Mental Health in the Hospitality Industry: an Open Letter

Words: Max Hayward

Working in hospitality truly is a unique experience. It can be an incredibly rewarding industry to work in – for me, if my guests leave the venue happy, then so do I. There are incredible opportunities available, and I have met some of the best friends I have ever made in this industry. For those who have never worked in hospitality, though, our motives can seem incomprehensible. It is easy to forget that the shifts we pull are far from normal – when I mention how many hours I do each week to my ‘9 to 5′ friends, the most common responses are “you must be knackered”, “you’re insane” or “oh my god, how do you do it?!” You can become accustomed to the long days and nights after a while, but if you take a step back and compare what we do to so many other professions, you begin to understand the shocked reactions of those who have never worked in this industry.

Regular, consistent hours, consecutive days off, and time every evening to wind down and relax are all concrete features of most jobs; it’s something bar staff, waiters, and chefs rarely see. It’s not just the hours either. As with many jobs, working hospitality requires almost constant social interaction, which can be exhausting at the best of times. Adding into the mix the requirement to constantly maintain a positive disposition (after all, by definition hospitality workers need to be hospitable!) and frequently dealing with intoxicated guests, and it gets even tougher. You need a thick skin to do this every day, and not everyone is built for it.

But resilient as we are, we’re not superhumans. We’ve all had times in this line of work when we considered just dropping the blue roll and walking out the door. Whether you’re on dispense churning out cocktails for the 14th hour straight because Wales just won the Grand Slam, cleaning up sick from under a table because Steve the Supervisor in his light-up Christmas jumper had one too many jagerbombs, or refiring the dish you sent out because Jenny’s well-done steak was “too dry” – we’ve all been there. Don’t get me wrong, bartending is my passion, and I absolutely wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it and couldn’t handle the challenges it poses. However, in the 6 years I have worked in hospitality I have been affected in a number of ways on a personal level by the job; I drink more than I should, I don’t sleep enough, the long hours have put a strain on relationships, and in the past I have felt anxious, stressed and depressed. Fortunately, I have developed some good coping mechanisms over the years, and I am blessed to be surrounded by so many loving and supportive friends. I am currently very happy and incredibly satisfied in my work, and I know how lucky I am to feel this way. But I also know first hand that it can often feel like you’re standing on the precipice, and all it can take is one thing to push you over the edge – be it a family tragedy, a breakup, or even just a snide remark from a guest.

Of course, mental health issues affect people the world over regardless of profession. According to, depression alone affects 1 in 12 of the population, and mental health charity Mind states that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem this year. The hospitality industry, though, is one of the most stressful workforces to be in. A study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in June 2018 showed that “70% of hospitality workers report feeling overworked, and 45% take time off due to stress at some point in their career”. These levels of stress were attributed to “long and anti-social hours” coupled with “the requirement to maintain a publicly observable and acceptable emotional display […] along with the ability to provide a quality service”. It’s true that it can be exhausting keeping up a jovial demeanour when you’re constantly interacting with guests, even if you aren’t suffering from a problem with your mental wellbeing. When you consider the size of the industry, these stats become even more concerning. Hospitality is the UK’s 3rd largest private sector employer, responsible for 9% of it’s employment, producing £130 billion of economic activity and £39billion in taxes for the UK government. That’s 3.2 million people around the UK working in an industry which has consistently grown by between 5% and 6.5% in the last 5 years, the majority of whom feel overworked.

Other research in this field has uncovered worryingly similar patterns. A survey of London chefs by Unite union in 2017 reported that 51% suffered form depression due to being overworked, and 27% said that they drink alcohol to see them through their shifts. Furthermore, in a 2018 study on mental health in hospitality workers by The Caterer, 71% said they experienced a mental health problem at some point. Of these, 51% had sought help for it, and 56% said their employer wasn’t aware of it.

I was truly alarmed by these statistics. What I find equally as shocking, though, is the lack of support in place do help pick hospitality workers up when they are knocked down. Many other work sectors provide assistance in the form of mental health days, gym memberships for staff, one-to-one counselling, and more. This is something which is so rarely found in your average bar or restaurant – if we want real support, most of us we must rely on the work of hospitality-focussed mental health charities The Benevolent, and support groups like Healthy Hospo. So what is it about hospitality that causes so much distress to staff? If this is happening on this scale to the people around me, why are so many of us unaware of it? What support is really available, and in what areas are we falling short in aiding the vast amount of people suffering from mental health problems?

I had so many questions, so to try and shed some light on the issue, I spoke to Healthy Hospo founder Tim Etherington-Judge, marketing and communications manager for The Benevolent Alessandra Brugola, and Georgia Billing, Benevolent ambassador and bar manager of the City of London Distillery.“There are so many factors that make us more susceptible [to mental health issues], from the type of people the industry attracts to the chronic levels of sleep deprivation and excessive substance abuse” Says Tim. A study by The Benevolent in 2018 found that “1 in 5 hospitality workers suffer from addiction, and 1 in 3 suffer form high levels of anxiety, stress and fatigue.” In regard to these statistics, Alessandra says that that “Bartenders and other frontline hospitality staff are more at risk of these types of issues due to the physical nature of their job, long hours, unhealthy sleep habits, and a lack of funding from their employers for staff benefit packages.”

