team as people and learning more about being a people manager rather than someone who can command a good service."

Giving team members autonomy and freedom surrounding their job role is crucial, Alice said, "so that it isn't just from the top down - you can have collaborative discussions to help people feel more confident in their role and then take a step up.

Nurturing mental balance in uncertain times

Coronavirus has brought about its own set of stresses by stripping people of their financial security and job security.

 And yet, according to a study carried out by The Burnt Chef Project in June, many felt that their employers hadn't done enough to lend a helping hand, perhaps understandably given the harships they faced themselves. 

"But just implementing some of the tips that Alice has mentioned today, and getting to know your team a little bit more and the fact that we are all in this together as a hospitality industry."

"It's important to be able to level with them in this time and say to them that the time is difficult and that it is stressful, but the better connection that you build with these people in time the better it will be for them and the more it will alleviate these stressful conditions." 

Things like having an Employee Assistance Programme - spearheaded and touted by organisations like Hospitality Health and used across the Butcombe Brewery Company - can go such a long way to help; but ultimately, Alice said, the value of conversation and of the work done by groups like The Burnt Chef are obvious.

"It just shows you that everyone has been through it, everyone has experienced it, everyone wants it to change and that involves everybody being involved in that - not just employers but people themselves.

"A lot of chefs I've worked with in the past are terrible at managing their own time, are terrible at taking responsibility for their own self-care, and it's a joint effort from everybody to change that perception and that stigma. 

"We can't do that unless we talk about it. All the time."


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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 30th October 2020

'It's been forced to come to the forefront, and we have to talk about it'