Managing psychosocial risks in HORECA

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Juliet Hassard, Kevin Teoh and Tom Cox, Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom.

Introduction

The hotel, restaurant and catering (HORECA) sector includes a range of businesses, including: hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes, caterers, canteens and fast-food takeaways. HORECA is a growing service sector within the EU economy and a crucial job generator [1]. Within the HORECA sector there are a diverse set of jobs, ranging from: cleaners to chefs, and managers to lifeguards. These jobs are often set in different vocational settings (e.g., kitchens, hotel rooms, schools) each with its own unique set of psychosocial risks. Despite these differences, there are some common psychosocial hazards faced by workers in HORECA sector, including: long working hours, shift work, aggression from customers, job insecurity and poor work-life balance [1]

Key statistics in the HORECA sector

Proportion of jobs and enterprise size

In 2010, within the EU-27 countries, the HORECA sector employed approximately 9.6 million workers [2]. The HORECA sector is an important job generator; with the 2010 Labour Force Survey [2] showing approximately 4.4% of workers worked in this sector in the EU-28 countries. Although it is important to note in the Food and Beverage sector that this value was observed to range from 2% in Romania and 2.2% in Poland, up to 7.3% in Cyprus.

Despite the success of fast-food restaurants, franchises and the growing presence of hotel chains, many enterprises within HORECA are family run; with more than 61% of employees in Food and Beverage and 35% of employees in Accommodation working in enterprises employing less than 10 workers (compared to the EU-28 average of 42%) [2]. The vast majority of enterprises in this occupational sector can be described as small to medium in size. Indeed, while enterprises with more than 250 workers make up 12% of the EU-28 workforce, only 8% and 0.6% of employees respectively work in large organisation in the Accommodation and Food and Beverage sectors [2].

In terms of education level, only 10% of workers in this sector have a high level of education, with 40% of workers being relatively unskilled ][3].

Gender

Based on European data collected in 2013, women were observed to constitute an estimated 53% and 60% workers in the Food and Beverage and Accommodation sectors respectively [4]. Data from 2009 demonstrate that a female majority is observed in all member states, with the exception of France, Greece, Malta and Spain. The highest female percentages, all exceeding 70%, were observed in Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania. Within this occupational sector, women are observed to dominate positions in the hotels, restaurants, canteens and catering sub-sectors; whilst men proportionality dominate jobs in bars and in jobs, such as: being a chef or a porter [5]. Although women form the largest proportional majority of HORECA workers, management and senior level positions are predominately occupied by men.

Age breakdown

In 2010 within the EU-28 HORECA sector, workers under 25 years make up 22% (Food & Beverage) and 17% (Accommodation) of workers, which is significantly more than the 9% average across the EU-28 [2]. When those aged between 26-39 are included, the proportion of workers in this age group in the Food and Beverage (62%) and Accommodation (52%) remain higher than that of the EU-28 (45%). In terms of older workers, approximately 27% of EU-28 workers are between 40-49 years and 28% are aged over 50 years. In contrast, 24% of workers in Accommodation and 20% of workers in Food and Beverage are between 40-49 years, with an additional 24% (Accommodation) and 18% (Food & Beverage) aged over 50 years. The young working in HORECA has been attributed to the demands for unskilled or low skilled workers that make it easier for young people to enter this sector [5]. Seasonal and shift work allows for the accommodation of work around education, but potentially making it unattractive to older workers with family commitments. Bars and restaurants have a higher percentage of younger workers, whilst older workers are mostly found in short stay accommodation, camping sites and canteens [5].

Policy and legislations

European level

As a sector, HORECA has less regulation and government intervention than other industries [6]. Regardless, all HORECA workers are protected by the OSH Framework Directive 89/391/EEC [7] which stipulates that the employer is responsible to ensure the health and safety of their employees and an overall duty of care [8]. The directive is based upon risk prevention, which focuses on risk assessments in the workplace. Employers should take the necessary preventions to eliminate or reduce the risk faced by employees. Additional individual directives, including the ‘minimum requirements for the workplace’ [9] and ‘use of personal protective equipment’ [10], supplement the Framework Directive in providing specific guidance on health and safety issues.

