University of Exeter: Hospitality workers speak of “moral burden” of their job on new podcast exploring struggles of pandemic working

Those serving food and drink experienced poor mental and physical health due to “intense” workload demands.

Some had caught coronavirus and experienced persistent symptoms due to long covid, but they also battled other physical effects, such as painful and dry hands as a result of increased cleaning and sanitising, and aching legs and exhaustion due to heavier workloads and table service.

Participants also spoke about difficulties caused by unpaid “work” they took home with them, including having to distance themselves from friends and family when they felt at risk of Covid, recuperating from difficult working patterns, increasing showers, and washing and replacing uniforms and face coverings.

Participants shared the pressures of maintaining spaces such as the customer toilets, and balancing additional workloads with cleaning tasks and monitoring customers.

Based on this research, the Beers, Burgers + Bleach podcast explores the accounts of 21 hospitality workers from around the UK, who were interviewed and completed a work diary between December 2020 and April 2021. They worked in both rural and urban areas, from the South coast to the North East; and in pubs, bars, restaurants, fast-food venues and cafés.

Researchers were supported by an advisory board of hospitality workers, trade unions, local campaigners and researchers.

The podcast mini-series has three episodes: 1) Struggles, on the physical and mental impact of work during the Covid-19 pandemic; 2) Solidarities, on union organisation, community, and activism in the sector; and 3) Sanitation, on cleaning labour and the importance of toilets in hospitality during the pandemic.

In Struggles, one anonymous worker referred to as “Ben”, said: “Hygiene is my primary concern with going back. I’m the only member of staff who would have to use public transport regularly to go to and from work, which is something I was very uncomfortable with before returning to lockdown and has only become more of a concern now. I definitely feel as if I raise the risk of introducing Covid to the workplace quite significantly. I was very strict with my conduct regarding my own hygiene on public transport and throughout work, and yet in the run-up to the November lockdown I still contracted Covid. Thankfully, my co-workers had tested negative and were okay, but it was a big hit to my psyche to live in fear for so long of contracting this illness and introducing it to home, and having that become my reality.”

Speaking about the impact of recovering from coronavirus, Ben said: “I suffered a very long period of exhaustion, and the muscles in my legs still sometimes get cramped and achy if I’m walking or standing for too long. I hate to feel like I’m a burden to my team that way. Sometimes I feel like they’d think I’m just making up some of these feelings if I talked about them for too long, even though I know that my bosses are very understanding of my feelings. Much of my time as I was recovering I spent wondering if there was anything I could have done differently that would have prevented me from contracting Covid. Was there a customer who hadn’t been wearing a mask and I hadn’t noticed or hadn’t checked them? Was there a table I hadn’t wiped properly? Had I forgotten to wear gloves for a period of time and handled something someone had used?”

Bill, who’s in his 60s and has been working in the hospitality sector for 50 years, told researchers about difficulties dealing with customers who were unwilling to comply with regulations. He said: “When we’ve been asking them to do things, “Can you put a mask on?” “Can you sanitise your hands?” “Will you fill a track and trace in?”, because we’re having to police it, it’s like “Who do you think you are? Why have I got to do this? What’s going on?” And it’s as if they’ve been in a different world, because they might go to a supermarket and they’ll put a mask on, but when they come to where I work it’s a different world, “Why do we have to do it here?” It’s as if Covid’s stopped at the door and doesn’t affect the inside. And people’s attitudes have been absolutely horrible; we’ve been swore at and abused and everything else.”

The aim of the year-long research project is to recognise the work done by hospitality workers and encourage better working conditions and higher pay in the future. They also hope to explore the relationship between public health, cleaning labour, and the availability and accessibility of toilets.

The Beers, Burgers + Bleach podcast is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science and is based on research funded by the University of Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health (WCCEH) led by Dr Charlotte Jones from the University of Exeter, Dr Lauren White from the University of Sheffield, and Dr Jen Slater and Dr Jill Pluquailec from Sheffield Hallam University, in close collaboration with hospitality workers, trade unions and local campaigns.

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