Many of us will be keen and enthusiastic customers of the hospitality industry. It’s where we go to enjoy ourselves and spend our hard-earned cash. Yet it’s an industry that can be challenging for operators and workers to thrive in. Whilst many people may only work in the industry for a few years, perhaps as students, it can also be a fulfilling long-term career. It is fair however to say that the industry sometimes gets a bad reputation, with unsociable hours and low pay just some of the issues that come to mind.
There will always be ‘bad’ employers who have little regard for the wellbeing of their employees. But most employers know that an undervalued and unmotivated workforce will not provide the level of customer service that a successful business relies on. Being able to retain staff who want to make a career in the industry also has benefits for businesses. Whilst it may seem obvious to say that if an employer wants to hang on to their staff they need to pay their staff more, businesses face a balancing act when working in a competitive sector with fluctuating demand and little buffer in their margins to deal with prices rises and staff shortages. Added on to that, we’ve heard loud and clear the frustrations around the impact of an often changing and ill thought through policy direction from governments across the UK.
As well as pointing out to the government what they can do better, businesses also need to think carefully about what they can do to support their employees, particularly those who are relying on their wage to raise a family and are likely to have little buffer in their own financial circumstances.
The Fraser of Allander Institute been looking at these elements in an ongoing programme of work in collaboration with the Poverty Alliance and the Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures. We published two reports today, one that focussed on our work with employers and another that asked those who work in the sector (although not from the same businesses) about their experiences of the sector.
A big part of this project is about understanding how change does or doesn’t happen in the industry. We’ve worked with a small group that builds on each other’s experience to explore issues affecting staff, and the wider business, to explore what changes can be made.
One employer spoke about wanting to be able to support employees who may be struggling financially, and another employer suggested exploring a service that can support businesses to pay employees a portion of their wages in advance of pay dates. Another employer who was concerned about the impact of the seasonality of demand on their workers was introduced to the idea of annualised hours by another employer which can help to smooth out wages during quieter times.
An issue that we have written up as a case study in one of our reports released today focussed on repeated sickness absence due to issues with mental health. Following advice from other employers participating in our research, the employer was able to successfully engage with the worker in question, with working patterns adjusted, and since the change was made, there has been no issue with absence.
Many of the employers we worked with were relatively small, without dedicated HR or occupational health support. This means that issues often have to be resolved by managers ‘on the job’ and it can be difficult to take a step back to review issues and to take external advice. The peer research element of our research appeared to be successful in helping employers explore options and have the confidence to implement change.
Finding ways to explore issues in-depth with employers has been extremely valuable and has provided insights that we would not have otherwise been able to explore, for example through surveys where our chance to dig into the whys and wherefores of issues is limited. We’ve used this insight to produce some reflections aimed at policymakers and sector bodies, and you can read about some of these in our briefing here.
Our interviews with workers in the sector have also been illuminating, with some examples of good and poor practice all coming through. We heard consistently the importance of good management, and how this can make or break a career in the industry, particularly when workers become parents and need to navigate childcare which is not geared up for supporting shift workers. Some of these issues are for the government to solve. We will be repeating our interviews with workers over time to see how workers are affected by changes in the environment the industry is operating in and in their own lives.
This three-year project is funded by the Robertson Trust and has given us the chance to explore the complexities of the industry, both from the point of view of employers and workers. We are about halfway through our programme, and we will be returning to many of the issues above as we engage with more businesses over the next year. Please do get in touch if you would like to feed in to this work and help inform our findings.