In order to get some first hand data, I conducted an anonymous survey of my own. Participants were sourced from three Facebook groups: Welsh Bartenders, Welsh Chefs and London Bartenders Association. Participants answered 10 questions. 8 were multiple choice questions about their mental wellbeing, its relation to their job, and how they felt it was handled by their employers/superiors. The aim of this was to generate some quantitative data to compare with the studies I have cited above. The last two questions offered written responses, with the goal of obtaining qualitative data on participants’ own opinions on the cause of mental health issues in hospitality, and what they felt could be done to remedy this.

Responses to my survey provided similarly shocking data as that which I found in my research. 91% of respondents considered themselves to have experienced an issue with their mental health. 77% these issues had recurred in the last two months, and 61% considered these issues to be directly related to their job. When they were asked what they believed to be the main cause of mental health problems in hospitality, there were some answers which appeared over and over again. One of these was the long hours, and the consequent lack of structure. Respondents claimed they had “little opportunity to get 8 hours sleep”, and that there was“not enough time between shifts to de-stress” or “the only time off is spent recovering.” One said that they felt “constantly switched on and on edge”; another said that there is “not enough time to properly look after yourself and achieve a healthy work/life balance”. It is just as important to look after ourselves mentally as it is physically, and maintaining a healthy amount of sleep and rest is essential for both – something that the irregular shift patterns typical of hospitality jobs do little to facilitate. “Our brain is an incredibly complex organ” says Tim. “Good mental health requires work on all aspects of health, from sleep and nutrition to exercise and social connection” he says. “70% of bars and restaurants employ 10 staff or less, meaning that everything is focused on operations with little time to consider staff welfare.” Although often long hours cannot be helped in this industry, even making small changes such as giving staff members consecutive days off would go a long way in aiding those who find the amount of time spent working a challenge.

Long hours, however, were not the most frequently given reason for poor mental health; the standout response by a country mile was substance abuse. One participant stated that “the industry has given me some great friends, but there is a culture of drinking and drugs which, whilst fun, isn’t helpful for someone tackling issues.” There is a much easier access to alcohol in hospitality than in any other industry. Even if you don’t work in a bar, the chances are you or some of your colleagues will go for a drink after a shift on the floor or in the kitchen. Because of the availability of alcohol and peer pressure, one drink after work can so easily turn into a 5am stagger home. Of course, for bartenders drinking is regarded as part and parcel of the job, as is familiar to Georgia. “I think there is an expectation that, because of the nature of the job, all bartenders drink alcohol, are supposed to drink alcohol, and should be able to handle excessive consumption on a regular basis” she says. “As a result, there is a ‘drinking culture’ in the industry, as well as a tendency to judge those who choose to drink less or not at all.” According to Alessandra, “it is scientifically demonstrated how alcohol can have a detrimental effect on mental health. We do work in an incredible industry with outstanding products at hand but unfortunately they are not the solution to dealing with mental health difficulties.”

A vast amount of respondent’s to my survey also referred to a “drinking culture” pervading the industry, perpetuated by the accessibility of alcohol. In addition to this, particularly long and stressful days or weeks can make us turn to substance abuse where we normally wouldn’t… a good example of this for those of us in Cardiff being when international rugby games are held in the city. Drinking is an easy crutch to fall on when times are at their toughest, and doing consecutive long shifts puts you firmly in an industry bubble with others who are in the same predicament as you. As a result, getting drunk, eating fast food, and not sleeping are normalised, and looking after yourself falls by the wayside. Both Tim and Georgia independently spoke of this. “It has been perceived as a badge of honour to turn up to your shift with a hangover and having not slept, which justifies and perpetuates an unhealthy routine” says Georgia, whilst Tim claims “it’s not just a drinking culture, there’s also a drug culture and a culture of toxic masculinity. It’s about who can work the most hours, who can be the most fucked up, who’s got the worst hangover etc. It’s hugely significant as it leads to a decline in both mental and physical health, which leads to people leaning more on substances just to get through.”

It is clear, then, that these issues are widely recognised and accepted as detrimental to hospitality workers. But another huge problem is the stigma that still surrounds mental health. Out of all of my survey’s participants who stated that they suffered from mental health difficulties, only 55% had sought help for their problems, and a staggering 90% agreed that there was a stigma surrounding mental health. This is perhaps one of the most pertinent issues we are confronted with – if people feel belittled for opening up about their problems, they may be deterred from telling seeking help at all and advice for whatever it is they are struggling with. “Employees need to be able to safely talk about any metal health struggles without fear of judgement or ridicule. There is a world in every mind, so we shouldn’t make light of someone’s issues” says Georgia. “I believe the employer has to acknowledge that maintaining good mental health is a real issue, and to recognise time off to recover from a mental health episode as sickness similar to taking time off for physical sickness.” 30% of respondents to my survey answered that they didn’t think their employer would understand if they asked for time off work due to a mental health issue. Whether this stigma is perceived or real, it still plays a huge role in preventing people from seeking help. Furthermore, the nature of the job itself can discourage showing that you are struggling. Many of us in this industry are hosts first and foremost, and as such there is an inherent expectancy to create and maintain a certain atmosphere in our venues. Even when feeling low or exhausted, we cannot afford to appear so in front of our guests – it is our job to make sure each one has the best experience they can, and this means we have to be good actors at times. “I was once told by a bartender that in hospitality, you are always asked to leave your problems at the door. Unfortunately, I think this explains why many people with mental health difficulties are discouraged from asking for help” says Alessandra.

