Headaches, irritability, nervousness - the signs of stress are all too frequently seen in an industry where long hours and irregular shift patterns are endemic. And with many catering companies operating at full stretch in the run-up to Christmas, there is a special need for vigilance.
Surveys increasingly show that stress is implicated in mental health problems, which, according to the charity Mind, cause as much as 40% of all sickness absence.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently published guidelines on work-related stress, urging employers to take the issue seriously and be understanding towards staff who show signs of buckling under pressure.
"There's a lot of research that says working long hours leads to ill-health," says Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, a leading authority on stress. "It can adversely affect performance, which has implications for a quality-oriented service with a high degree of customer interaction."
Following the introduction of new legislation two months ago, employees now have recourse to industrial tribunals if they are obliged to work more than 48 hours weekly against their will. Shift working is also being controlled. But many employees will continue voluntarily to work long hours to avoid a drop in income, exposing themselves to the risk of ill-health.
Its peculiar working patterns make employees in the hospitality industry more vulnerable to stress than those in some other sectors, yet it seems they are among the least likely to look for expert advice.
A leading provider of employee counselling, the Employee Advisory Resource (EAR), says that it lists no hotel or catering organisations among its 160 clients, which range from blue-chip oil and pharmaceutical companies to a wide variety of medium and smaller businesses.
In the USA, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) cover one-quarter of all workers, and are used in four out of five top companies. However, in the UK they are relatively new and cover only about 6% of the workforce, according to HSE research. EAPs make confidential counselling available to employees and their families, giving only statistical feedback to the client company.
EAR spokeswoman Jane Baker questions the hotel and restaurant industry's relative lack of interest in EAPs, speculating that long hours and stressful conditions are perhaps taken for granted. "It may be that, because there are so many casual and temporary staff, employers don't think of investing in them," she says. "But the benefits must be there for them, as much as in other industries, to help retain staff, reduce absenteeism and raise effectiveness."
Poor management can be a major factor in causing stress, from a lack of supervisor support to outright harassment or discrimination. "Bullying is a very broad term," Baker says. "It doesn't necessarily have to mean direct aggression." A recent TUC survey suggested that 11% of Britain's workforce either are being bullied or have been bullied, and a helpline set up to offer advice attracted more than 1,000 calls in the first four days.
Cooper agrees that hospitality managers may actively cause stress. "Having worked in the sector myself, and from my dealings with it since, my impression is that managers tend to be autocratic," he says. "Their style is more oriented towards punishment than praise."
An inflexible hierarchy is a sure source of frustration among employees and can eventually surface in stress-related health complaints, experts say. The HSE advises managers to be clear about company objectives, to communicate fully with their staffs and to offer opportunities for involvement in planning and organisation.
Another source of stress is the irregularity that is characteristic of the industry, according to one of the main hospitality unions, GMB. "Our studies show that employers' requirements can differ from day to day, and that can be difficult for staff to cope with," says spokeswoman Karen Livingstone. However, where best practice is observed, any stress cases that emerge in the workplace are most likely to be due to outside pressures, personnel managers say.
At Groupe Chez Gérard, human resources director Debbie Jelffs says that most of the problems she encounters among the company's 950 employees are caused by personal issues such as bereavements and troubled relationships.
"I think you can recognise the symptoms quite easily - for instance, when people get nervous or weepy," Jelffs says. "If they show signs of stress, we send them along to the doctor and will pay for counselling where necessary. Young people seem to be particularly vulnerable for a variety of reasons. It may be their first experience of being in work and having to relate to managers, or they may be having accommodation or partner problems."
Baker agrees that many breakdowns at work may actually be caused by personal and domestic issues. That is why EAPs are usually extended to cover employees' families. However, working patterns in the hospitality industry can contribute to relationship problems in the first place, she points out.
"People who have live-in accommodation may be vulnerable if they don't have the opportunity to get away from the workplace," Baker says. "A key principle in avoiding stress is to maintain a balance between work and leisure."
Free advice service
Some larger companies are keen to show they are aware of the problem of stress and take active steps to prevent it. About 5% of Whitbread's staff take advantage of a free advice service provided by an external agency, mainly to discuss work-related problems, with about 40% of that figure going on to receive face-to-face counselling.
Some hotel chains are also keen to show that they take stress seriously.
Stakis has an EAP that provides counselling services for 145 senior managers and their families, with an annual take-up of about 15%.
The Savoy Hotel Group offers free external counselling, but also runs a stress management course that helps people spot the warning signs in themselves. They are shown how to minimise the risks by controlling their intake of stimulants, raising their assertiveness, and using relaxation methods such as meditation and physical exercise.
Counselling is also available at Swallow Hotels, where personnel manager Marilyn Harding says that efforts are made in every case to identify the root of the problem. "We will support our employees if, for instance, they declare to us they are suffering from alcohol or drug dependency," she says.
Swallow staff are encouraged to speak to line managers if they need help, especially at peak periods such as Christmas. However, it is more likely to be managers who complain of stress than front-line staff, Harding says. "People accept some degree of stress as part and parcel of the job."
The HSE guidelines are not binding on employers. However, there is an increasing legal element that they need to be aware of. A test case in 1995 found in favour of a council employee who had been sacked after suffering a mental breakdown. The key ruling was that the employer should have foreseen that the employee would experience adverse effects from his work.
"There's a danger to employers when stress levels pile up and an employee soldiers on instead of seeking medical help," says employment law specialist David Cockburn. "If that person has a breakdown which a psychologist says may stop them participating in normal activities for a couple of years, that counts as a disability.
"At that point," he adds, "the employer has to be very careful about not treating that person detrimentally, to avoid incurring penalties."