'We suffer from all the same issues and anxieties that everyone else goes through – but we have to be the last man standing'

The  Staff Canteen

Ahead of World Mental Health Day, The Staff Canteen editor, Cara Houchen, spoke to Aktar Islam about the pressure on employers and the consequences that has on their mental health and wellbeing.

Last week we reported on a tribunal between Aktar Islam and his former employee Sara Cowie - I won’t go back over what was already detailed, the main point was Aktar won his case after three years but it cost him over £50k of his own money as ‘you can’t claim for costs, you just get to walk away with your name intact’.

What really stood out for me wasn’t the obvious financial impact but the impact on his mental health. Over the past 18 months we’ve talked a lot about improving the wellbeing of staff, allowing them to feel they can talk about anything which may be affecting their mental health and dedicating money and resources to make hospitality an industry which is changing for the better.

But what about the business owners or employers? Who do they talk to when they need help or are under pressure or stress?

“As business owners the only people we have to talk to is ourselves,” explained Aktar. “Every which way we are getting hammered – hammered by the government, staff shortages, the general culture within the industry.

“There’s no respite, we are constantly pushed and pushed and pushed. Not all of us are high street chains, I’m an independent business owner and I have no one to turn to. All we get is pressure and there is no support for the employer, no appreciation or understanding for our mental wellbeing.”

Aktar says that even when he goes to sleep at night, he is still thinking about payroll, all the invoices, all the tax implications, maintenance costs, thinking about paying the landlord and suppliers.

“I wake up thinking about all that too. That’s basically my life, even when I’m with my son on a Sunday and trying to enjoy time with him I’m dreading my phone is going to ring because something has happened and there’s a problem.”

As a business owner Aktar is dealing with an ever-changing landscape, he explains that he has to worry about the pressures on the business with cost of produce at record highs, energy prices going up four fold and VAT going back up and he ‘can’t keep pulling rabbits out of hats’.

"It’s left to me to find solutions, like all other business owners who right now are going through pressures that we’ve never had to deal with at such levels and all together.

“There’s all this unrelenting pressure on you with no one saying, how can we help? Let’s discuss this and let’s get around this; it’s a lonely path. We are people too. We’ve got a lot of stress we have to deal with and for some reason it’s totally discounted. It’s like we’ve signed away our right to good mental health – as an employer these days it feels like you are there to service everyone else but what about us as human beings?

“We hear a lot about employees being exploited but we seldom hear about employers being exploited. Everyone knows it happens, but it is never brought to the forefront.

“When was the last time you read an article about the mental health and wellbeing of employers? They shoulder a massive burden and it’s like we don’t count. We suffer from all the same issues and anxieties that everyone else goes through – but we have to be the last man standing; we have no choice,but you do it to safeguard everyone else. In the end it does weigh on your mind, are you not a valued member of society anymore?”

ACAS

Aktar is looking to build a campaign for change after his experience with ACAS (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and the tribunal system, he feels it is ‘unfair and poorly managed’.

“Of course, it is there to help people who have been treated badly and discriminated against by employers, that does happen, and I don’t disagree with that. But there should be mechanisms in place to fully assess malicious claims. As proven by my own experience, it’s too easy for the system to be manipulated and exploited”

Reputation

It was his reputation being questioned which really took its toll on Aktar, the situation around the tribunal led to people asking him about it and he felt he had to sit and protest his innocence.

“This is what I’ve had to endure for three years. I’m a principled man, I’m not going to have someone say something about me which is untrue.

“It was proven beyond any doubt that I’m not guilty but I still find myself thinking about what happened, how someone could do that to me and by someone who is known to me as well. It makes you think what people see you as. Am I just someone to be exploited for financial gain?”

To be accused of something ‘quite disgusting’ meant Aktar had all the women in his life to think about and what their opinions of him may be due to the nature of the claim.

“Receiving a letter like that from ACAS, is like being smacked by a train, I was left in a state of shock.

“Until the truth is out there, speculation is always there.”

Living in a world of cancel culture we have seen how quickly things can turn and Aktar worried everyday about this, not just the money element but the promises and commitments he had made to his family and staff to run a successful business which in turn supports them.

"I’ve given my entire life to this industry and I worried that three decades of hard work can be taken away in a moment because of a lie.

“Walking down the street, what do people think of you? Things like that start to weigh on your mind and it’s a heavy burden to carry.”

Trust

Aktar’s close team are very important to him, they are like family and often he spends more time with them than his family but moving forward he now worries he’ll have a ‘subconscious bias running in the background which is like self-preservation’.

“The problem with that is now some honest individual may miss out on a great opportunity because of what Sara’s done.

“It’s annoying that it’s always there niggling away at you. I’m constantly questioning myself - from being someone who is quite assertive and had a naturally positive disposition towards the good nature in people to now constantly overthinking stuff - it does start to affect how you trust people.”

Pressure

As an employee you worry about job and financial security but as an employer ‘you worry about your own as well as everyone else’s’.

“You worry about the responsibility which is on you not just to your team but suppliers, the landlords, HMRC, the community – there is so much you have to bear in mind. I think there is little consideration taken for the mental well being and stress levels of an employer.

“Ultimately, as the owner, especially of a small business you are the last person to get paid. You put everything in and you are the last person to get anything out of it. You’re almost made to feel guilty for hoping to see a return.

“There are several millions of pounds of investment gone into these businesses, will I ever see a return on that? I don’t know. I’ve put every penny on the line, this is my retirement, my future and how I live out the formative years of my life depends on how this works. If it doesn’t work out, I’m in trouble.

“I’ve put everything on the line in order to offer people opportunities, to give back to the community and to pay into the economy – in the end, if I’m lucky, there might be something in it for me.

“No one seems to look at it like that, it’s like business owners are all horrible, unscrupulous, money-hungry individuals and yes there are some people out there who are like that, I’ve come across people like that but not everyone is like that and we’re all painted in that same vein.

“It weighs on your mind that people may think that and not everyone knows what their employer goes through to make sure they can pay them at the end of every month.

“We place value on our team as people not on their labour and how much you can squeeze out of them. I want to give young people the opportunity to learn but also put footings down for their future.”

He added: “I can imagine there are a lot of business owners who struggle with mental health issues. They suffer in silence, as they know that you just have to get on with it and battle your own demons in your own time.

“Some people put on a brave face, a smile and manage to do it and for others whom it becomes too much; can’t, which leads to dark places. It’s so easy to follow the narrative that’s so popular about the horrible unscrupulous business owner, but take a moment to appreciate they’re often just a person like you with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Someone who more than likely has put everything on the line to try and realise that dream. Most of all they’re people too."

If this article has affected you in any way and you need someone to talk to, you may find the following 24/7 resources helpful:

The Samaritans Helpline 116 123 -

 - The Burnt Chef Support Service

Counselling, legal advice and support from Hospitality Action

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th October 2021

'We suffer from all the same issues and anxieties that everyone else goes through – but we have to be the last man standing'