The Pandemic’s Psychological Toll

Hospitality workers have suffered an unprecedented loss of well-being since COVID-19 shut down much of their industry.

When you enter a restaurant or check in at a hotel, you typically feel a sense of anticipation. You expect the staff—from hosts to servers to desk clerks—to show warmth, consideration and a welcoming smile. But the hospitality labor market, including those who work in food, lodging and tourism, isn’t the growing, confident force it was less than a year ago. These days, that worker’s smile may not come so naturally.

Women make up more than half of the hospitality workforce

Since March of this year, as the country locked down and travel restrictions were imposed locally, nationally and internationally, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with the hospitality industry. Indeed, perhaps no other industry was hit so hard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in accommodations and food and beverage services had risen to 37.3% in April 2020. Many hospitality workers had been laid off or furloughed, and many of those who kept their jobs felt insecure. Since then, although some establishments have rebounded modestly, some others have closed entirely and more people have lost their livelihoods.

“It unfolded very quickly,” said Chun-Chu (Bamboo) Chen, assistant professor of hospitality business management at WSU Vancouver. “While many people were able to work from home, hospitality workers have no choice. They have to work on site.” When students told him about their experiences being furloughed or laid off, Chen wanted to know more about the pandemic’s impact on their overall health and well-being.

Bamboo Chen, PhD

Working with an online research company, Chen surveyed about 1,200 hospitality workers. They fell into three groups. The first group remained fully employed and experienced little to no impact. The second group had been furloughed, surviving on reduced hours or not being paid but still considered employees of the company. The third group had been laid off; they were on their own.

In a paper published in October in Annals of Tourism Research[SL1] , “Psychological tolls of COVID-19 on industry employees,” Chen identified three key stressors that affected well-being:

  • Pandemic-induced panic
  • Social isolation or lack of social support
  • Unemployment

“In terms of overall well-being, my respondents were pretty bad,” Chen said. Understandably, panic affected most everyone to some degree. But those who still had social support and employment were better able to cope with the psychological trauma.

Unemployed and furloughed workers who had lost both their income and the social support of colleagues were most severely affected by the pandemic. Interestingly, Chen adds, “female and younger respondents were also hit harder, regardless of their employment status.” Because the hospitality workforce skews female (52.8%, and 58.7% of Chen’s respondents) and younger (median age of 30.7; and 62.5% under 40 in Chen’s sample), the impact is widely felt.

Implications for the industry

The study results were not surprising, but having empirical evidence is important for long-term thinking and planning for the industry, Chen said. “What’s really surprised me,” he added, is that “social support and isolation play a very important role here, and social support is a bigger factor [in well-being] than unemployment. I think that is the most unexpected finding from my study.”

The March/April lockdowns cost half of the hospitality jobs in the U.S.

One possible explanation why losing a job can be doubly devastating—loss of income and loss of co-workers’ support—is that hospitality workers are inherently social beings. “We have to face people on a daily basis,” Chen pointed out. For employers, while it is impractical to keep their employees on the payroll when there is no or little revenue, these findings pose some significant implications: When the industry rebounds, will it have trouble recruiting workers, who might see their jobs as precarious? If laid-off workers are rehired, will they be as outgoing as before, or might they be wary? How loyal will they feel to their employer?

Chen has a couple of other projects in the works. One is looking at whether losing a job in a pandemic or getting infected is a greater source of fear. He also hopes to look at the long-term impact of the current situation on the hospitality labor market.

A native of Taiwan, where he worked in the hospitality industry as a marketer for a resort hotel, Chen earned his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University in 2012 and joined WSU Vancouver in 2018. His project was funded via the mini-grant process by WSU Vancouver’s Office of Research and Graduate Education.

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