By Tom Nightingale
COVID-19 has brought lasting change to the foodservice and hospitality industry, from the way restaurateurs and chefs manage and lead their business to the way they communicate and support their colleagues and staff. That evolution has been a necessary one, fueled in no small part by the ongoing labour crisis – “The Great Resignation”, as some have dubbed it.
Cultivating a symbiotic and mutually healthy relationship with a restaurant’s staff means prioritizing human connections. But how can industry leaders be sure they are putting their employees’ and colleagues’ mental health first?
Matt Rolfe, a hospitality leadership coach and the founder of Results Hospitality and Westshore Hospitality Group, spoke on this troubling topic at the recent Culinary Federation National Conference in Saskatoon.
What began as a presentation around “The Great Resignation” and attracting and retaining talent evolved into a frank and emotional discussion around mental wellness in the kitchen and the dining room.
“The Great Resignation talk was a really sensitive conversation,” Rolfe says. “There was frustration in the room, exhaustion.”
That exhaustion is not surprising, given the current state of the labour situation. Rolfe cites figures that reveal the average hospitality operation is currently 17 per cent short on staff, of which the vast majority is being seen in the back of the house. “It really is a catastrophic issue for the industry.”
Attraction and retention
While there has been plenty of pain over the last two years, the challenges around staffing have provided an opportunity for foodservice to attract workers in a way that creates a competitive advantage, as well as create meaningful connections between employers and employees that will lead to improved retention and a positive work environment.
A significant shift happening for operators and chefs right now, says Rolfe, is that what industry leaders did pre-pandemic will, in many cases, not produce the same results now. Knowing what workers want – and recognizing that the dynamics between those hiring and those being hired have changed – is vital.
“Maybe we need to compensate people differently, talk to them differently, attract them differently,” suggested Rolfe. “What are operators willing to do to go out and attract workers rather than waiting for people to come in and hand in a resume like has happened in the past?”
In the session discussing “The Great Resignation”, the gathered culinary professionals posed that question to one another. As you’d expect across a wide range of ages and demographics, there were a variety of perspectives. Opening the presentation up into an engagement session, Rolfe and the audience discussed things such as how to design a job ad, how to talk about the job opportunity, and how to follow up with potential candidates.
“The changing landscape has pushed the leverage into potential employees’ hands, so we need to change our process in order to attract them because there’s a shortage,” emphasized Rolfe. “There was a really great dialogue in the room – some chefs don’t want to change what they were doing with hiring pre-pandemic, but others pushed back and said that we have to change and evolve.”
When it comes to getting employees in the door, one factor that simply cannot be overlooked is the need to pay competitive wages. Inflation is a tough pill to swallow for restaurants but it’s also sharply increasing the cost of living for potential and existing employees – their remuneration must be adjusted accordingly.
However, while today’s employees are highly aware of their own worth and will not settle for jobs that don’t pay adequately, the financials are far from the only factor.
Rolfe underlines that point succinctly.
“Even if you offer them 25 per cent more pay, if they are coming into an environment that is 20 or 30 per cent short-staffed and there are more fires to put out, that is a real turn-off. The reality is that potential employees can take the pay but when the culture and the experience doesn’t match, that’s not going to work.”
These shortcomings are perhaps significant contributing factors to the industry’s high level of turnover. Rolfe asserts that the average restaurant is experiencing 120 to 200 per cent annual staff turnover. Addressing that requires compassion and consideration. “Closing the pay gap is necessary but it’s not the fix,” says Rolfe.
Protecting workers’ wellness
Moving forward, it is a combination of culture, support, development, and compensation – the creation of an overall positive experience – that is the key to the industry’s future.
Integral to that balance is prioritizing your staff’s mental health and wellness.
Born out of the discussions of the first, Rolfe held an impromptu second session at the Culinary Federation’s National Conference. If the first session was animated, this second one was raw and emotional.
Foodservice and hospitality have too often been industries within which it has been difficult to talk about mental and emotional health. Thankfully, there are signs that the tide is turning – something that has perhaps dovetailed with a wider analysis of mental health triggers brought by the pandemic – but not many would argue against the suggestion that more needs to be done.
“The pandemic has been a really traumatic time,” said Rolfe. “We wanted to – as we need to – give chefs space to heal. We had real, raw conversations about mental health and the things that are getting in the way of our happiness and our love for what we do. As an industry, we can’t hide it anymore. It needs to be out in the open.”
In the discussions in Saskatoon, chefs shared their stories of friends lost to suicide and addiction during the pandemic. “There were tears in the room,” recalls Rolfe, audibly still emotional about what took place. “There was a lot of emotion being released that we’ve been holding on to.”
Despite the raw emotionality of the event – “it was not a comfortable discussion,” admits Rolfe candidly – he describes it as one of his favourite of the hundreds and hundreds of talks he has led throughout his career in hospitality and public speaking. “To get it all out in the open was a huge relief of pressure, I think.”
How can chefs and restaurateurs lead from the front?
Taking care of others requires first taking care of oneself, and it also requires blazing a trail for the generation to come.
“Before, our industry used to normalize food, booze, drugs. Now, there’s this want from the chefs and the future leaders to change things,” continues Rolfe. “The current and next generation’s path doesn’t have to be the path walked over the last 30 years. The actions can be different, the conversations can be different.”
Above all, the immediate step that needs to be taken may sound overly simplified, but it is a necessity that can make the world of difference: take the time to focus on your team’s wellness.
“We’re not talking about having a tactical management meeting or a performance review; this is about taking the time for connection and conversations with our people in a fashion that allows them to be heard,” concludes Rolfe. “If we create space for genuine conversations, our employees will be able to understand their environment and the supports that are available to them and we as leaders will be able to understand our teams’ wants and needs.
“The key to success is making a commitment to your people, staying consistent, and, crucially, having a feedback loop. Employees aren’t looking to you to solve all their wellness problems, but what they do want is space to be heard and support in being directed to areas where they can get their own support. They want time and they want to be heard. Not time talking about how evening service went or what went right or wrong. Stay consistent and stay supportive and you’ll see the benefit and the shift in culture and wellness.”