From impacted sleep patterns to stress and exhaustion, the ups and downs of the beer industry during Covid-19 is taking its toll on staff wellbeing. Lily Waite talks to brewery owners about how they and their teams are coping
As the UK’s lockdown restrictions continue to ease in some parts of the country, whilst in others restrictions return to quell outbreaks of Covid-19, the craft beer industry is navigating a sea of unpredictability. With some employers across the industry forced to furlough key members of staff to save on wages, other workers were left to fill in the gaps.
Now, some five months after lockdown began, those who worked throughout the shutdown – in many cases shifting to new roles and taking on more work – are feeling the exhaustion. Since the on-trade has reopened, albeit in a reduced capacity, there’s little sign of any respite.
London’s Brick Brewery closed for three weeks as lockdown began, before operating with a skeleton crew, as sales on the newly-implemented online store soared. With an asthmatic child, founders Ian and Sally Stewart had to balance the anxiety of keeping the family safe, home-schooling, and running the business – whilst Ian picked, packed, and delivered local orders.
'It was incredibly full on,' says Sally, 'and felt a bit like going back to the beginning but it was incredible how quickly we adapted.' Now, with all bar three employees back at work, things are returning to some normality for Brick.
'We thought we would struggle to survive,' she says, 'but through adapting and working really, really hard we managed to tick over and now the industry is kind of back open to some degree, we are starting to see this ticking over.'
Most of our staff report having had severely impacted sleep patterns, emotional instability, stress reactions of various kinds... all three of the family running the pub are now on anti-depressant medication
Sheffield’s Abbeydale Brewery, which furloughed roughly one third of staff and have since permanently closed one of their pubs, lost the 'overwhelming majority' of their market when pubs closed, but online shop orders increased, to the point of being '20 times busier than Christmas,' says lead brewer Jim Rangeley.
'Personally I have worked harder than I've had to in a long while,' he continues, 'but it often felt like I've achieved less at the end of the day. It has been a relentless slog to try and keep the business moving. This feeling is certainly felt across the production team.'
This relentless slog goes far beyond exhaustion. 'It's really evident that the whole experience of Covid-19 and the shutdown has had a massive impact on the emotional and psychological health of lots of us in the industry,' says Nick Holden, landlord of The Geese and Fountain in Croxton Kerrial, Leicester. 'Most of our staff report having had severely impacted sleep patterns, emotional instability, stress reactions of various kinds. We're a small pub, family run – and all three of the family running the pub are now on anti-depressant medication.'
Like many pubs, both rural and urban, the Geese and Fountain pivoted to running a household and grocery shop from the pub, as well as takeaway beer, wine, and meals. This unconventional trade has since dried up since reopening in early July, meaning the pub is 'closer to "normal" than "pivot" right now,' explains Holden. 'We're trying to keep all our options open, because of the threat of possible further restrictions.'
On top of irregular shift patterns, working under strange and difficult distancing conditions, and unusual trade patterns – the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has increased demand in the week and lessened it at weekends – Holden and landlady Kate Ahrens are dealing with the stresses of trying to maintain the wellbeing of their staff (both whilst furloughed and then when back at work) whilst struggling to keep the pub in business. 'As a small business that is really struggling to stay afloat it is difficult to put sufficient support measures in place,' says Holden.
Back to work
For some back at work in the on-trade, the break from the tedium of lockdown is a blessed relief. 'For me the struggle was boredom,' says Paul Crowther, who returned to work at The Yard House in Tynemouth at the end of June. 'I’m used to working a lot and being outside the house and the monotony of my routine was unbearable; I was very happy to come back to work not for money but to get out of the house.'
In craft beer shops such as this, employers’ priority is the safety of staff, which can be maintained through sufficient distancing procedures and hand-washing facilities. Crowther says this is key to looking after staff: 'Employers just need to ensure social distancing doesn’t get lax, it’s easy to let one too many people in or let rules slide over time. Most pubs seem to be doing really well now in terms of staff and customers, they just need to maintain that standard.'
Seeing friends, colleagues and peers losing jobs and continuing to struggle and without an end in sight is demoralising to say the least. Those of us that have worked throughout are tired
For Holden, it’s also a matter of the personal relationships he has with staff. 'We know their children, their partners, their families. Many of them live locally in the same community as us,' he explains. Throughout the pandemic, his focus has been his staff’s mental health, and in turn what extra measures they might need to cope. 'That doesn't apply to all employers equally, of course,' he continues, 'so larger employers need to put systems in place to make up for that lack of personal relationship.'
With the on-trade in a broad spectrum of states of re-opening, and much of the craft sector at least part-way returning to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality, uncertainty surrounding reforms to Small Brewers Duty Relief (SBDR) means that there’s widespread unease to add to the exhaustion.
'The industry is in turmoil, there are many worrying developments with pubs and indie shops shutting as well as changes to SBDR,' says Rangeley. 'Seeing friends, colleagues and peers losing jobs and continuing to struggle and without an end in sight is demoralising to say the least. Those of us that have worked throughout are tired.'