Research conducted by the University of Cambridge and University College London, which analysed data from 20,000 people, revealed that the two industries with the highest percentage of employees experiencing common mental health problems were real estate (23.6%) and hospitality (23.8%).
The travel, hospitality, and leisure sector is often perceived as dynamic and exciting, offering opportunities to meet new people and create memorable experiences. However, it also has a less glamorous side hidden beneath its sparkling facade. This industry is infamous for its high-pressure environment, which can significantly affect employees’ mental health. The long hours and the constant need to deliver exceptional service can lead to various mental health issues.
Recognising this, Stanton Chase decided to interview top HR leaders in travel, hospitality, and leisure companies. Our goal was to understand how they are addressing the issue of mental health in the workplace and what steps they are taking to improve the situation.
The HR leaders we interviewed come from a diverse range of companies, including major airlines, renowned global and regional hotel groups, and mainstream restaurants. We have respected their anonymity and that of their companies in the answers provided to the questions below, ensuring they could speak honestly and openly about their experiences.
All of the surveyed HR leaders concurred: discussions around mental health in the travel, hospitality, and leisure sector have significantly increased since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the contributing factors they shared with us during our interviews include:
However, one interviewee, a commercial airline, highlighted that mental health awareness has always been a crucial issue in their sector, given the need to ensure that personnel, such as pilots, are mentally fit before undertaking flights.
“I believe people have become more open about their mental health issues in recent years, perhaps due to the use of platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. These platforms might make people feel more comfortable sharing their concerns, as they offer a sense of face-to-face interaction without the conventional pressure of an in-person meeting,” another HR leader added.
When it came to this question, consensus was split. Some of the HR leaders we interviewed said that they believed poor mental health was the new pandemic—others said that poor mental health has always been an issue in the workplace since time immemorial, but that people finally feel comfortable talking about it.
Some of the other observations made by HR leaders we interviewed included:
“Is mental health the new pandemic? I think it’s always been one,” one HR leader said.
Acknowledging the importance of mental health in the workplace, HR professionals have been deliberating who should bear the responsibility for employees’ mental health. The consensus appears to be that the responsibility is shared, although the specifics can vary from one company to another.
The following is what we understood from our discussions with HR leaders:
“I believe we hold a significant responsibility towards our employees. We, as HR leaders, can offer support to those who might not even realise they need it,” one HR leader said.
The scope of a company’s wellness program can vary dramatically based on the unique needs and culture of each organisation.
Here’s how the HR professionals we interviewed described their company’s wellness programs:
“I dedicate half of my time to ensuring we have an effective Employee Assistance Program. We have training programs in place, designated ambassadors, and we provide support through various charities,” one HR leader said.
The HR leaders we interviewed provided varying insights into whether certain demographics of employees were more likely to experience or discuss mental health challenges at work. Their insights included:
“Sadly, we’ve experienced three or four mental health incidents in the past year, primarily among young and middle-aged men. As a result, we’re directing our ambassadors, training, and support more towards this demographic,” shared one HR leader.
We asked the HR leaders we interviewed about the factors they believed were contributing to poor mental health in their industry. Their responses were diverse, but some common themes emerged.
The insights we gathered included:
“The cost-of-living crisis is so severe that some of our employees’ only warm meal of the day might be the one we provide. And because people are working more overtime to try to earn more money to make ends meet, they have less time for social life and family, which also has a negative mental health impact,” one HR leader shared.
The pandemic has significantly altered many aspects of life. As the world “reopened” post-COVID, a prevailing question was whether customer relationships would have changed due to the prolonged period of isolation everyone had experienced.
We asked the HR leaders we interviewed if their teams had reported changes in customer interactions after the pandemic. Here’s what they shared:
One plausible explanation for these varied experiences could be that customers are interacting differently with different subsectors within the tourism, hospitality, and leisure industry. While customer interactions may be improving in some types of businesses post-COVID, others may not be experiencing the same effects.
