Wellness and the four-day week – coming soon to a venue near you?

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

19 November 2018

How would you describe your quality of life? Your wellness?

The chances are, if you read Imbibe, that it’s unlikely to be ‘good’.

Hospitality is famously demanding on those who work in it, both physically and mentally and with crises in staff recruitment and retention, seems to be getting worse.

It’s seen at its most eye-catching in events like the suicide of world-famous chef/author Anthony Bourdain who hanged himself in June this year.

But tens of thousands of employees face a low-level drip, drip, drip of poor diet, dysfunctional sleep patterns, long hours and the strain of having to deliver great customer experiences every day.

Get it right, you might get a tip. Get it wrong, and you’ll be all over Trip Advisor and, possibly, social media. There aren’t many industries that work with such persistent, visible pressure – or are so poorly paid for doing so.

No wonder that a study by the drinks charity The Benevolent found that 60% of frontline hospitality staff described themselves as ‘very stressed’.

It’s one of the darkest of ironies that an industry dedicated to looking after other people takes so much out of its own employees. And the employees, it seems, have had enough.

Wellness has been a huge topic in the industry for the last few years, with a growing number of talks and articles focusing on how to keep body and soul together both inside and outside the workplace.

All of which made the decision last month by 21212 restaurant in Edinburgh to drop down to four days a week particularly eye-catching.

According to chef/owner Paul Kitching, the decision was taken not to save money (wage levels are to be retained) but to give his chef team, in particular, the space to rediscover their creativity, and to give a better work/life balance across all his staff.

Understandably, mental health and wellness bodies were quick to praise the venue for its decision.

‘21212 is such a good move and I love their reasons for doing it,’ said Tim Etherington-Judge of the on-trade wellness group Healthy Hospo. ‘I think we will definitely see more people doing that.’

21212 are not the first high-profile eatery to cut back their opening hours.

Sat Bains restaurant in Nottingham introduced a four-day week as a trial in 2015, but it went so well they’ve been operating it ever since.

The result, as Head Sommelier Laurent Richet MS puts it, is ‘you come back to work on Wednesday totally refreshed. And if you have a family it gives you the chance to spend more time with them, which can be tricky in our industry.’

You could say that. The norms of hospitality, combining stress, long hours, young people and alcohol, creates a combustible working environment that puts a big strain on marriages and relationships, so getting time off together makes a big difference.

 

Wellness versus costs

Unsurprisingly, staff loyalty at Sat Bains is high (most of the team have been there over two years) and the favourable working conditions mean that it’s easier to recruit new ones should the need arise.

But if the advantages to staff of a reduced working week are obvious, it’s a more complicated issue for the businesses themselves.

Yes, there are advantages to the fact that restaurants running a four-day week only need one full-time team rather than multiple part-time workers.

But increased rent and rates in many big cities have squeezed profit margins to most venues to Mr Creosote-like ‘waffer-thin’ levels.

And just like Monty Python’s gluttonous gourmand, dropping an extra day’s income, however small the take, could see businesses metaphorically exploding all over the country.

‘Commercially speaking, opening for four or five days is only an option if you have two or three quiet days a week,’ says Charlie Young, co-owner of the wine-bar chain, Vinoteca. ‘If every day is busy then your staff cost as a percentage of turnover shouldn’t be more than if you only opened four or five days.’

Given this, it’s no surprise that the two venues mentioned thus far are both a) outside London, where there’s less passing trade and b) Michelin-starred.

‘If you are in a big city being closed never looks good,’ says Chris Delalonde MS, head sommelier at The Dorchester. ‘In the countryside it makes sense, especially as a destination restaurant when you know you will have higher demand from it.’

Delalonde’s analysis was repeated in varying forms by several on-trade operators Imbibe contacted for this article.

But the accepted wisdom that a shorter working week is unworkable for larger or bigger-city venues could be coming under pressure.

Staff shortages and social changes mean that all kinds of venues might need to change their attitude to working hours, whether they like it or not.

As Healthy Hospo’s Tim Etherington-Judge points out, many operators break the law regarding minimum recovery times between shifts, and the younger generation, in particular, are increasingly unlikely to put up with what they see as unreasonable demands.

‘The generation coming through put health and wellness above many other factors,’ he says. ‘The attitude of “that’s how it’s always been” doesn’t wash with them.’

An unwillingness to tolerate long-established norms may explain at least some of the current staffing crisis that is endemic across the on-trade. And if so, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.

‘With the [Brexit] deadline coming next year and the shortage of staff having already started, [a four-day week] gives you food for thought,’ muses Street XO’s Raphael Thierry.

Certainly, the current hospitality average of a 70% staff turnover rate is high enough to suggest that the industry has some pretty serious structural problems. Ones, moreover, that impact on the bottom line.

‘50% of the cost of staff turnover is in hiring new staff,’ says Tim Etherington-Judge. ‘Even if you invested half the money it costs to [hire staff] in looking after the staff you’ve got, you’re going to be in a better place for your business.'

‘We can make simple low-cost or zero cost steps to improve the wellness of our staff.’

And if the bottom line isn’t convincing, then perhaps the industry needs to think about the other very real cost – the human one.

As Etherington-Judge bleakly puts it, ‘I’m tired of people in this industry dying through over-work.’

For further information about help available to the on-trade regarding stress and emotional issues, click here

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