Mental Health: A Workplace Responsibility

The news last week of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide was a shock and saddened millions of fans who shared Bourdain’s wonderment at the world around him and at our shared humanity, aspirations and dreams, which he explored through travel and cuisine. The news was also a reminder that despite outward appearances and behaviours, many people are dealing with inner demons that can be exacerbated by numerous factors, including workplace stress.

Workplace stress is prevalent in every sector of the economy and in pretty much every job. For those working in tourism and hospitality, a certain level of stress is normal—even healthy in some instances. From long lines of exhausted travellers at the front desk to the table of six with their laundry list of food intolerances and reminders that they are in a hurry, stress is unavoidable in most positions.

Another very tangible stress in parts of our sector is the shortage of available labour to meet demand. Discussion around skills shortages generally includes how the lack of qualified staff will negatively impact business growth, but not how ongoing shortages are impacting the work-life balance and stress levels of owners and current employees. While various levels of government and industry groups look to tackle this challenge, employers and managers can take steps now to ensure they are not adding stress without the practices and support to help employees navigate the situation. How stress is managed and channelled is key to its impact on an individual employee.

Tourism requires leaders who have not only ambition, drive and the IQ needed to succeed, but also the willingness to cultivate their Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EIQ). EIQ is a set of abilities related to the understanding, use, and management of emotions as it relates to one’s self and others. Leaders who possess or cultivate these skills can:

  • Help mitigate the impact of workplace bullying
  • Improve team dynamics
  • Build a more inclusive, welcoming, productive, and less stressed environment for their employees

In general, we’ve recently seen a decline in civil discourse and empathy toward our fellow human beings. The root causes of this move away from civility are too numerous to broach here, so we’ll save the deep dive for a manifesto. That said, there are tangible examples of why abhorrent behaviour is becoming more commonplace in tourism and hospitality. One need only look at the litany of TV shows featuring the foul-mouthed, acerbic manner of Gordon Ramsey or his ilk brow-beating employees and employers alike to see this behaviour on display. Many are likely decent humans who are merely portraying characters prone to hyperbole and overbearing behaviour, but the influence on society and how that is reflected in the workplace cannot—and should not—be diminished.

Here are some workplace practices that can foster a positive mental attitude and provide the tools, procedures, and knowledge employees can access if they are having difficulties:

1.       Create a healthy environment.

Employers need to be aware of the type of lifestyle they are promoting among their workers. In many businesses, and especially prevalent in bars and restaurants, hard work and stress are expressed through a hard-partying lifestyle once a shift is finished. While this approach may work for some short-term, it can often exacerbate the problem. Some constructive initiatives could include:

  • Encourage physical activity. If viable, assist employees with memberships to health clubs or time for a yoga session in a nearby park.
  • Dedicate part of regular staff meetings to sharing information about stress management and encourage the team to assist management in finding healthy outlets for stress and depression.
  • Ensure employees feel comfortable discussing the topic with managers/employers. Make sure the manager/employer has taken training or has the skills to render advice and assistance.

2.       Assist employees to identify mental health risks.

Mental health is a very personal and private thing for most people, but that does not mean they are not looking for information to assist them in dealing with stress or depression. This is where an employer can find non-intrusive ways of providing help. Consider these practices:

  • When conducting annual performance reviews, include links to local mental health providers. This allows the employee to reach out independently, while also demonstrating that the employer cares about employees’ well-being.
  • Pay attention to what is going on with workplace culture. Listen to concerns and complaints, and address them. This can help build the trust needed by many to be open and receptive to advice and help.

3.       Provide employees with information on how to access help.

Despite your best efforts, there will be employees who will never feel comfortable speaking directly to a supervisor or co-worker about mental health concerns, but we need to ensure these people do not fall through the cracks. Include sources of assistance in employee manuals, onboarding sessions, locker room posters, etc.

4.       Be civil!

One might think this is obvious, but we are reminded daily that practices like the Golden Rule (treat others as you want to be treated) have somehow fallen by the wayside. An important attribute of being civil is listening to the people around you. Take ten seconds to understand what is being said before deciding on your answer and try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective before responding based your own. Some additional practices in building a healthier and more civil workplace include:

  • Set the example. Creating and cultivating a healthy, civil workplace starts with a company’s leadership. Workplace culture, norms, and practices often reflect the actions and behaviours of leaders.
  • Do not tolerate rude or aggressive behaviour and have stated, tangible repercussions that are enforced. Rude and uncivilized behaviour can be contagious, so dealing with the situation quickly, fairly, and consistently is a key factor in controlling behaviour.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Open and honest communication flow is important in every workplace. Establish mechanisms for employees to air grievances or concerns, as well as a feedback process for management to address them. A lack of dialogue between colleagues and between employees and management can sometimes foster a feeling that things are being withheld, which can be highly stressful and lead to negative or suspicious thinking. Being open and seeking input from everyone fosters a sense of inclusion and allows employees to make meaningful contributions to growing a healthy and productive workplace.

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