The hospitality industry can be a tough place to work. Hours are often long, breaks between shifts are often short, and pay is often less than it should be. These are also high-pressure environments, the pressure to deliver a great experience for your customers on a busy shift can cause a great deal of stress. When you work in this industry, you are usually in close proximity to alcohol, and it is often offered at a discounted price or for free, as a perk of the job. But what happens when you lose your balance with that? When stress and other mental health issues come into play, it can be all too easy to lean on alcohol and other substances to bring you down, help you sleep, or to put an intense shift behind you. In this week’s podcast, we speak to Kris Hall, founder of The Burnt Chef Project, who is doing some fantastic work to tackle poor mental health in the hospitality industry.
Who Is Kris Hall?
Kris is the founder of nonprofit social enterprise The Burnt Chef Project, which is a clothing and merchandise brand challenging the stigma around mental health within hospitality worldwide. The funds that are raised from the sales of Burnt Chef Projects merchandise go toward training and support for hospitality workers. It started in May 2019 through Kris’ own personal experience of mental illness and seeking Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for the personal identity crisis he was experiencing at the time.
Why Kris started The Burnt Chef Project
I wanted to try and raise a bit of awareness about how tough the industry is, and how it was affecting my friends and people around me. I started taking some black and white portraits of individuals within hospitality, to highlight what goes on behind the scenes. At first, I had to really twist people’s arms to get involved. The first two were of close friends of mine who were happy to have their photo taken until I explained it was about raising awareness around mental health issues. They didn’t want to be shown as being weak or being related to that particular subject matter. Eventually, I convinced them. And it grew, and then people started contacting me to have their photos taken to join the cause. More people were coming out with stories about their own mental health issues. It just sort of took off from there really. I was furloughed during COVID, so I threw myself into providing support to others who may be struggling during these strange times. I’m really building The Burnt Chef Project brand, it’s now my full-time job.
We hear a lot about anxiety, depression, and marital breakdowns, and also quite a bit about drug usage within hospitality. But we know that problematic drinking goes on. It’s probably one of the biggest issues we face in the hospitality industry. But it doesn’t get spoken about as frequently, because it’s so widely accepted. Once you finish your shift, you have drinks, and the next day you get to work with a hangover, you might even keep going in the morning. I think that’s become such a norm now that people don’t see it as a problem, when in fact, it’s an epidemic. It’s harming the industry long term, using that as a coping mechanism, because we’re not getting to the root cause of the issue.
What causes stress in the hospitality industry?
Stress is the key factor. For me personally, when I get stressed, I get quite frustrated and angry. If I don’t turn to that quick beer just to take the edge off, then my default is to eat. I’ll usually opt for quite a carb or sugar-heavy foods to try and self soothe. I think what we need to look at as an industry is our problem with drink and drugs. We need to be able to talk about it, even though parts of it are illegal. We need to look at why this happens. We’ve got a lot of people who are experiencing very high levels of stress, they are perhaps working longer hours, and they’re often working more frequently than they should be. They’re working in cultures that perhaps doesn’t prioritise wellbeing, and that encourage unhealthy coping mechanisms. We need to get to the root of the problem, rather than putting a bandaid on it every time. We need to ask the questions. Why are you drinking? Why is it that you feel that you need to have that bottle of red wine or a few pints of beer when you finish your shift? Is it because you’re feeling overly stressed? Is it because you are unable to relax? Is it because you’re struggling with sleep? And why is that? I think once we get back to the root cause we’ll actually attribute that to stress being the main factor. We did a study in May 2020 for almost 1300 people.
It was split fairly evenly between the front of the house and the back of the house. One of the top three things of 10 different things that people had a problem with, was drink. Interestingly enough, it was predominantly a higher figures with back of house. Overall, it was due to high levels of stress. When we looked at the figures, eight out of 10 of those 1300 people have said they’d experienced at least one mental health issue since working within the trade. I think we need to know that in order for us to be sustainable, for us to thrive and be profitable in the long term, and most importantly to make a difference to people’s lives. We need to start looking at our cultures. The way in which we’re managing our staff, the way in which we’re training our staff, and the way in which we’re setting up rotes and providing benefits. We really need to be looking at our people as the number one asset within this industry and looking after their health as a primary focus.
Improving staff wellbeing for better staff retention
I think that everyone wants to do right by their staff. What that might mean and entail differs from person to person. But let’s just for a second, treat your business as a business. I’m a business owner, I know that running a business is tough, margins are tight. That’s very much the case in hospitality, especially with the year that we’ve had. Let’s consider basic retention figures. It costs anywhere between £4000 – £6000 pounds to market a job and find an individual, interview them, train them, sort their payroll, pay the accountancy costs, cover any wastage. If they leave the business within six months to a year, that’s cost you £6000. If we’re looking at turnover rates in hospitality, which for some businesses is as high as 100%, which means if you have 60 staff who all come and go within a single year, you’re looking at a substantial proportion of our turnover, and also of our profit margins within this industry, just going on staff who are coming and leaving very quickly. I think that when we need to look at why that’s happening. There’s a number of different things, but company culture, wellbeing, people feeling that they’re not able to do the job anymore, all of these things come into it. We need to start tackling that.
You might have a culture of bullying, or a toxic working environment, or equipment that’s breaking. It’s off-putting. You have to get to the cause within the business of people leaving. Sometimes that requires doing employee surveys, which is hard because you’re peering into the darkness. You might not like some of the answers. But in order for us to be better, we have to look at these sorts of things. As an employer, looking after your staff, finding out why they’re leaving, why your turnover rates are high, and really getting down to the cause, will help ultimately improve your company profits overall. In turn this will allow you to make more money as a business and reinvest more money back into your staff. Long term, you’ve got a much more sustainable business model.
