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Mental health: lonely at the top?

11 May 2019 by
Mental health: lonely at the top?

Approximately one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year, but who can managers, directors and owners turn to when they are struggling with their mental health, and what should they be doing to protect it? Katherine Price explores the issue ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week

Senior managers in hospitality are under more pressure than ever before as they try to satisfy asset holders, investors and shareholders, as well as guests. The strain of continually improving standards, increasing the bottom line and keeping staff happy while costs continually rise can mean that even the most resilient individual can reach breaking point.

In 2017 António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, candidly

recounted in an interview with The Times how, stressed and unable to switch off as he faced the bank's ‘perilous' financial state, anxiety and insomnia took hold, forcing him to spend nine days at the Priory clinic.

He has since designed a leadership resilience programme with his psychiatrist, which last year was rolled out to 400 leaders within Lloyds, starting with its executive committee, to prevent the same thing from happening to others within the business. The 12-month course involved psychological testing, mindfulness training and nutrition analysis. Such a stringent programme is impressive. Is there anything similar to support senior management in hospitality when times get tough?

Help is out there

This question will, in part, be addressed by work being done by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH). It is conducting a survey in partnership with industry charity Springboard on the mental wellbeing of hospitality workers and will reveal the results at an event (see panel) later this month.

"Change starts from the top; senior management should be supported to look after their own mental health and wellbeing. Starting conversations at a senior level can help shift the paradigm and improve the situation throughout the hospitality workforce," adds Stephenson.

Sarah Restall is an employer engagement manager at Time to Change, a long-running campaign under mental health charity Mind that addresses the stigma around mental health. Employers can sign the campaign's pledge to demonstrate a commitment to changing how we think and act about mental health in the workplace, and part of signing up to this includes line manager support.

"There's a lot of pressure on managers to be everything for everyone," she says. "Managers are often torn between being there for the employer and ensuring that the organisation is going to be turning a profit, but also having to be there in a pastoral sense to take care of the human beings that make profit for that organisation."

However, Restall says it should be "a complete circle" - doing the best thing for the organisation is taking care of its employees, who will in turn do their best for the organisation. But this must include managers - who are having to be constantly mindful of a whole team of people every day - being able to look after themselves as an example to their team, for example, not forcing themselves to come in while sick.

"When you see your senior managers taking care of themselves, you know it's OK to take care of yourself," says Restall.

"You need to look at it as an 'oxygen mask approach' - when you're on a plane they always say that, if the oxygen masks come down, fit your own mask before you fit someone else's. To make sure that you're taking care of yourself first is the safest and nicest way that you can take care of someone else."

Camilla Woods of industry charity Hospitality Action (HA) says managers can often feel that they have nowhere to turn for support. "It can be a lonely business with the potential to affect mental health," she says.

As a result, HA has introduced a managerial advice line as part of its Employee Assistance Programme. Managers and supervisors can call the number and speak to trained and qualified counsellors and psychotherapists, whether to explore solutions to issues, rehearse workplace conversations, talk about personal issues or voice concerns about their abilities to manage a difficult situation.

However, despite this being a clear issue within the industry, HA's research last year found that only 17% of managers had been offered mental health awareness and/or stress and resilience training by their organisation.

office-workers-shutterstock 128200316
office-workers-shutterstock 128200316

Time to train

Simon Lewis, operations manager at HIT Training, runs programmes to help supervisors, managers and HR teams in hospitality understand mental health problems.

HIT offers workshops over four to five months, looking at everything from stress and anxiety to dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. One of the activities in the depression workshop, for example, is printing out the lyrics of the top 10 singles in the music charts.

"When you look at the lyrics within those songs, you realise how negative a lot of the words are. When you start to highlight the actual words, that's what's being fed into your mind, so it's about creating awareness of what people are actually surrounding themselves with," says Lewis.

They also get managers to think about their own mental health through exercises which they can then take back and do with their teams. One example is writing down things that make them feel stressed or anxious, and separating them into things they can do something about and things they can't. On the back of the notes in the first pile, they write a one-word 'action plan' of what they're going to do about those things. They then rip up the second pile: "Because there's nothing you can do about it; focus on the things that you can do something about," says Lewis.

