Interview from the industry: Mental health and the night-time industry

We spoke to Dave Henderson, Managing Director at HSADD Ltd and and night-time economy expert, about improving mental health in the industry.

With over 30 years’ experience working closely in various positions within the night-time economy, it’s fair to say Dave Henderson has the inside track on what goes on behind the scenes. His previous jobs have included roles within the police force and a long stint as the Operations Director for club owners Cashnext Ltd.

Dave knows all too well the demanding nature of the night-time industry. Nightclub workers, for example, are often required to work early morning shifts, as well as long evening shifts that run right through the night. With just short breaks in between to rest and relax, workers often find these shift patterns exhausting – leaving them fatigued throughout their days or evenings off. Dave himself used to work exceptionally long hours, sometimes working over 100 hours a week. He says, “even if the nightclub wasn’t open, I always had plenty to do. Meetings, events, prepping for the weekend. I’d be coming into work at 7am Mondays and Wednesdays to get a head start to the week and to bank before the owners arrived.” 

But so much work eventually takes its toll. “In 2009 I went off ill due to work related stress for about three months. I was spending far too much time at work, and the stress just became too much. I was exhausted, I was irritable, I’d had enough. Something had to change.”

After taking time off to recuperate, Dave returned to work and began looking after his own mental health much more. “There is a stigma within the industry, that people working in clubs need to be ‘tough guys’ – but that doesn’t mean someone can’t express emotion or become overwhelmed by a stressful situation. Everyone should feel comfortable talking about mental health, but it’ll only happen by normalising it and raising awareness. Sometimes it is not a major causation event, it can be just the straw that breaks the camels back’.

The industry is well known for expecting staff to work unpaid overtime. The proverb “today’s favour is tomorrow’s duty” often applies to shift workers. With rates rising and operating costs getting much higher, businesses are always looking to make savings. Therefore, nightclubs are unlikely to offer overtime or time off in lieu for staff. Instead, there is an unsettling trend for managers and owners to simply expect staff to go above and beyond with little compensation. Dave believes there should be more official processes in place. “Managers should ensure their staff have clear contracts defining their working hours and responsibilities. Verbal contracts with no official, written agreement in place leaves the employee in a precarious position.”

Stress throughout the industry

Employees at every level of the industry experience high levels of stress, from managers through to bar staff and security staff.

The customer service element of the industry can be particularly difficult to deal with, as some customers can become violent or aggravated.

Dave explains the importance of break out zones. “When an employee suffers a particularly stressful shift, they need support. Some people will want to let off steam, some would rather take a break from the situation and go elsewhere. It’s important managers recognise signs of stress or mental ill health and allow their employees time to decompress, destress and return to the working environment when they’re ready.”

Employers should ensure, where possible, there are areas within their venue for staff to take time out, whether that’s a staff room or a breakout zone in a quiet area of a club. If there simply isn’t space to create this, then allowing staff to leave the premises for time away from a stressful situation is paramount.

Money worries

The night-time industry is not particularly lucrative for lower-level staff members. And for managers, it doesn’t fare much better. Dave says, “while the money is good, this soon devalues when you start to think about how many hours someone is actually spending working during the week. If a manager is working several more hours than they are being paid for, then you’ll find their hourly wage can be far, far below the minimum.”

The precarious nature of the night-time industry means job security is also a particular worry for workers. The industry is fast-paced and demanding. Many workers are on temporary, part-time or even zero-hour contracts. Some have no contract at all. This makes many workers feel replaceable, as though there is little room for error. The pressure to take on additional (and often unpaid) responsibility is often increased by the underlying feeling that any perceived mistake will cost them their job.

There is also a concern amongst employees regarding taking time off. Dave believes this is another barrier to people discussing their mental health problems. “There’s a concern that if you don’t show up to work, you’ll just get replaced. At the very best, people won’t get paid if they don’t come to work, instead needing to rely on Government sick pay. This leads to a rise in people coming to work when they really need to take time off and put their mental health first instead.”

Many employees in the industry save what they can, concerned that if the worst happens they’ll need a nest egg to help them survive until they find a new role. This means many night-time industry workers suffer from poor financial wellbeing.

Support for causal and flexible staff, such as helplines or finance management training, can help employees manage their financial wellbeing. 