Offer perks that aren’t alcohol
When it comes to improving wellbeing, it starts with the small things like after work drinks. Rather than giving staff a pint or a free drink after work, why not swap that for a soft drink, and put some money into a kitty. It could go toward gym membership or yoga classes. As an incentive it may not seem like much, but it actually shows your staff that you care about them. And that could be the difference between someone leaving, to somebody feeling that the company actually cares about them. There’s a big issue around time also. Close opens (shifts where you close the venue, then have to be in to open it the following day). Legally, there should be an 11 hour gap between shifts, which is easier said than done when you’re writing rotas. But it’s so important to give people that time between shifts. I used to think that when people didn’t turn up to work, it’s because they were flakes, and they weren’t able able to deal with it. But actually, perhaps they were under a massive amount of stress, and they just physically couldn’t turn up to work. It’s about finding that happy medium where you work different rota structures, and you plan it in advance. Those small changes can actually have a profound impact on your staff, because they feel like they’re in control of their their workload. Ultimately, that improves wellbeing and it leads to a happier workforce.
We’re now at this time where there are some great companies out there who produce some fantastic 0% alternatives. I think that we will start to see beer tastings using alcohol free versions as an entry, so you do run a flight of beer, that is completely 0%. Now is the time to start trying to really change the conversation. Millennials are being a lot more conscious about their choices. It’s not just what they drink, it’s what they eat, and what they choose to spend their money on. It’s whether or not things contain plastic. We’re a much more conscious society as this younger generation come through. Over time, from a business perspective, people are going to need to start investing to appeal to that side of the market.
If you are looking for some guidance with changing your drinking, why not check out our courses? You can start with a free course, or check out our longer courses. Club Soda has loads of resources to help you on your journey, whether you want to stop, take a break, or cut down.
Using alcohol-free drinks to change your drinking
It’s tricky when you work in hospitality and you want to change your drinking. I think that rather than going cold turkey, it’s a case of being mindful. If you are going to host tastings, take a moderate approach to them, you can have some sips, but do it from a place of wanting to give the customer the best experience, not from a place of wanting to neck a few drinks at work. My wife recently started using My Fitness Pal, and she said ‘I’m not losing any weight, and I’m eating well and exercising’. When we started tracking her macros and you add in the bottle of Prosecco with friends at the weekend, you can see how quickly that adds up. It can completely negating all the hard work you’ve done during the course of the week. Whatever your drive is, I think becoming more aware of why you want to consume the alcohol in the first place is essential. And notice the impact too. I sampled two whiskies last night, and today my thought process isn’t as clear, I feel quite lethargic, I don’t feel very driven. I play rugby as well, and we socialise after. There’s a certain amount of pressure to drink. If I’m not drinking that day, I don’t make a big deal out of it. There are a lot more alcohol-free options on the market that look and feel the part. You don’t even need to tell anyone that you’re not drinking. And I like to remind myself that I can leave at any point.
Take a breath
In the hospitality industry, everything is about timings. When you finish a shift, your stress levels are elevated, and you’re full of adrenalin. Once you look at that as a biological response to the environment, you can see that alcohol -whilst we feel that it may have a positive effect – ends up increasing anxiety levels, etc. If your body is in a state of arousal and stress, remember that time helps bring that down. That time after shift surrounded by your work colleagues in an environment that doesn’t have any time constraints on it, I think is important, because it gives a sense of belonging. It’s a sense of being a part of something. And it’s time out of that stressful environment that you were in previously. Mindfulness is key. One thing that I teach to students is the 54321 method, which is observing your senses. Five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Approach this with curiosity. So for example, I can see Mr. Smith sat at the table. What clothes is he wearing? Is he clean shave? What colors his hair? Why does he look like that? Can I hear the coffee machine grinding? Can I hear clinking glasses? Can I hear a conversation,? Start being curious and really leaning into those senses. What you’ll actually find is this has a direct impact on your stress levels and brings you down into a lesser state of arousal. I think that that really does help. And most importantly, taking a deep breath. When was the last time you took a deep breath?
Text support service for hospitality workers
We launched a text support service for hospitality workers in association with Mental Health Innovations. We fundraised to put the support service in place, it’s available to anyone within hospitality 24 hours a day. You can text burntchef (all as one word) to 285258. That will immediately put you through to a trained advisor, who will text back within about five minutes. The great thing about this is that you’re not having to make face to face contact with anyone, you don’t know the person on the other end. It’s available even in the early hours of the morning. If you are sat around the table with your mates and you’re feeling compelled to have a drink and you don’t want to and you’re struggling, you can use that service. They will support you just through text, it’s really discreet if you need it to be. Likewise if you’re feeling lonely or depressed or anxious, they can help. People often feel like they can’t reach out to anyone, that their problem isn’t big enough or worth sharing. But this service is there to do that specifically. It’s there to provide you with that little person on your shoulder who can say, all right, it’s okay, we’ll get through this and here’s how we’re going to do it.
We have workplace posters that you can purchase through our store, that generates a small amount of profit, which then allows us to pay for the text support service. I hope that at some stage in this conversation, we stop talking about physical and mental health, and we just put them together and call them what they are. Whether you are front of house, back house, there are services to support you. If any members of staff are struggling with their mental health, please tell them about our service, because it’s there to be used. We also host our own podcast, and we are about to launch the Burnt Chef Academy. There’ll be free training on there to do with mental health, personal resilience, stress reduction, a few other bits and bobs. And we’ll continually update modules on that. We’re reaching 25,000 people at the moment within the last year and a half. There are 3.2 million people in the UK hospitality industry, and 72 million people worldwide, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. But the more people that we can reach, the better.