European-level directives have been transposed in Member States. However, the size of the enterprise has a role to play, with larger enterprises within the HORECA sector having fewer issues implementing these directives. Despite this, 90% of HORECA enterprises are considered micro enterprises and an additional 9% are small-and-medium enterprises, and many of these enterprises do not fully comply with legal health and safety legislation [8]. Reasons for these include having fewer resources, skills and access to appropriate information in the area of health and safety. Although there are no specific EU directives targeted at OSH in HORECA, the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) and the Confederation of National Associations of Hotels, Restaurants, Cafes and Similar Establishments in the EU and EEA (Hotrec) in 2004 have issued a corporate social responsibility document that address several aspects related to OSH, including: pay, working conditions, health and safety, training, restructuring and equality in this sector [11].

National level

An EU-OSHA [8] survey of HORECA sector associations, insurances, trade unions, and OSH research institutes in each Member State revealed that of 17 countries, only France had specific OSH legislations for HORECA, which focused on working time within a week. However, anti-tobacco laws in some Finland, France, and Luxembourg were passed with the intention to protect the health of restaurant workers. Although not regulations, governments and ministries in Belgium, Cyprus and Denmark provide OSH guidelines for restaurants and hotels. Other countries provide guidelines and checklists through government linked OSH agencies, such as: the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the Health and Safety Authority Ireland, the Swedish Work Environment Agency, and the UK Health and Safety Executive. Guidelines and additional support resources are actively provided by trade unions in Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and Portugal, and by insurance bodies in Austria and Germany. In most Member States, collective work agreements within the sector set out to improve working conditions, whilst HORECA sector associations play an important role in creating awareness on OSH issues and how to address them.

Psychosocial risks

Psychosocial risks refer to the interaction between the design and management of work, with the organisational and social context that has the potential to be detrimental to a worker’s psychological or physical wellbeing [12]. Although the risks explored in this article are pervasive within HORECA, it is important to highlight that most of these risks are not specific or unique to the HORECA sector [13]. Moreover, the complexity and diversity of enterprises and job roles within this occupational sector makes it difficult to present a comprehensive review of all the risks in this industry [8]. In the HORECA sector this can for example include: low autonomy and control, heavy workloads, long working hours and temporary employment, harassment and violence.

Autonomy and control

Autonomy refers to how much independence, whilst control is the amount of influence employees have in their workplace. Research has shown that ambiguity- the lack of understanding of clarity on what one’s job role actually entails, to be the biggest stressor in employees and managers within the Canadian luxury hotel industry [14]. The same study echoes research trends that high ambiguity and low control, along with heavy workloads were together strong contributors for work stress within this occupational sector. Lack of control and autonomy is faced by many in the HORECA sector. The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) revealed that HORECA workers had the lower than average amount of autonomy in comparison to the EU-28 average [4]. For example, hotel cleaners have little control over their shifts, rooms they have to clean, and the equipment/chemicals they are able to use [15]. Waiters and waitresses have limited influence on who they serve, when they work, or even what they wear [16]. Workers who work in food preparation (whether in catering, canteens or restaurants) also often have limited control, flexibility and autonomy as their work typically involves low-skill repetitive tasks [17]. Such repetitive behaviours have been found to associated with an increase in reports of musculoskeletal symptoms in housekeeping [18] and restaurant [19] staff. Finally, the emphasis on management control, which is arguably prevalent in the hospitality industry, is often associated with poor consultation, communication and feedback, all of which exaggerate workload and reduce control of workers in the HORECA sector [20].

