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Pandemic mental health stress hitting SA pubs

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SA hotel operators have reported a big impact on their own and staff mental health due to the pandemic, with the industry body saying stress and anxiety about shutdowns, restrictions and job security confirmed the need for online help services and possible phone counselling.

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It comes after a survey of 100 South Australian hoteliers found 86 per cent of respondents indicated their mental health and wellbeing had been impacted by the ongoing public health emergency.

The Australian Hotel Association (SA) and work injury insurer Employers Mutual Limited (EML) survey also found that 90 per cent of respondents said they would access industry health and wellbeing services if available, while about 70 per cent had anxiety attached to managing staff during the pandemic.

Responses were collected from hoteliers across the state during October, ahead of a mental health and wellbeing program, which is expected to be rolled out to 1000 hospitality staff early in 2021.

It followed a tumultuous year for the hotel sector, which like many industries had to adapt to shutdowns and regularly changing restrictions.

Marion Hotel venue manager Anna Hurley said trying to navigate the rules while providing support and information to the venue’s more than 120 staff as well as looking after her own mental health had taken its toll.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster and I don’t think there’s anyone within our business who has been untouched by the stress and anxiety of the last 12 months,” Hurley said.

“You just get used to the restrictions and then there are a new set of restrictions to comply with and it just puts you under a huge amount of stress and pressure.

You can’t sleep, can’t have a life, you’re constantly on edge, constantly on call – it has not been a very fun year at all.

Hurley said while the pandemic had impacted the mental health of everyone within the sector differently, an “undercurrent of fear” had been consistent among hospitality workers since the Parafield cluster forced the state into a second lockdown in November.

“Since that last lockdown, there … is just that undercurrent of anxiety and fear about what is going to happen if we have another outbreak,” Hurley said.

“In retrospect, what was such a small outbreak had such a huge impact on our lives and on our mental health.

“To think that could happen again at the drop of a hat is really, really scary.”

Hurley said the return to stand-up restrictions and increase to capacity allowances for hospitality venues earlier this week was a “huge relief” but there was still “a long way to go” for hotel workers to feel at ease.

“We’re still a bit in survival mode. We’re not thinking too much about the future because we’ve seen how quickly things can get taken away,” she said.

“I think next year has a whole heap of challenges, with business support and personal support systems being taken away and welfare systems being taken away all at a similar time – I think there’s a fair bit of concern around that.”

The Federal Government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy is set to stop on March 28, after the eligibility was tightened in September, reducing the number of eligible businesses and dropping the number of recipients on the payment from 3.6 million to 1.5 million.

The financial stress of the pandemic had been particularly hard on the casual workers, according Hurley.

She said over the past year, the mental health toll of the pandemic had differed for various staff, with managers experiencing stress when faced with the uncertainty surrounding their own job stability as they also tried to help alleviate their workers’ mental health concerns.

“You’re calling all of your staff and saying to your casual staff – who need those hours – you don’t have any shifts for them,” she said.

“You’ve got full-time staff that you’re speaking with and telling them they’ve been stood down, which is scary for them because they’re thinking, ‘when is my next pay cheque coming?’

“And then there’s packing up and cleaning a hotel, when you have to be so conscious of wage costs, when you don’t know when you’ll be able to have customers back through the doors.

“It’s scary, it’s frustrating, and it’s a very unenjoyable task and something I hope I never have to go through again.”

The mental health ramifications of the pandemic on the hotel sector were part of what AHASA executive director of gaming care Anna Moeller said could become part of the pandemic’s “second wave”.

Moeller said the necessary restrictions implemented over concern about South Australians physical health may lead to a mental health crisis if additional appropriate support services weren’t made available to the workers.

“The second wave will be the casualties from mental health impacts rather than the physical,” she said.

Moeller said the survey responses indicated a strong need for over the phone counselling, particularly for those in regional areas, as well as greater support and training for leaders and managers.

She said the impact of COVID-19 on job losses, financial stress and isolation had been amplified for those working in the hotel sector who had borne the brunt of changing restrictions, citing JobKeeker as key to keeping many hotels running.

Without the stimulus payment, Moeller said: “there would have been greater carnage” to businesses.

In a bid to reduce the ongoing mental health impact of the pandemic in the new year, the AHASA and EML plan to roll out a mental health and wellbeing app as well as other online services for the industry early in 2021, which would be underpinned by the survey responses.

EML SA General Manager Jessica Lyon said the company would be examining a range of digital tools to provide people easy access to free services.

“The hospitality industry has faced extraordinary challenges due to COVID-19 and we want to make sure we are there to support those affected with the right help,” she said.

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