We are currently experiencing an energy crisis of a different kind - an industry-wide feeling of exhaustion, anxiety, stress, frustration, and fear. We are running out of energy. There is no doubt that the effects of the pandemic and resulting restrictions will have an adverse effect on people's wellbeing. Scientists call for action for mental health science research with regards to COVID-19. For the hospitality workforce, passionate about and specialized in social interactions, the measures of isolation have been tremendously impactful and to some extend traumatizing. The economic hardship coming with temporary and permanent closures, reduced salaries, lack of job vacancies, and a general unpredictability further exacerbate the situation. Our industry employs large numbers of people from vulnerable societal groups who are already at higher risks of mental health issues. It is about time to put the mental health fallout of COVID-19 on the sustainability agenda and kick start a dialog on the subject.
What measures could be taken to restock on energy and facilitate mental health during hardship? How can human connections be fostered and kept intact between frontline, remote, and furloughed staff? How can different companies come together and support each other? What is and has been your personal emotional journey through the last months?
Local community build has become a staple and a key demand for the recovery of the hospitality industry and rebuilding the team's morale in the last 6 months as stories of mass layoffs and furloughed staff amidst closure of properties flooded the public space. Keeping teams engaged and hyper-connected to jointly build a strong support system with cross-industry collaborations has been critical for keeping sanity in everything we have been going through as an industry. A primary focus that helps fosters human connections, seemed to be the creation of lifestyle spaces, meditation corners, laughter yoga workshops and art community forums that bring people to create, remain in a safety cocoon even if for a while before going back to face the surrounding environment.
WhatsApp groups, coffee brainstorm sessions over Zoom and drawing maps of the next Team building exercise and starting to plan have done mindset miracles! Working out in groups on Skype, following shared diet regimens with healthy recipe exchanges and weekly plans have kept multiple “grounded” teams closer together. From Keto bowls we have all shifted to Kerten Bowls with our Executive Chef Jaume riding the fresh produce trend with tips and advice in a large online cooking session for all. Lunch meals of the teams around the world became a sanctuary.
Today, more than ever, wellbeing, health and wellness have been placed high on the radar of the leadership in the hardest hit industry. Amidst the uncertainty, changing consumer habits and eroding travel and tourism projects, wellness and health-related initiatives were planted as the most potent occurrences of the year. A focus on the corporate and individual wellbeing of a team was seen as a recipe for positive outcome and for the only possible outlook for all. And for us, at Kerten Hospitality, staying connected when apart has not been a novice considering we have 35+ projects around the world with teams supporting each other from afar for 5 years till date.
The pivot was: Establishing a local supply chain as a pillar of support and mastering the reform in changing habits and engagements for the benefit of the team, our families, owners and guests. What was essential in those unprecedented times was to remain agile, adaptive and future-focused knowing that the rocky road will soon come to an end and the planes will start taking off bringing our guests and residents back home. This has been a journey of discovery on what we can do collectively and individually to support each other and learn to disrupt together.
A personal takeaway has been the journey of self-discovery, reflection on more adaptive learnings, redefinition of team dedication and growth, reliance on the future generation of hospitality professionals and a great deal of new operational models that deliver scale and meaningful ally-ships. Keeping a positive futuristic outlook and learning from history's worst periods of time have prepared us for the new marketplace. We have fought off the hardship with resilience. Now, we just need to not forget the lessons and focus on the essentials: that health has become the new wealth.
This is undoubtedly a difficult time both professionally and personally. Not only has the industry been particularly badly impacted financially by the crisis, but its people are being denied the levels of human interaction which forms the very core of their business – hospitality. The safety and well-being of staff and guests is an absolute priority, but the digital switchover of a lot of the traditional touchpoints – such as online check in/out – has reduced social interaction and the warmth received from a positive guest experience.
Throughout this crisis, the industry's focus on people has always been at the core. We've seen our members taking a number of steps to support the staff of their closed properties from engaging with their wider business networks to find temporary jobs in much-needed services, to setting up care funds for colleagues with the most pressing financial needs.
From the very start of this pandemic, at a time when we were all looking for ways that we could help the people around us, hotels and restaurants played a vital role supporting their communities – and saw their staff use their hospitality skills in a variety of resourceful and relevant ways.
Vacant hotel rooms were transformed into treatment facilities, quarantine centers, and homeless shelters. Chefs and catering staff supported their community with free food, including frontline careworkers and migrant workers left stranded by the lockdown. Food and supplies were donated to local food banks and charities. Bedsheets became facemasks and gym and spa staff offered online fitness routines and relaxation techniques.