Workload

Analysis on the Fourth European Working Condition Survey in 2005 showed that the Catering, Hotels and Restaurants Sector to be amongst the least favourable sectors in terms workload [21]. The Fifth EWCS revealed similar results where 43% Accommodation employees and 53% of Food and Beverage employees mentioned having to work at high intensity [4]. This is higher than the EU-28 average of 37%. A survey from the Hong Kong observed work demands to contribute towards lower job satisfaction, although this effect was mitigated when workers were allowed discretion to manage their work environments [22] [23]. In addition, amongst a group of Romanian food and beverage restaurant workers, issues related to workload was cited as an explanatory reason for counterproductive work behaviours [20]. The industry also has a high turnover rate, which leads to increase demands placed on employees as they struggle to complete tasks with a lack of staff [22].

An associated issue may be when the HORECA sector changes its practices and facilities to meet the needs and demands of their clientele, this may further increase the workload and related pressures of their staff. For example, hotel rooms have seen additions such as more electronic gadgets and larger beds. The former increase the number of items to clean, whilst the latter are heavier: making it physically harder for chambermaids to lift and change. In turn, all of these changes may increase the demands placed upon chambermaids who have limited time to clean a set amount of rooms. Seifert and Messing’s [15] study with housekeepers in Canadian hotels found that they had to often skip breaks, rush or skip cleaning tasks in order to cope with the additional workload placed on them.

Working hours and temporary employment

Unlike most sectors, the HORECA sector is busiest in the evenings, and on the weekend and holidays. Hence, it requires most of its staff to work unsocial hours [13]. The Fifth EWCS revealed that amongst HORECA employees, Food and Beverage (2.41 times) and Accommodation (1.86 times) workers were more likely to report working evenings, weekends or nights in comparison to the EU-28 average [4]. These employees were also more likely to report working irregular hours, which means having to work different numbers of hours every day and different numbers of days every week. In restaurants and hotels, shift work (including split shifts) is especially common, with an estimated 30% of staff in this sector working on shifts [21]. Not only that, but they often work longer hours than those in other sectors; with a higher than average proportion of HORECA employees having to work more than 65 hours a week [24]. The irregular and variable work patterns of employees in this sector has been shown to affect employees’ health and increase conflict between their home and work-life [25].

As the HORECA industry in many countries is seasonal, there is a prevalent use of temporary workers to meet the changeable demands of the sector [26]. The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey showed that 25% of Accommodation and 38% of Food and Beverage workers do not have permanent employment, which is greater than the 20% of part-time workers within the EU-28 [2]. Furthermore, 20% of employees in HORECA do not have employment contracts [21]. These can include employees working in ski resorts over the winter months, or cafeteria staff in schools only being employed for the nine months of the school year [27]. Temporary workers, regardless of sector, often are in a weak labour market position [23]. This is in part due to reluctance to create disturbances in the workplace as they try to impress and secure permanent employment. This may lead to them accepting shifts, which others find undesirable and to work long hours without complaining [28]. For example, temporary workers in hotels have been found to have more variation in their working hours when compared to permanent members of staff. Their shifts can range from two to 18 hours, whilst their weekly working hours range from zero to 73 hours [25]. They are often only informed of their start time, but not when they are set to finish. Consequently, they, on average, report poorer health, and more dietary and sleeping issues than permanent workers [25] [28].

Harassment/bullying

The Fourth EWCS reported that HORECA had higher than average prevalence rates of Harassment at work (also referred to as bullying): 8.5% respectively [21]. In Norway, Einarsen and Skogstad [29] found 14.1% of respondents of this occupational sector to have been bullied in the previous six months, in comparison with the national cross-industry average of 8.6%. Piñuel y Zabala’s [30] survey in Spain showed that in the tourism sector 16% had been harassed, whilst 45% had witnessed harassment taking place. However, in the United Kingdom, Hoel and Cooper’s [31] study showed that bullying was not as prevalent in the hospitality industry when compared to other sectors, such as: teaching, postal and telecommunications and the prisons.