“For some reason, there are far more incidents on flights of customers being unreasonably difficult or disruptive than there were pre-pandemic,” one HR leader shared.
By now, it is widely understood that long hours, overtime, burnout, and stress contribute to poor mental health. Therefore, the question facing travel, hospitality, and leisure companies is whether they should implement policies ensuring their employees take sufficient time off in the form of annual leave and daily breaks to combat poor mental health.
Here are the insights we gathered from the HR leaders we interviewed:
“I caution against well-meaning interference. It can be more harmful than beneficial and could increase an employee’s stress levels instead of reducing them. I advocate for limited policies, procedures, and guidelines, implementing only as many as necessary, and providing a comfortable environment for those who need exceptions to these rules,” one HR leader stated.
The issue of mental health in the workplace is here to stay, whether the HR department is ready for it or not. This leads us to the next logical question: can HR leaders recognise mental health problems in the workplace, and is it their role to do so?
The HR leaders we interviewed shared the following insights:
“Most of our HR team is qualified in mental health first aid, and while they do not necessarily need this certification, they are adept at identifying problems reported by restaurant or support centre colleagues,” one HR leader shared.
Having established that the HR leaders we interviewed were attempting to combat mental health problems in the workplace—even if they didn’t believe it was their job or that they were qualified to do so (with a few exceptions)—the next logical question is whether they are equipped with the necessary resources to provide employees with mental health support.
The HR leaders we interviewed provided these insights:
“When mental health discussions arise, HR is told to do more—but we have limited resources, a limited budget, and aren’t given a seat at the table when it comes to high-level discussions,” one HR leader shared.
Working with poor mental health on a daily basis can be a challenge in itself. HR leaders are often recognised for their empathy, but this trait can sometimes lead to them taking on too much of others’ burdens—potentially creating mental health problems for themselves if they fail to set strict boundaries with the people they try to help.
We asked the HR leaders we interviewed how they were protecting their own mental health. Here’s what they shared:
“If HR professionals themselves aren’t comfortable addressing their own mental health issues, it indicates a lack of a well-being culture,” one HR leader shared.
A study featured in the International Journal of Hospitality Management revealed several characteristics typically found in ineffective hospitality leaders:
The same study also identified conditions that facilitate the rise of such flawed leaders:
In the travel, hospitality, and leisure industry, poor leadership can intensify mental health issues among employees. That’s why it’s crucial to invest in the best possible leadership talent.
Companies must also continue to devise comprehensive strategies supporting mental wellbeing. Such strategies should not only include mental health programs but also address root causes like excessive work hours, low pay, and interpersonal conflicts.
Tackling these fundamental issues is no easy task—it demands stellar leadership. Luckily, you don’t have to face this challenge alone. At Stanton Chase, we offer more than 30 years of experience in developing and improving C-suites and boards.
If your leadership is grappling with issues it can’t seem to solve, we’re here to help. Click here to connect with one of our leadership consultants.
Nicholas Wylde is a Managing Partner at Stanton Chase London and serves as the Global Sector Leader for Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure. He has been an executive search professional since 1989 and a Partner at Stanton Chase London since 1994.
Nicholas has successfully handled numerous senior leadership position searches for a diverse range of clients, including global corporations, UK-centric firms, start-ups, and private equity portfolio companies in the consumer and services sector. Typically, the positions he fills encompass roles such as Chief Executive Officers (both quoted and private), Regional Presidents, Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), Chief Commercial Officers, Chief Customer Officers, Global CRM roles, Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs), and board positions.
Nicholas has also previously served as the Chair of the Marketing Committee and Global Practice Leader for Consumer Products and Services at Stanton Chase.
Prior to his career in executive search, Nicholas enjoyed a career in hotel management, which included owning and operating a 16th-century coaching inn. He holds diplomas from Cornell University and the American Hotel and Motel Association in Hotel Administration.
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