The progression opportunities in the night-time industry can be limited, with many employees not viewing their position in the industry as a long-term career. Dave says, “employees need to know where that path is going, and what their options are. Progression is limited to management, or area management, unless someone strikes out on their own and opens their own club or bar.” But there are other careers within the industry that offer flexibility, creativity and a unique way of life simply not found in “standard” 9-5 employment.

“It’s a money-focussed industry, and this outlook needs to change,” Dave says. “Businesses need to start to value their employees much more. This will lead to employees feeling happy in the workplace, and more likely to stick around and do their best while at work.”

Small rewards such as afterwork drinks, free meals on-site, an employee reward scheme, or just saying ‘thank you’ to a member of staff at the end of their shift improves the relationship and shows that you value them. These and other incentives all contribute to a positive workplace culture. This will, in turn, improve employee wellbeing.

Achieving a good work / life balance

Working in the night-time economy can be all-consuming. Working outside a 9-5 pattern makes day-to-day tasks such as shopping, going to the gym or even getting a haircut more difficult. Night-time travel is also a concern within the industry, as workers have to constantly consider limited travel options. This heightens stress levels as night-time industry workers have to essentially operate their lives around their working pattern.  Some staff may have two or more jobs and be studying at university as well.

“At the end of the day, students need to study. People have families. Managers need to respect that people do have lives outside of work,” Dave says. “The industry needs to get better at helping its employees. Staff should be able to speak to their manager, confident that they will be treated sensitively and empathetically. Employers need to have good policies and procedures in place to help their team – it shouldn’t be left to luck whether you get time off or not.”

Of course, senior management must receive the right training and support in order to help their employees effectively. Wellbeing programmes, including manager training, ensure senior members of staff can support their teams through better conversations. They should be able to recognise when their team members may be struggling, and how to help assist them. Small steps such as allowing employees to finish a few minutes earlier to catch a more convenient bus, or arranging shifts to accommodate studying or appointments make a huge difference to general wellbeing. Managers should assist in helping their employees achieve a better work / life balance.

Managing physical health

The physical strain of working so many hours in a relatively physically demanding industry must not be underestimated, either. The industry should ensure staff are equipped to look after their physical health. Loud music, excessive drinking, poor nutrition and irregular sleep patterns are just some of the reasons working in the night-time industry can impact physical health.

Education is the key here. Employees should have access to expert advice to help them manage their physical health. This will have a huge benefit to the employer, too, as their staff will have more energy and be physically better equipped to complete their tasks effectively.

Talking about mental health

Mental health problems do not necessarily arise from a series of events – mental health may not have an attributed “cause” at all. Yet the results of mental ill health can be devastating for an employee.

Managers should be trained to recognise the early warning signs of mental health problems and should know how to support their employees. Awareness, recognition and sensitivity is the key to improving and preventing the industry’s mental health epidemic.

“Stress and mental health issues can feel like you’re stacking up building blocks, and someone knocks it all down just as you put the last block on top,” Dave explains. “As an industry, we need to learn to view mental health as we would a physical injury. Both are equally as important.”

Helping employees helps customers

The mantra “treat people how they want to be treated” is often spoken in customer-facing roles. But how about “treat employees how you want them to treat their customers”?

If staff and managers have strong health and wellbeing training, they’re likely to pass this benefit onto customers. Which can, in turn, help businesses to thrive as they will have developed a strong, loyal customer base and a good reputation for looking after both its staff and its customers.

“Customers trust staff members, and can really help them in times of need,” Dave explains. “In my career we’ve helped several customers deal with personal issues, helped them through difficult situations. Having that empathy and ability to read people and handle situations sensitively is so important for customers. And, in such strong customer-facing roles, it’s something the night-time industry really needs to consider.”

Dave’s final word on the topic? “It’s so important to talk to someone. And, if someone needs to talk to you, make sure you listen and give them time to explain.”

NDML are working with We Are Wellbeing to help improve employee wellbeing. We Are Wellbeing is an expert corporate wellbeing provider. They work with businesses to develop a comprehensive wellbeing programme, ensuring relevant services are provided to support employees. This includes staff training, seminars, health checks and much more.

If you’d like to find out further information, or receive a FREE Wellbeing Insights report, get in touch with the We Are Wellbeing team.