Harassment (bullying, mobbing) may be exacerbated by an organisational/ sectoral climate that is typically characterised by a highly pressurised environment that is understaffed, overloaded with work demands and expectations, and where the needs of the customer are immediate [32]. This may lead to misunderstandings, lost tempers and aggressive behaviours in an attempt to get the work done, and there is evidence that subordinates report more bullying when their supervisors are stressed [33]. Research in this sector has shown harassment/bullying to lead to reduced commitment and job satisfaction, as well as increased burnout and turnover intention [34].

Violence

Violence from customers is especially prevalent in first line service jobs, such as: waiters, receptionists, and bartenders. According to the Fourth EWCS, the prevalence rates of violence (8%) and threat of violence (9%) as reported by HORECA employees were amongst the highest of all sectors. Statistics on research samples of hotel, bar, and restaurant staff have ranged between a reported 21.2% to 100% of staff having been subjected or witnessed verbal aggression and assaults [35] [36] [37] [38]. Aside from violence, the 4% of HORECA employees who reported unwanted sexual attention was the highest of all sectors in the Fourth EWCS [21].

HORECA staff typically have subordinate roles to the customer, and with importance placed on customer satisfaction these workers are pressured to meet the needs and desire of their customers. Consequently, this may place them in a position where they have difficulty leaving an undesired situation or disagreeing with a customer [39]. Customer dissatisfaction with service can motivate aggression, and this can be due to unrealistic expectations the customer due to organisations exaggerating their services [40]. This can be compounded further by ‘trigger’ factors, such as alcohol or stress. Finally, the exchange of money, working alone or in small groups in the early morning or late nights, and sites in high crime areas are risk factors for crime and physical violence, and all congruent to working in HORECA [41].

Outcomes

The research literature has been clear in demonstrating an association between excessive and chronic workload and stress with cardiovascular disease [42]. Findings from the HORECA sector have also revealed poor working conditions, including: workload, control and working hours, to relate to employee health [43] [44]. According to the Fifth EWCS, the HORECA sector has higher than average levels of job demands with lower than average levels of job autonomy. This places it as a high strain work sector where workers are among the most stressed in Europe [21]. The same EWCS revealed that approximately 21% of Food and Beverage and 23% of Accommodation employees felt that work had a negative impact on their health. This is lower than the cross-industrial prevalence of 25% among the EU-28. Despite this, the sector has lower than average levels of health-related leave. In Australia, 525 compensation cases due to work related diseases were paid out to the accommodation, cafes and restaurants sector in the 2009/2010 year. This sector made up an estimated 3% of all claims, which is below the average number of cases of all sectors [45]. The same report also reported that 7.7 claims were paid out for every million hours worked, which was similar to the average cross-sector average; and that the median payout was the lowest among all sectors for the previous nine years. The lower than average prevalence rates could be due to the younger workforce who are more resilient to poorer working conditions [42]. Furthermore, the high turnover rate could mean that employees might leave employment or the sector before health conditions can manifest [6] [22].

Intervention and prevention strategies

Considering that HORECA sector workers had to deal with the some of the most unfavourable psychosocial conditions in Europe [4], it is important that solutions are developed and tailored to meet the challenge of preventing or reducing the amount of psychosocial risks that employees in this industry are exposed to [1]. Before any intervention programme, a risk assessment has to be carried out. Identified risks can then be addressed using a two-prong approach by making changes at both company and individual level. However, regardless of industry, the following are important in ensuring successful interventions in the workplace [46]: the correct hazards are accurately identified so that the right issues are being addressed; employees should be involved in not only the identification of risks, but in developing and implementing solutions; and support or commitment from management is secured and cultivated.

