Chocolate Pillow | Mental Health and Your Staff
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Mental Health and Your Staff

23 Apr Mental Health and Your Staff

This is an article prompted by the recent episode of Restaurant Wars on BBC2 (aired 21st April 2014) – for those unfamiliar with the show, it is basically following the pre-opening and launch of 2 restaurants by celebrity chefs, both being opened in Manchester (and both receiving a hell of a lot of bookings since the show aired).

Now, notwithstanding the several food safety breaches seen (fingers in food mixes to taste them, drinking from kitchen prep jugs, various other issues too if you are keen-eyed – and these are people who want or already have Michelin Stars!), there was a more pressing issue in the recent episode.  To summarise (and hopefully not bias) the situation:

Staff at The French (based in the Midland Hotel, Manchester, and headed up by Simon Rogan) who worked in the kitchen, were young; by this I mean less than 20 years old.  Now the opportunity is amazing, but then it is revealed that they are often working 18 hour days with very little rest – one young lad had varicose veins as a result of this and even commented that it was ‘unusual to see sunlight’ and that his hours were often 6:30am straight through to 1am the following day, meaning around 80-90 hours a week for around £16,000 a year (works out to around £3.50 an hour for that chef to cook that lovely steak you just paid £80 for!).  And don’t even get me started on working time directives and regulations relating to this – surely if they are expected to do these hours then their contract disallows an opt-out or they were not informed or were coerced in to it, as I find it unlikely that an 18/19 year old will agree to a 90 hour week voluntarily.  Please however bear in mind that QHotels (owners of The Midland) and The French, have not yet commented (to my knowledge) about this programme and events in particular, and they will always have the right of reply.

One particular guy simply did not turn up for his shift (staff member number 7 in 6 weeks, which surely is an indicator something is wrong!), 2 weeks later he was back in work and said that ‘he didn’t know what is was’ and (to quote) “I suppose it was some sort of breakdown or something” – he had been in hospital as a result and was now returning to work.

It was revealed that he was no longer working in the kitchen for ‘The French’ and that he was told he was to be working in the banqueting kitchen (he only lasted one shift and never went back after that).

Whilst this may not seem too bad, what actually shocked me were the comments made by the head chef Adam Reid.  Quite simply (and to paraphrase) his point of view was that ‘I know it’s long tough hours and all that… but…’ (great attitude to working conditions) and that the missing staff member ‘may just be ill’ – he then said later (when the staff member returned) that “We couldn’t have him back in the kitchen, he would let us down.  No matter how much undue pressure he was under.  He was good, but at the end of the day you are only as good as what you can hack.  When you walk out, you’ve gone, sorry, but thats it!”

I am sure that I cannot be the only person who is not only disgusted by this attitude (putting to one side a few other emotions as you do have to remember that the program was edited and as such, the actual conversations and full details of what is said may well be too), but also dismayed that in such a high end restaurant, the welfare of the staff obviously means less to that head chef than the pork belly he has just served.

This is not only revealing, but also something that needs to desperately be tackled in our industry.  Overworked and under appreciated staff will reach breaking point and either their physical or mental health will take the full force of the stresses of their work.  This could result in increased absences, or simply increased lateness, poor productivity or quality of work and eventually dismissal or resignation.  But this is not the employees fault in all cases.

Businesses in the EU have a legal obligation to protect their staff from stress as far as ensuring there is a health and safety policy that accounts for stress-related risks, tackles them as part of risk assessment and have a policy that actually addresses stress in the workplace.  Now, by my reckoning, that means actually doing what you can to limit the stress put on staff, from the very top level to the very bottom.

Mental Health is a huge issue for the workplace; I have seen the direct result of stress on people, namely my husband whose ongoing 2+ years of anxiety and depression can be attributed in part to the stress from his work (at the time of becoming ill), and the lack of management of this by them – in particular a very poorly managed return to work which exacerbated matters even further.

With restaurant wars, The French has portrayed itself as a very poor employer indeed, with shocking attitudes – mental health is not just about someone ‘snapping out of it’ or being unable to ‘hack it’.  It is a serious issue that can leave people struggling to cope with life and can destroy dreams, aspirations and leave someone surrounded by the stigma of mental health for the rest of their life.  From my personal point of view, I spend every day in the knowledge of what my husband is struggling with; knowing that he cannot cope with some things people take for granted – going to the shop or answering the door are things that become insurmountable mountains of anxiety; knowing that he often sees suicide as the only way to stop his suffering; spending every day in continuous emotional battles with his own mind and actively fighting to stay alive, wondering if one day he will just give up.

Put yourself in my shoes or his, and then tell me that people with mental health issues should just ‘pick themselves up’ and that ‘no matter what undue pressure people are under’ they should learn to ‘just hack it’.  If only everything were that simple!

Just because you have developed coping strategies for the stress, or because you are able to deal with it, it does not mean your staff can.  You are responsible for their safety and welfare in your employment and you are also responsible for ensuring that any return to work is also suited to that employee – in this instance, it seems that The French ‘got rid’ of the employee to a different kitchen because he ‘was unreliable’.  This may have been a phased return to work but how this was managed seemed very poor (from what we saw).  It is also worth noting that the attitude of the head chef left very much to be desired from a manager – if you have a similar attitude to absence from stress, then I urge you to spend time with mental health charities and see if you hold the same opinion afterwards.  When someone is off with mental health issues, it should never be viewed as them ‘potentially being unreliable’ it should be a signal of 2 things:

  1. Your staff need support because you have failed – if you had actively helped and managed their stress and had open conversations and consideration towards the employee, the absence and overload of stress may never have happened
  2. The staff member needs your support.  As a manager, the staff member’s return is your responsibility and their care is your responsibility.

More info is available from gov.uk in relation to managing workplace stress and dealing with return to work etc and I urge everyone to read their rights and every manager to understand peoples rights and their responsibilities as well.

Mental Health issues are not just feeling low for a day or two, they are life-changing and as a manager who fails to observe the severity of mental health welfare at work, bear in mind that you are not just responsible for that employee; when they ‘burn out’ and experience mental health issues, this impacts on their families, friends and coworkers too!

As for me – I will never eat at The French whilst in the knowledge that their staff are treated with what can only be described as neglect, disdain and ignorance.  Remember that as in life, ignorance is never an excuse!

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Matt Shiells-Jones
matt@chocolatepillow.com

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'



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