Wellbeing in the city

Hotel management company Cycas Hospitality highlighted what can be done to support business leaders in its work with Samaritans. In February it teamed up with the charity to bring its 'wellbeing in the city' training to its heads of department, including skills to look after their own emotional health, as well as recognising the signs of anyone around them who may be struggling.

"As senior leaders, I think we have a duty to remember how much a company's culture is influenced from the top down," says Janet Roberts, senior partner and lead culture coach at Cycas Hospitality.

"The fact is that everyone goes through difficult times, so it's important to help people build the resilience that allows them to cope during more challenging periods… While it can certainly become harder to discuss these matters the more senior you become, that makes it even more important to recognise how important it is to look after your own wellbeing, recognise the signs that you're struggling and find the coping mechanisms that work for you, whether it's exercise, talking to friends and colleagues or even regular holidays."

Roberts says she's a big believer in the importance of managers using their full holiday allowance, "even if it's just to spend time with your family or to chill at home in front of the TV", she says.

"It's important that senior leaders can demonstrate that no one is really too busy, or too important, to take a break."

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, agrees. "When we set up UKHospitality last year we introduced new rules requiring team members to take their annual leave within the year and not to roll any over, because we found people weren't getting the break from work they needed," she says.

The importance of HR

James Murray moved into the newly created HR manager role at the Clove Club Group six months ago from his previous role as restaurant manager. The group opened its third site last year and, since becoming a group, Murray has made it his mission to be a proactive and integrated HR figure.

"There can be that disconnect," he says, "sometimes people in my position can be seen to be slightly removed from the business."

He sets time aside each week to sit down with the senior managers individually. "Sometimes managers will try and distance themselves a little bit professionally from a team. If they're slightly removed from everyone else, and there isn't anyone who knows what's going on in their personal life, that can be a really lonely place, especially in restaurants," he says.

"The usual times of day that other people get to go out with their friends, wind

down and talk things through are, of course, the times that we in hospitality are often working. It is important there's someone in the business who can take that personal interest, that can directly impact a manager's wellbeing and mental health, hopefully ensuring that they feel supported at work, enabling them to perform at their best, and giving the best to their team."

Murray tries to identify potential issues during his one-to-ones. "It's funnelling, starting pretty generally with 'what are the business needs?'" He tries then to be more specific, asking how that is affecting the manager's workload, or whether the issue is becoming a broader challenge for other members of the team.

The most important thing, emphasises Lewis, is that "anything to do with mental health needs to be continuous" and it needs to be a "joinedup approach" across the business, not just HR-driven. T

he supervisors who take part in HIT Training's workshops have WhatsApp groups and are encouraged to set up their own groups to discuss how they are going to put what they've learned into practice.

Lewis adds: "When you look at the statistics that one in four of us will suffer from a mental health illness, what's the true cost overall to the industry versus the cost of everybody talking about it and doing something about it?"

â- Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 13-19 May

Useful organisations

If you feel like you may want to talk about your mental health, organisations such as Mind (, Time to Change ( and the Samaritans ( can offer help. Industry charity Hospitality Action offers a range of counselling and other support for hospitality professionals suffering stress-related symptoms via its Employee Assistance Programme. Details are available at

Philip Newman-Hall, hospitality consultant

Many years ago, I was director of operations for Virgin Hotels. I was sometimes driving up to 30,000 miles a year because we had properties in Edinburgh, north Wales, the New Forest and Sussex. I was leaving home at five in the morning and getting home at 10 at night many days a week. It all went very well for a while, but then I started to find that my colleagues kept asking me if I was alright.


Eventually, it got to the stage where the managing director said to me, "I think you really ought to go and see a doctor". I went, and the doctor said I had an imbalance in the serotonin levels in my brain and that I needed to take medication and to perhaps think about what I was doing as a job. My colleagues at Virgin, who were very helpful and supportive, found a way for me to move out of that role and to be able to take time off and deal with the issue. They paid for me to go to a counsellor for a period of time as well.