Risk assessments

Psychosocial risks need to first be identified for them to be addressed. This is best done using a risk assessment as part of the employer’s obligation under OSH Framework Directive 89/391/EEC [7]. Employers should work together with employees in the identification of psychosocial risks. EU-OSHA has developed a database of risk assessment tools specific to HORECA [47], although mental strain is examined, it is done alongside other occupational health and safety issues, such as: noise and manual handlings. Alternatively, a number of organisations including the Health and Safety Executive [48] in the United Kingdom provide non-industry specific psychosocial risk assessments.

Interventions

Interventions and preventative strategies should be tailored and informed by the risks identified as part of the risk assessment. Table 1 provides an example of actions that can be taken to tackle psychosocial risks in HORECA. Action can be taken to target change at the company level, and/or the individual level. At the company level actions focus on organisational processes/ systems and work characteristics [6]. For example, processes can be changed to allow food handling employees in catering to use their discretionary power when serving customers or in adjusting their workload. This allows them to increase their decision making ability, which may give them more control in the workplace, plus potentially reducing the amount of pressure in the workplace [23]. Changes in shifts and work hours, or an increase in staff can be made to reduce the workloads faced by employees. The implementation and awareness of policies surrounding harassment, sexual victimisation, and violence from staff and customers will inform employees of their rights and provide clear understanding of what procedures will be taken by the company to address these issues [13].

At the individual level, a variety of training can be conducted to enhance the ability of employees to handle the psychosocial risks in HORECA. Stress management training might be suitable for those who work under intense pressure, such as: hotel managers and bar staff. Assertiveness training, or how to deal with aggression might be relevant for bar staff, security personal, or generic customer service roles [6]. Interventions should first be addressed at the company level as such measures tend to be more preventative focused. Therefore, individual level interventions should only be undertaken when company level interventions have been implemented in order to compliment it and not be a substitute for it [13].

Table 1: Example actions to tackle psychosocial risks in HORECA

Psychosocial risk factor Preventative action at company level Preventative action at individual level
Long and non-standard working hours Variation in contracts and work schedules
Work-life balance Flexible work arrangements, Child care
High workload Organisational changes, Job design, Participation in decision making Stress management training, Time management training
Contact with customers Improvement of safety measures Training on dealing with aggression

Source: EU-OSHA (2008) [6]

Case studies

There are plenty of successful psychosocial interventions within the HORECA sector. The 2008 EU-OSHA report on protecting workers in hotels, restaurants and catering [8] provides 18 examples of good practice in addressing psychosocial factors across different types of business within the HORECA sector. Similarly, Eurofound’s report entitled ‘EU hotel and restaurant sector: Work and employment conditions’ [5] provides multiple examples of good practice at the company, sector and national level. Finally, the 2011 EU-OSHA report on innovative solutions to safety and health risks [1] also reviews nine psychosocial preventative measures in relation to the HORECA sector. Finally, one of the recipients of the Healthy Workplaces Good Practice Awards 2014–2015 is a small family run Hotel from Spain which improved employee satisfaction, commitment and involvement.

Conclusions

The HORECA sector is continuing to grow, with statistics revealing it to be a sector with a large number of young, female and part-time employees than other sectors. Although not unique to HORECA, workers in this sector are commonly exposed to numerous psychosocial hazards as a result of the long and variable hours, with often heavy workloads which they have little control over. Furthermore, workers in customer facing roles are at risk of sexual harassment and physical violence, whilst there is also a high prevalence of harassment (bullying, mobbing) in some areas of HORECA. In order for the risks to be prevented or minimised, it is essential that employers work together with employees to identify the risks and generate suitable solutions.

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA- European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Innovative solutions to safety and health risks in the construction, healthcare and HORECA sectors, 2011. Available at: [18]

Hesselink, J. K., Houtman, I., van den Berg, R., van den Bossche, S., & van den Heuvel, F., EU hotel and restaurant sector: Work and employment conditions. Eurofound Report: Dublin, 2004.

EU-OSHA- European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Facts-25: Psychosocial risks in HORECA, 2008. Available at: [19]

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Food and beverage sector: Working Conditions and job quality, 2014. Available at: [20]

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