How do the staffing crisis, sustainability, and mental health intersect?

By Emma Carroll-Monteil, The Sustainable Restaurant Association 

When considering what defines a sustainable business, often we primarily think about resources, materials, and emissions – sometimes overlooking the importance of social sustainability. Without colleagues and staff feeling supported, it is easy even for companies which are based on the pillars of sustainability to collapse. As great as it is when a business pushes environmentally friendly foods and practices, if the workplace is not considerate of the staff’s needs, employees can quickly burn out. It is therefore our pleasure to announce that we are collaborating with The Burnt Chef Project – an organisation who address the issue of mental health in the hospitality sector, and work towards creating socially sustainable teams. 

Who is The Burnt Chef Project? The Burnt Chef Project was founded in May 2019 with the sole intention of eradicating mental health stigma within hospitality (read more here). They provide workshops on mental health training, create educational resources, and provide support for those struggling with their mental health. They also have led research in this area, with industry-wide surveys and studies investigating how working in hospitality can impact one’s mental health, what it was like for staff to return to work after the first COVID-19 lockdown, and most recently, what barriers are keeping staff from returning to hospitality work, and thus fuelling the current staffing crisis. 

As a result of the recent staffing shortages, The Burnt Chef Project’s ‘All Hands on Deck’ survey aimed to better understand why so few staff have returned to work, and how we can rectify this situation. Of the 2,143 UK based respondents, 84% were still working within the industry: 45% of them were chefs and most (75%) had been furloughed during the pandemic.

Most individuals reported that work-life balance was their primary barrier in working in hospitality, and it was also the most common reason for leaving. With last-minute rotas and exhausting hours, it is understandable how this could take a toll on both one’s professional and personal life – and indeed, this is what 20-30% of respondents agreed. Meanwhile, one in five participants said they are planning to leave hospitality in the next year, whilst 37% said they were unsure. When asked what would help improve the recruitment and retention in hospitality, the response was overwhelmingly that workers need to ‘feel valued.’  

Additionally, 40% of respondents have struggled with their mental health in the past year, with around 1 in 6 reporting it has been ‘not good’. General Managers seem to be feeling this the worst, as 42% reported a decline in their overall mental wellbeing since reopening. 

Now, the lighter news: only 4% of participants considered job security as a concern, and 60% of individuals reported feeling ‘okay’ or ‘better’ about working in the industry, which suggests that there is a large proportion of the workforce keen to stay. The survey showed that a third of those not currently working within the sector are planning to return within the year, with 10% in the next six months. The biggest silver-lining of these results is that although some of the findings are hard to hear, we are gaining insight into the staffing issue, and therefore, we are now more prepared on how to fix it.  

What can we do? First of all, whether you are a manager, in the kitchen, front of house, or a customer – you have a role to play in making sure the rest of your team feel valued. It has been a hard couple of years, and empathy and appreciation go a long way. Secondly, think about how you can improve work-life balance for your team. As an employer, maybe this means getting the rota out just a little bit earlier, maybe it means formally limiting the amount of doubles or overtime your team can do. As a staff member, this could be setting clearer boundaries with your employer when they ask too much of you.  

It is also worth learning from companies like Yo! Sushi, who in 2018 included a new wellbeing policy as part of their sustainability review. 16 staff members completed mental health first aid training, and the company ensured that staff have been able to access a range of counselling services. The response has been extremely positive, absences were reduced by 40%, and staff turnover dropped to just 9%! 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to rethink how we talk about mental health, and how much we talk about it. The Burnt Chef Project has a library of resources and tools to support you in how, along with mental health workplace trainings and more.  

The bottom line: if we truly want to build a sustainable industry, we need to care both about the health of the planet AND of our people.  

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