It's the individual stories that have stayed in the mind, for example, hotel staff serenading a boy with a happy birthday from outside the guestroom window in Jordan or a Spanish hotel resort which replaced tourists with refugees. Although the staff had been temporarily laid off while the complex was shut to paying visitors, they still came in to help voluntarily.
Another key standout has been the number of people from our members who reached out to support us while they were on furlough. Throughout this unsettling time, they have remained committed to staying connected with the industry, and using their skills to make a contribution to our work and for the benefit of society and the environment.
With each day, it becomes increasingly important for businesses to ensure that employee mental health and well-being are being considered during these extraordinary and stressful times. We've seen how much employees have responded – often voluntarily – to the opportunities to give back to their communities. As the pandemic continues, and after it has passed, this innate desire to help should continue to be facilitated through deepened community engagement, ensuring those left vulnerable are protected against exploitation, and creating inclusive workplaces that support and welcome people from all backgrounds.
It is a people's industry, and it is the people who have been there for each other and supported each other in what has perhaps been the most difficult year in our lifetimes.
As we come out of the crisis, the rear-view mirror test on how businesses behaved towards their people during this period will be incredibly important – whether you're working with a company or looking to work for them. For the hospitality industry, there's no getting away from the fact that people are at its heart, and inevitably it's people who have been hugely impacted this year, whether through illness, increased uncertainty and stress, or adjustment in their work and personal lives. One positive outcome from all this is that COVID-19 has helped put the conversation around personal and mental health firmly in the mainstream spotlight, and if you look at how the ESG agenda has evolved over this period, we notice how the emphasis on the 'S' has grown – whether that's tackling social issues, caring for communities, or indeed supporting wellness.
As the pandemic took hold, despite the best collective efforts to protect everyone at IHG, the severity of this crisis led to difficult decisions to furlough or let go of some corporate and hotel colleagues. Many organizations have had to make similarly hard choices, and whilst we couldn't avoid it, for us, it has been so important to help wherever we can. The launch of an IHG JobCentre has provided access to employment opportunities with hiring companies in different markets. We also created a 'Stay In Touch' program, to keep connected with colleagues unable to work, in the hope we can welcome them back as demand returns. And as we've seen many hotels reopen, the provision of guidance, best practice, and toolkits have been key to ensuring colleagues are feeling supported in their adjustment to a “new normal”.
With a move to mass remote working at corporate level, some key things we put in place to support people included regular communication with senior leadership, including calls hosted by our CEO with the whole company. For working parents, an IHG Family Network provides a space to connect and share advice. Recognizing the pressure on those colleagues working, 'recharge days' once a month over the summer also helped to protect time for individuals to use however they wished.
Moments like Global Mental Health Day, this weekend just has gone, can be an effective way for companies to drive employees to resources and tools that offer help. At IHG, a focus-week of activity offered leader-led podcasts and mindfulness resources and raised awareness on employee networks and access to professional support. With work being such a huge and integrated part of our daily lives, the business has an important role to play in helping people manage their wellness and providing the right support.
The problem is far wider than some may estimate. Hospitality is not just any business. It's the type of business that provides an escape from day to day troubles, it's essential to wellbeing and a vital medicine to society's ills. A medicine is only as good as its base ingredients and we need to ensure we do not exhaust ours (our hospitality professionals)! This is a time where we can unite and have a joined-up voice, a time when governments may finally listen and support Hospitality both financially and through appropriate legislation. Companies can properly utilize their hospitality associations and unite to create consortia that work towards solutions that help them look after their staff!
There has never been a time when we have experienced more rapid adoption of e-platforms to communicate and share ideas. Society is rapidly changing, we need to adopt new ideas and adapt to a new social norm. I have seen colleagues lost and defeated and organizations going out of business but at the same time. I have witnessed acts of heroism, individuals supporting each other, and small business owners fighting with all their might to not let a single member of their team go. Remember the roots of Hospitality and go back to what it truly means to extend hospitality and extend it to your staff as much as you provide it to your customers. Do not lose hope and join virtual teams, exchange ideas, and fight united for a better tomorrow. Working towards a common goal can also be personal therapy!
Part of the mental balance brought by our professional activities is based on our feelings of contribution and progression, which seem to be two axes that companies can continue to foster. A time of low (no) activity can be an opportunity to organize special theme committees to contribute to the company's improvement and resilience. Examples of such committees include service excellence, operational standards, sustainability and CSR or business continuity management. Gathering staff members around strategic topics for the company and offering them the opportunity to share and shape their ideas around these surely offers a sense of purpose, belonging, and learning.
