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So Let’s Talk About Hospitality and Mental Health

Mental health and wellness has come into sharp focus within the hospitality industry over the last few years.

This is largely attributed to the accumulated global health and finance related crises that have crippled economies the world over.

However, bar staff, waiters, chefs, managers and performers alike have been suffering for years with varying degrees of mental health issues, brought about by the working patterns and lifestyles often associated with their professions.

Double shifts soaring past 16 hours with barely any rest in between. A rampant alcohol and narcotics culture openly prevalent to the point it’s almost encouraged. Work-life balances completely thrown out of sync. Hospitality has long been a relentless, unhealthy industry and not enough has been done to help cure this myriad of problems.

So step forward So Let’s Talk.

Founded just over three years ago by Paddy Howley, a 16-year veteran of the trade, So Let’s Talk aims to ’86 The Silence’ around mental health within the industry. In only a short space of time, SLT have made giant strides in smashing the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety within hospitality, with thousands of staff and management teams opening up to them and taking part in their sessions. In turn, this has led to a significant shift in the inner workings of those companies who have sought out Paddy and his team’s help.

“From the onset we provide preventative and holistic sessions around mental, physical and financial health,” explains Paddy, “the core of what we do is education. In the last three years we’ve gone from being an idea in my mum’s spare room to working with the likes of Soho House, New World Trading Company, Honest Burgers, Pizza Pilgrims, Alchemist, just to name a few.

“We’ve run sessions for over 28 thousand hospitality professionals, both online and in person. One of the things we’re really proud of is every business that we’ve started working with is still working with us. We’ve never had a drop out.”

But it’s not simply in-person and online sessions that SLT are offering. Their service to the industry is amplified in all manner of platforms, with a series of special, 15 minute in-house podcasts even being recorded specifically for the staff of Soho House to consume as and when they have the opportunity. All available in multiple languages and made as accessible as possible to help with the company’s various teams during the intense Christmas period.

It should come as no surprise that SLT’s services have been so sought after post-covid, with mass resignations from the industry sparking mass staff shortages and a more reflective mood within businesses as how best to treat a workforce that had, for the first time in many of their careers, had the chance to enjoy some time to themselves and not be focused on serving others.

Suddenly, staff wellness became an absolute priority for bar and restaurant owners. Their employees had now experienced time away from the industry and weren’t all too keen on reviving these habits once life returned to normal.

“During all the lockdowns, people were wondering ‘what have I been doing for the last 10-15 years?’” Begins Paddy, “They’d now had a chance to do simple things like read a book or go for a walk. Even though they may have loved the industry, they recognised that there were these archaic structures in place. The badges of honour that people wear in the industry come from really destructive habits and now that’s out of fashion.

“So people went two ways. They either decided to find a new career within the trade, but ask for more money and a better life balance. Or they leave for a different career, whether it’s packing boxes or becoming social media content creators or whatever it might be. So this led to businesses making health and wellbeing budgets an absolute necessity.”

It is said that sometimes you need to destroy everything to build it back up. It’s probably the understatement of the decade to claim that the hospitality industry has been destroyed over the last three years. So the rebuild isn’t going to be smooth sailing, as Paddy explains.

“Work-life balance has been people’s priority. Not money. But what happened is the trade started chucking ridiculous salaries at staff to get them to come back to work. That’s not sustainable. People were leaving the trade because they wanted their wellness prioritising, and it wasn’t happening.”

Naturally, sweeping change cannot happen overnight. Or even over the course of three years. The 60-70 work weeks still exist across the board, despite the painstakingly obvious detriments that comes with forcing staff through such excessive amounts of work. Living wages are still not the norm within the industry and plenty of bartenders and chefs are still having to deal with out of hours whatsapps and phone calls from oblivious bosses who’s work life ideologies are still rooted firmly in the past.

“I talk to people all the time where I have to bite my lip,” reveals Paddy, “if you’ve got staff who are working 70 hours a week, there’s going to be about 30 of those hours where they're no good.

“The problem at the moment is, with the cost of living crisis, is that people need more hours because their bills have increased so much. I was talking to a chef the other day who is trying to create a better life balance for themselves but they’re still having to work 70 hours a week, because they live in London and everything’s so expensive. So the financial health sessions that we do are really sought after at the moment.”

And it’s this precarious financial precedent that Paddy believes sets the stage for a platform like GigPig to help out alongside SLT’s work inside the industry.

“Organisations like GigPig are gifting hospitality professionals, who are also artists and performers, the opportunity to make some money and supplement their income outside of working inside the industry by doing something that they love.

“All you’ve got to do is walk around a city like Manchester or Liverpool or London and speak to hospitality professionals and you’ll meet so many performers or sound engineers or whatever they might be. You’ve got all these people who are so talented who then have an opportunity to play or work a gig once or twice a week and they can make money from doing that, which I think is incredible.”

Fortunately, with venue owners now adopting a far more progressive mindset when it comes to their employees, there are artists within the trade who are able to flourish while enjoying the work that they do inside hospitality.

“I met a lad the other day who works in hospitality, who told me he’s also a hip hop artist,” shares Paddy, himself from a family of musicians, “I asked him if his job was just a stepping stone and he said it was. It hurts my soul when I hear people say that about hospitality, but if we can make them love the work that they’re doing within the industry while at the same time someone like GigPig can allow them to develop themselves as artists, then I think that’s an amazing thing.

“If that guy I spoke to goes on to become a massive success, he’ll remember the bar he was serving drinks at and who knows, he might go back and play a gig there or something like that. I tell people all the time that people will leave the trade, and that’s fine. We need to make sure they’re trained properly regardless of whether they leave or stay.

“Our industry is full of creatives. Often we have to be creative on demand, whether it’s a chef changing a dish up or a mixologist coming up with a new drink. We want to make sure that these creatives are used properly in their jobs and feel valued. Then, you’ve got an organisation like GigPig who can actually give them the opportunities to make money from their art, which is class.”

Unsurprisingly, the current cost of living crisis has shifted the general public’s priorities from spending their money on nights out to more essential situations. However, this budget tightening has led to punters wanting more from the nights out they do go on. Now, more of an experience is required rather than just a few drinks and a bit of a bar crawl. And live music plays a huge role in said experience, as Paddy explained to us.

“Now it’s not a case of someone going out and having seven pints on a Tuesday. It’s more like they’ll go out on, say, a Thursday night and look for somewhere that’s providing an experience. And that experience involves live music. You have places like The Alchemist who have team members who DJ, so on a Friday night they DJ in the restaurant, which is making them feel more valued and not only that, but it’s bringing more people down to the venue.”

Paddy and his team still have much work to do, given how generational divides are still very much entrenched within hospitality, despite huge strides over the last few years. However, the developing of more mutual understanding between bosses and employees, brought on by much of SLT’s work over the last three years, is more and more evident the more venues you frequent.

SLT’s all encompassing approach to mental health and wellbeing is one of the most important developments hospitality has seen in decades. It is a service that is long, long overdue. It is a seismic step to eliminating toxic culture and inspiring a generation of workers who otherwise would have felt undervalued, exhausted, chewed up and spat out.

Now, thanks to SLT, the headliners of the future could be closer than ever to getting their break.