During my time off, I escorted some tour groups to China for a few months, and

that sort of cleared my head. My body just needed a break. If your body's telling you something's not right, you've got to listen. The pills also helped. I hated being on pills - I've never been one for pills - but sometimes these things need to be done.

I ended up joining Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, as general manager. Going back to overseeing one property helped. I had joined Virgin as general manager of one of the properties and got promoted to operations manager, but sometimes you take a role that isn't necessarily right for you. There's nothing wrong with deciding a role's not right. Not everybody's destined to be the general manager or chief executive.

Bosses are so busy looking after their teams and their businesses that they often don't have time to look after themselves, and so they end up in this spiral, quite often with nobody to go to.

Don't be frightened of picking up the phone. If you think you've got an issue, find somebody to talk to. There are a lot of people in very senior positions in this industry who have very stressful roles; there are a lot of people in the same situation.

Giovanna Grossi, director, Sauce Intelligence

In 2013 I was a group area manager at the AA. Work was full-on. I had four area managers reporting to me and they had the hotel inspectors reporting into them. I had a responsibility for the welfare of the team and it was something I didn't take lightly.


I was lucky that my partner of 20 years, Mario, did so much in the home. In late January 2013 it all changed when he had a very bad fall. I wasn't aware at the time that it was sadly to become fatal.

For the next six months he was in and out of hospital. When I wasn't working I'd be sat on my laptop in the hospital. I can pinpoint to the day when things

tipped - 18 June 2013. I had driven down to Pembrokeshire straight from the hospital to visit one of our inspectors who had to take early retirement due to ill health.

I then did an inspection nearby. The following day I drove the five hours back to the hospital. One of my team was in Manchester and insisted on coming to visit Mario. The look on his face when he saw him said it all. You don't realise, when you're juggling so many balls and you see someone every day, just how much they have deteriorated. I cried all the way home from the hospital.

I underwent a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. I can't recommend it enough. I finally realised I was actually at tipping point myself. I wasn't a failure because I chose to admit that and ask for help. The tools the counselling gave me were amazing.

I realised that it was OK to say no sometimes. It taught me to be more realistic about what I could and couldn't take on and what would be achievable in a day. It gave me the strength to get through what were about to become the worst and darkest days of my life.

Mario passed away in August that year. Some days I thought, "I'm not going to be able to get through this", but counselling can help you be a much stronger person and provides you with the tools to be able to cope with the day-to-day issues and pressures around you. It's nothing to be ashamed about - putting your hands up and saying it's all too much.

Peter Avis, hospitality consultant

When you work at senior level there's an expectation for you to be the strong, motivated one and make sure everybody else is OK, and that's exactly what happened with me while I was working as general manager of Babylon restaurant at the Roof Gardens in London.


As far as taking care of my mental health and wellbeing, I was very disciplined. I always made sure I went to the gym in the morning, as I felt that half an hour would give me the strength of mind for the day ahead.

Two years ago, my relationship ended, and three months later my flat was flooded with sewage. I got the flat back in October on a Sunday, went into work on the Monday and I was called into my managing director's office to be told they were closing down the restaurant. I'd worked for that company for 16 years.

When I got the news, the first thing that came to my mind wasn't me, it was my team. I was really good at creating a forum for my team to speak, but when I went through this process, I thought, "who can I reach out to?"

We had an HR manager, and I thought "I need to speak to her, I need to make sure I'm going to be OK, because I feel really alone." It was the best thing I did.

By January I started to get offers to do some consultancy and I got some great clients. Then in June I got a knock on my door from the police to say my younger sister had taken her own life. I was just broken.

I called my old HR manager, who I knew it was OK not to be OK with. She was so

amazing; she became my strength. In leadership we can have this feeling that we always have to go higher, but it's just finding that person you can trust, whether it's HR, a higher position or at operational level.

I lost my baby sister, I lost my job, I lost my boyfriend, I lost my flat - it messed up my head, of course it did, but I know people respect me and don't see me as a weaker leader because I have to get up in the morning, throw my shorts on, go for a half-hour run and keep my head together. I'm not on top form right now, I'm not OK, I'm aware of that. But even when you're vulnerable, that doesn't take your leadership away.

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