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Hospitality workers
Photography Maxwell Jayes, via Unsplash

Burnout, harassment, poor pay: young people on the hospitality staff crisis

As hospitality vacancies in the UK hit an all-time high, workers explain how COVID and Brexit have impacted their jobs, and exposed toxicity that’s been endemic in the industry for too long

Annie, now 24, started working in hospitality as a waitress when she was 16 years old. At university, she studied hospitality business management, hoping it would give her a leg-up in the industry and accelerate her career. During her studies, she served tables in an Italian restaurant. When the pandemic stomped in, the restaurant let all the staff go. For Annie, it served as a crunch point: doubts that had been niggling for years came into sharp focus, and she resolved to turn her back on hospitality – for good.

“I’d been doing my degree for four years, nothing was open, and I couldn’t get a job,” she says. “I was sat around doing nothing; I couldn’t apply for furlough because I’d only been there three months. I felt so anxious about my future. And I decided it just wasn’t for me.”

As well as spawning immediate, pressing challenges, the pandemic crystallised endemic concerns about the industry that had long been festering: low pay, long hours, little job security or progression, daily sexism and bullying at work. For many young hospitality workers, it’s a similar story. A combination of COVID and Brexit have laid bare issues that have been bubbling under the surface for years, and the result can be seen in the signs plastered across the fronts of cafes, bars, restaurants, and pubs everywhere, pleading for staff.

Hospitality is floundering in the clutches of what many call a recruitment crisis. The Office for National Statistics reported that from April to June 2021, hospitality had the greatest numbers of vacancies of any British industry – the highest levels in the sector since records began. One in five workers have left since COVID. Restaurants and pubs have reported a quarter of those employed before the pandemic will not return. Recent figures by trade body UKHospitality revealed that 85 per cent of venues are searching for chefs, while 80 per cent are on the hunt for front-of-house staff.

Media coverage predominantly focuses on disgruntled pub owners or the impact of Brexit – but what about those who used to pull the pints and do the dishes, but have since decided they don’t want to return? And for those sticking it out, what can be done to improve things and lure workers back?

The enforced downtime of the pandemic caused people to reassess their attitudes towards work – and their priorities. Many of those toiling in the notoriously gruelling hospitality industry realised that their scales were tipped. The pandemic provided the opportunity to restore balance. “One thing that was really noticeable was the rest,” says Cressi, a 26-year-old bar supervisor at London’s Sexy Fish restaurant. “You got to take a step back and have two weeks off, which was mad.” Cressi’s colleagues realised they wanted a work-life balance, decent pay, and 11 hours rather than six between shifts (the latter meaning a paltry four-hours sleep a night). Others, like Cressi, found fitness in lockdown. “People turned around and said they wanted more. And they were no longer willing to completely destroy their bodies over it.”

Hospitality work culture is studded by drink and drugs. Some are attracted to the job by a pre-existing thirst, others use drugs to cling to the ever-spinning wheel. “The people I worked with were super depressing,” says Yasmin, 25, now a PR assistant. “A lot of them were alcoholics. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.” While Cressi loves her current role in hospitality, and has found balance in a four-day-week, Yasmin is one of the industry’s fatalities. “I was missing out on all the things I loved in life because of the unsociable hours,” she tells Dazed. “My company was completely illegal in terms of breaks – I worked 12-hour shifts with no lunch or dinner. I was up all night and slept all day, and with that, normal things you take for granted just disappear.”

“I worked 12-hour shifts with no lunch or dinner. I was up all night and slept all day, and with that, normal things you take for granted just disappear” – Yasmin

Finishing late has an especially heavy gravity for women. Yasmin’s cracking point came as she was waiting for a bus home after a late shift. A man in a van drove past, beeping and calling out. She ignored it, and was looking at her phone when two hands suddenly grabbed her from behind. “He tried to grab me and told me to come to his van, and I started screaming.” She ran to the nearest people – two men – who waited with her while she got a cab. “I got in and just started crying. It’s such a scary environment when you leave work and all the businesses around are closing so there aren’t many people around. There was just those two guys and I remember thinking as I walked towards them, ‘How do I even know they’re safe?’”

It’s not just on the streets. At work, women report regular sexual harassment. “I was massively sexualised as being a blonde female,” recalls Annie. “Management would always comment on the way I look, like, ‘Your bum looks really good today’.”

While some believe it is an exciting moment to be a woman in the industry, barriers remain. Anna, 35, who recently left hospitality after 16 years, runs a platform to support women in the sector. “I left because it was a struggle to progress and move up to the next level,” she tells Dazed “Hospitality has an old school mentality – almost like a boys club. Only 25 per cent of executives in hotels are women, eight per cent are people of colour. The other side of it was we couldn’t get home safely without paying huge amounts for taxis.” Anna says a cab home after every shift was around £20, totting up to £100 a week.

For workers of every age and gender, money – or the lack of it – is a clincher. The UK’s national living wage is expected to go up to £9.50 an hour from April 2022, meaning a pay rise for millions of low-paid workers. However, many workers in hospitality are on temporary or zero-hour contracts, work ad-hoc, or rely on tips and service charges. Luca, 35, a bar manager at Shangri-La in London’s The Shard, says lockdown catapulted many into a financial crisis. “Furlough wasn’t calculated on service charge but just basic salary, which is only 60 per cent of our income. Bar-backs in my team were receiving £900 a month. Some of them decided to change jobs because they got burnt by that.”

During lockdown, Anna volunteered with a homeless charity. “We were out pretty much every night feeding the homeless, and a lot of those people were byproducts of the hospitality industry and furlough,” she explains. “One guy had been made redundant from a Mexican restaurant. He literally had nothing, he couldn’t afford to get home to Romania, so he was living on the streets. He would FaceTime his daughter and wife back home, it was so sad. There was just no way out.” Even for those in senior positions, like Luca and Anna, salaries based on service charge make it near-impossible to do things like get a mortgage. 

For now, the effects continue to trickle down into the current recruitment drive. The past three months have been the most challenging of Luca’s career. “We’ve been struggling to recruit since May,” he says. “Brexit and furlough drove many out of the country. Unfortunately, lots of people now applying aren’t qualified. I’m receiving highly-skilled CVs from other countries, but they don’t have settled status.”

“Furlough wasn’t calculated on service charge but just basic salary, which is only 60 per cent of our income. Some (people) decided to change jobs because they got burnt by that” – Luca

What has shocked Luca most is the shift in attitudes. Now, money is the first priority. On four recent occasions, Luca says he’s guided people through the recruitment process, feeling a mild sense of relief, only to be sent a text before the first shift to say they’re not coming. “I believe they’re considering three or four offers in different places and until the very last minute haven’t decided which one to take, perhaps just based on the money.” It speaks to something wider: many have lost their appetite for the job, or willingness to compromise other parts of their life for it.

“The pandemic has taught us that we need to change many things in our industry,” Luca continues. “What’s important is to focus not just on the money, but the whole benefit you provide: uniforms, meals, small things that make a difference. We need to look after people and offer career development. People are the assets.” For Cressi, getting people back will take full pay and four-day weeks.

Anna believes the moment is an “awakening” and can precipitate a “reset for the industry”. It has been a long time coming. Perhaps one of the pandemic’s small silver-linings is that the time has finally come. But for many ex-workers who professed a genuine love of hospitality, it is too little, too late.