Even when an issue is raised, however, being aware of it and knowing how to deal with it are totally different. One of my survey’s questions asked management and employers how confident they were in their knowledge of and ability to deal with mental health issues of their staff. 66% of respondents answered “somewhat confident”, “not so confident” or “not at all confident”. When counselling someone, what you say has a genuinely influential effect, and you are accountable for it. If a manager or employer is approached by a staff member about a problem, they should feel confident in knowing what to to say and what action to take, as they are accountable for what they say. However, there is quite frankly not enough training provided to management. “Ideally training should be provided to each member of the staff, but certainly it should be required that at least the management undertakes some sort of course” says Alessanda. “In addition, I would encourage management to provide their staff with relevant information about the charities that are out there doing an incredible job to help colleagues in need. Allowing the dissemination of relevant information to their staff could represent a huge change for the best of colleagues struggling with mental health difficulties. The Benevolent recommends in-house Mental Health First Aid training as a practical step to begin the process of identifying the first signs of mental health difficulties amongst colleagues.” Given this training, it would be more feasible to recognise when someone is struggling with their mental health, and try and tackling it early on.

Not only is there is a need for more training, but also there is also the aforementioned disparity between the support available to the individual in hospitality as opposed to other industries. As well as offering more structured working schedules, and worker benefits like gym memberships, many large companies (both in and outside the hospitality industry) will have HR departments who are trained to offer support and advice. But, as Tim mentioned earlier, most bars and restaurants are comprised of a small team, and as such internal HR can be non-existent, meaning it falls to those within the team to how to assist their colleagues, and to the fantastic work of groups such as Healthy Hospo and The Benevolent. I believe it is of critical importance for hospitality workers to know not only that there is help out there for those who need it, but that there are people out there working tirelessly to try and facilitate a much needed cultural shift in an industry plagued by poor mental health.

“There are organisations and charities who provide a safety net for those that fall off the edge of the cliff. Healthy Hospo is standing at the top of the cliff trying to prevent people falling off in the first place” says Tim. “we work on the proactive side of health and wellness. We provide education, events and business consultancy to help build a healthier, happier hospitality industry. We work with anyone who works in, or with, the hospitality industry. Chefs, bartenders, bar backs, waiters, managers, brand ambassadors, baristas, sales reps, or anyone else who needs our help.”

The Benevolent offers support to current and former employees in the drinks industry and their families. “We do this by providing practical, emotional, and financial support to those from our trade at every stage of their career.” says Alessandra. “Last year we presented to the industry a set of recommendations aimed at helping companies to safeguard the mental health of their employees. The guidelines are applicable to every business in the industry, no matter their size or financial capacity. We have decided to focus on a few key objectives, such as promoting mental health awareness training for all employees to encourage an open conversation, flexible hours policies and a time off policy should be implemented for individuals struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.”

There is more we can be doing ourselves as hospitality employees as well. One of the things we do at Lab 22 is to try and make sure staff social events are outdoor activities, such as walks and bike rides. Both the physical and mental distancing from alcohol and the environment we work in every day is something we believe is very important for our mental wellbeing… Just because we’re bartenders, doesn’t mean we have to go out drinking in our free time! This was something raised by respondents in the survey – to have staff socials which aren’t oriented around drinking. Another great way of helping people, as basic as it seems, is listening. Even if you don’t understand someone’s frame of mind, the first step to helping someone is empathy, and even knowing someone is there to listen to your problems can be of invaluable assistance.

If you work in hospitality are experiencing any difficulties with your mental health, please do not hesitate to contact one of these charities, or any of the team in Lab 22 – our door is always open, and we want everyone to feel like they can chat to any of us about their troubles in full confidence. No matter how tough times get, people care, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and you are most certainly not alone.

The Benevolent offers a free of charge and 100% confidential helpline and the charity fully funds counselling sessions when needed. The helpline is available at 0800 9154610 from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week.

More information on both of these charities can be found at The benevolent and Healthyhospo.

More contact details and helplines:

Alcoholics Anonymous: 0845 769 7555 (24 hour helpline)
Alcoholics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous: 0300 999 1212 (daily, 10am to midnight)

Beat (eating disorder helpline): Adults: 0808 801 0677 Students: 0808 801 0811 (12pm-8pm weekdays, 4pm-8pm weekends and bank holidays)

Mind Info Line: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, excluding bank holidays)

Mind Legal Line: 0300 466 6463 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, excluding bank holidays)

Samaritans (suicide prevention): 116 123 (24 hour helpline)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 01800 273 8255 (24 hour helpline)