When it comes to individual initiatives, and as a professional involved in Hospitality Management education I am witnessing the willingness of professionals (in all types of professional situations and all around the world) to bond with educational programs and initiate new types of collaborations. It seems to me like precious leverage which contributes both to increasing professional's motivation and alleviating student's worries.
Finally, some companies are putting their resources together either to help each other or to support others. La Fabrique du Tourisme in France is an example of the latter and is aiming at providing insight and concrete action plan scenarios to all hoteliers on present and future strategic topics.
There have been a lot of studies lately to manifest the positive effects time spent in the natural environment can have on mental health and well-being. Therefore, it could be extremely beneficial to create programmes whereby furloughed or remote working staff are encouraged to meet up for specific activities within a park, a woodland or other nature reserve. Either for physical exercises or otherwise nature-related conservation activities, such as tree planting, cleaning-up of plastic waste or wildlife watching.
These kinds of activities are extremely bonding for staff and create a much stronger team spirit, gives those in furlough a sense of purpose at the same time as doing something positive for the environment as well. They raise awareness and further knowledge about nature related issues, some of which can be integrated into operations once a hotel is up and running again.
And of course these away days can also be planned with other hotel companies to foster collaboration and cross fertilise ideas.
Among others, the pandemic generated restrictions not only have increased the 'official' time we spend online, alongside with an increased administrative charge, but also intruded our private life, particularly when we consider the increasing emails and tasks received during the weekends. Since this is not regulated firmly, I would encourage companies to limit the business 'hours' even if one works remotely. Concerning the restrictions generated stress, de-socialisation, and exhaustion, one idea could be for the human resource management at the company to intelligently encourage employees to reunite outside of the business environment, for example in splendid natural settings. This way, employees would not only have the opportunity to re-socialize with colleagues, but they could also re-vitalize energies to face the current challenges. The global problem is originated from nature, and a part of the solution may also come from it.
The COVID-19 winding road: Personal experience & Importance of Community
Running out of energy is exactly where I find myself. I went from an active interpersonal schedule with 200-300 people a day to forced isolation, alone, in Miami, Florida. Here it is, October 10th, 210 plus days later and still alone in a high rise, I overlook the silhouette of Miami Beach with the Atlantic Ocean peeking between hotels. In that same time a record number of plus 90 degree days with very high humidity levels presented not the best climate for walking and getting fresh air. Last week I went out for lunch with a friend in the outdoor garden of a restaurant with COVID-19 prevention practices. As we finished up I found myself gaining back energy, feeling some sparks and suddenly understanding where the daily energy quotient has been slipping off to and why. Just the dynamic of live and in-person conversation over a meal was enough to rekindle it.
Zoom has been my work and social companion as well as a mind-numbing communication platform. When first isolating I was up every morning, ready for business, on schedule. But then I sprained my knee and started getting sinus headaches and soon it seemed that when one zoom project was done I would slip off to put the knee up and fall asleep. Productivity was gliding downhill really quickly. Then I test drove a new car, with COVID-19 prevention practices, and surprise, I bought a car. Then I went house hunting and surprise, I bought a condo. In the meantime webinars needed to be organized with themes on the New Normal and guess what, I have a contract for a new online textbook on sustainable development and operations. Somehow things are getting done, but the energy quotient still drops really low. A phone call may find someone who must feel more stimulated than I do and just maybe we can laugh and eat chocolate. One day I will wake up and find a new car sitting outside a new house and think that maybe this was isolation over-reach.
In May and June of this year, The Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Florida International University held a fundraising appeal to raise money for small restaurant businesses in Miami. Sunday noontime became a weekly drive-thru food fest of outrageous desserts, pulled pork meals, and other treats created by local chefs and restaurants in exchange for donation funds. We need more of that to look forward to as social get-togethers, even from one car to another. A sense of coming together, of purpose, is what is missing in our world of helping and hospitable people. Many need our skills even while we socially distance with masks, gloves and Clorox wipes. Our laughter, concern, smiles, and selflessness are needed by many. How can we do that in our communities, how can we help each other? It is perhaps harder as the weeks go on, when we had expected to be back to normal but are constantly adjusting mentally, uncertain as to what and when normal will be.
The traditional wisdom is to offer coping strategies, and those can work, but can also be temporary and may not go far enough. There is new evidence-based science that says we need to teach the mind and body emotionally what the future will feel like ahead of the actual experience. In other words, living in gratitude and acting as if you are already living the life you desire. This is not about saying positive affirmations.
