Exactly why is hospitality such risky business?

07 November, 2013 by
Hospitality Magazine

Hospitality is a fast-paced, stressful industry which often includes working long and irregular hours. Michele Grow, CEO Davidson Trahaire Corpsych delves deepers into the pressures and pitfalls of working in foodservice.

Early morning and late night rosters, long shifts, juggling different jobs… sound familiar? While no doubt an exciting, varied, flexible and fast-paced environment, hospitality is also a high-pressure industry that can present a number of psychological risks for employees. These range from physical and psychological fatigue, to stress, and increased alcohol and drug use, all of which can have a debilitating effect on employees’ health and wellbeing.

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Hospitality is an industry in which business tends to be very cyclical, with peak seasons around Christmas and other public holidays, and dips in revenue during quieter periods of the year. By its nature, this lends itself to a casual workforce, giving employers the option of taking on more staff when business is booming and reducing their workforce when there is a lull.

While this is an arrangement which can suit both parties, particularly given many of those working in hospitality are students or part-time workers, it can also be a significant source of pressure for many employees.

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The financial challenges of being a casual worker with varied and uncertain income can create significant strain on individuals. Having to budget living expenses and pay the bills can be tough when your pay cheque fluctuates from month to month, not to mention coping with unexpected expenses such as doctor’s bills or a car breakdown. Financial concerns are one of the primary drivers of stress, with more than one in two Australians citing financial concerns as the key cause of their stress.

Employees who are not guaranteed a job from one week or month to the next, can be reluctant to take time off for important work breaks or if they are ill, for fear they may jeopardise further work opportunities. Employees who continue to come to work when they are unwell are not only less likely to be productive at work but this can quickly lead to rapidly deteriorating health and physical fatigue. There is a further risk of illness being passed to other staff and customers, a particular concern in the food and beverage industry.

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The cyclical nature of the industry also means that it is not uncommon for staff to be juggling more than one job at a time, keen to ensure they have a back-up if one job falls through or shifts are dropped. Juggling multiple employers and a quick turnaround between jobs is a further factor which can lead to physical and mental fatigue, heightening the risk of injury and illness.

Hospitality work often involves long hours, frequently with limited breaks or back-to-back shifts. While working long hours is not uncommon in many industries in Australia, it is an unhealthy work pattern if sustained over extended periods and poses high risk for employees. Staying awake for a total of 17 hours has the same effect on performance as having a blood alcohol content of 0.05. Staying awake for a total of 21 hours has an equivalent impact on performance as a blood alcohol content of 0.1. There is no doubt that most employers would not tolerate a workplace with that level of risk.

The major concern and risk relates to the fatigue that regularly accompanies this work. Changing shifts, irregular or long work hours, and stressful conditions not only disrupt normal sleep patterns but they can lead to chronic fatigue issues. Fatigue, which is often compounded by lack of exercise and poor nutrition, impairs our judgement and reduces our ability to function in daily life, both in and out of work. It also negatively impacts the amount of energy the employee is able to invest with family and friends when they are at home and can be a contributing factor in relationship strain.

Shift work in particular has been shown to be detrimental to workers’ health. A recent study by UniSA’s Centre for Sleep found that shift workers need longer to recover from the irregular hours they work, than workers with regular hours and are often still groggy after waking. This can be dangerous for workers who are on call or need to be on the job quickly after waking. In addition to fatigue, the research also found that shift workers tend to have more negative moods outside of work, which may contribute to heightened anxiety and stress.

The nature of the hospitality industry means that access to alcohol is often more readily available than in most other industries. After a long shift, there can be a higher reliance on alcohol and other substances to help employees “wind down” or relax, often at levels well above a safe range.

While many employees drink in response to the stress and anxiety they are experiencing, drinking at harmful levels only contributes further to these patterns, and can lead to risk-taking behaviour, such as drink-driving. Worryingly, almost three in four Australians admit to turning to alcohol to unwind from a hard day at work.

Another significant risk in the hospitality industry is the impact of dealing with difficult customer behaviour. Employees may be forced to manage customers who are exceptionally demanding, aggressive or abusive and generally deal with these situations in a highly public environment. This issue escalates at certain times of the year, such as Christmas, and can increase stress and anxiety and damage the confidence and self-esteem of your employees.

While there are significant psychological, safety and wellbeing risks in the hospitality industry, there are a number of proactive initiatives that can be taken by employers to improve the experience and the wellbeing of staff. Some of the most effective measures include:

  • Providing information to employees and their family members on the known challenges of the work environment and providing practical strategies to assist. These may include introduction to support networks and providing practical information on the key risk areas such as fatigue
     
  • Running awareness and education programs for employees and their family members on topics such as safe alcohol use, sleep management, and stress management.
     
  • Providing a specific focus on the issues of stress and mental health. At a minimum this should include awareness sessions for all employees on mental health issues and direct activities to remove the stigma related to mental health in the workplace. Participating in national events such as R U OK? Day, Mental Health Month, Stress Down Day, Go Home on Time Day and Movember all assist in improving people’s willingness to talk about their issues.
     
  • Providing direct training for managers and supervisors on how to recognise and effectively deal with mental health issues in the workplace.
     
  • Investing in resilience programs for your workplace to better equip your employees to deal with the demands the work involves.
     
  • Providing employee assistance support and ensuring this is available face-to-face, as well as online, and via telephone and video to make it as easy to seek help as possible.

The most important thing employers can do is to recognise the risks and start to address them. Assuming that your employees are not impacted by issues such as fatigue, stress, alcohol and mental health is a dangerous mindset that will further increase the risk for employees and employers.

About DTC
DTC provides employee counselling and coaching services to more than 1.2 million employees from every industry sector across Australia. For more information visit www.davcorp.com.au     

Images: www.alcoholic.org, blogs.wsj.com