A shift is taking place and people around the world are waking up and learning, for ourselves, how to heal our own minds and bodies. We can't wait for our success to feel empowered and in control of our lives. We can't wait for wealth to feel abundant, wait for the perfect relationship to feel love, wait for healing to feel whole. We can't wait for something outside of us to change how we feel inside. That's the old Newtonian model of cause and effect reality. The Quantum model of reality is about causing an effect.
We have 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts every day, of which the vast majority are the same ones as every day before. It's the subconscious mind that has been programmed throughout our lives, and is on autopilot. Thoughts create an emotional response, which triggers a chemical reaction in the body. How we think and feel about any situation creates our reality. Fear, of any kind, creates stress, which creates disease and dis-ease. We need to change how and what we think.
As for my personal journey, I have managed to cope better than I expected. First and foremost, I never check my email or smartphone in the morning until I have meditated for at least 30 minutes, and I do this every day. My favorite guided meditations are Kelly Howell and Rising Higher. For the past two years I have been following these new discoveries by so many scientists and thought leaders and in particular those of Dr. Joe Dispenza, and Dr. Bruce Lipton. I have already unlearned many of the automatic responses my subconscious mind would normally think, and physically rewired new connections in my brain. I've learned that when I look back over my life, even with the challenges, I realize that everything is always working out for me. That can be true for everyone, depending on how you view your inside and outside world.
There is so much to more to share than the limitations of this article could permit, so I invite everyone to check it out and decide for themselves. Videos, interviews, and guided meditations are available on YouTube, so it doesn't cost anything to improve the quality of our lives, especially during these times.
There is a quote whose source is unknown that says, “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it's not alright, it's not the end.”
The academic research community has investigated the concept of 'absenteeism' to great lengths and from various angles from the business performance consequences to the individual psychological effects. More recently, 'presenteeism' has received increased attention. There are two prongs to presenteeism: (A) employees that work beyond the requirements and (B) employees that make the choice to work while ill. And while many professionals have joined the ranks of category (A) over the pandemic with computers on in the living rooms blurring the private and professional (a sort of 'virtual presenteeism'), there seems to be a largely accepted culture of category (B) in the hospitality industry. Because the provision and consumption of service occur at the same time (inseparability), hospitality employees must physically engage in welcoming the guest, serving breakfast, or providing spa treatments.
In a recent article published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, Arjona-Fuentes et al. (2020) who examined the individual, organisational and physical/mental health factors linked to presenteeism, conclude that not only is presenteeism a 'defence mechanism against uncertainty and job insecurity' (Caverley et al., 2007 in Arjona-Fuentes et al., 2020) but that in fact presenteeism is predominant in situations where employees feel they may lose their work. This, of course, is an important source of mental health problems. A research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry explains that financial distress due to the pandemic directly correlates to mental health issues and that other pandemic impacts such as work and social disruption are linked to 'elevated depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as decreased psychological wellbeing' (Dawel, et al., 2020, para 1). In the current situation, the pandemic has had an unequal impact across the hospitality workforce. General Managers have picked up front desk shifts or nigh audit rounds all the while front line staff are on furlough; this scenario is rather common for many properties out there, especially in the privately owned and operated hotel sector. The solutions are multifaceted; the World Health Organization declares October 10th to be the World Mental Health Day, and I would recommend anyone to take some time to browse the resources freely available including numerous practical guides. Additionally here is the link to an interesting piece on Empathy and Leadership in the Harvard Business Review.
Arjona-Fuentes, J.M., Ariza-Montes, A., Han, H., & Law, R. (2019). Silent threat of presenteeism in the hospitality industry: Examining individual, organisational and physical/mental health factors. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 82, 191-198.
Caverley, N., Cunningham, J.B., & MacGregor, J.N. (2007). Sickness Presenteeism, Sickness Absenteeism, and Health Following Restructuring in a Public Service Organization. Journal of Management Studies 44(2), 304–319.
Dawel, A., Shou, Y., Smithson, M., Cherbuin, N., Banfield, M., Calear, A.L., Farrer, L.M., Gray, D., Gulliver, A., Housen, T., McCallum, S.M., Morse, A.R., Murray, K., Newman, E., Rodney Harris, R.M. & Batterham, P.J. (2020). The Effect of COVID-19 on Mental Health and Wellbeing in a Representative Sample of Australian Adults. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11:579985. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.579985