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Conversations in Lockdown: How have attitudes to mental health changed in the events and hospitality industry?
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Here, Warwick Conferences’ Catherine Greenhill sits down with Leigh Cowlishaw, HBAA board member and Eventwell Vice Chair, to discuss how mental health attitudes have changed in the events and hospitality industry, and whether COVID-19 will have an impact on progress.

Have attitudes towards mental health changed?

The pressures and stresses linked with the events and hospitality industry have been reported for many years. Driven by deadlines, workers often spend late hours perfecting an event, resulting in added pressure for everything to run smoothly.

While people are starting to talk about mental ill health in more detail, openness about mental health struggles hasn’t always been easy for those within the industry.

“20 years ago, I was working long hours which took its toll. It used to be a huge thing to talk to peers about,” Catherine comments. Leigh agrees and, during her role as chair of the HBAA, spoke openly on stage to her peers about the challenges she faced and could see others facing around her, during a seminar.

“When I shared my human side to say I’m heading for a burnout - I’m stressed, tired, exhausted, anxious - I had people crying in the audience, as we had a personal connection. It was the most unbelievable thing.”

The spotlight is starting to slowly shine a light on the issue, as Catherine adds: “The conversations we’ve been having over the last two to three years have really helped. Mental health is high on everyone’s agenda, and more people are prepared to discuss it and do something proactive.”

In 2019, Meetings and Incentive Travel’s mental health survey revealed a staggering 40% of respondents said they had at some point suffered from or been diagnosed with mental ill health. This is above the UK average of one in four.

According to Leigh, there are a number of reasons those within the events and hospitality industry suffer with mental health issues. Among the most prominent are endless deadlines, the desire to excel and pressures to produce the very best event on further squeezed budgets and create an experience to remember for delegates and customers.

How will COVID-19 impact the way mental health is viewed in events?

The attention on mental health in the UK has continued to grow since the Government implemented nationwide lockdown. A COVID-19 mental health campaign was launched by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April, with advice for looking after mental wellbeing. Through the lens of the events world, Catherine has experienced the industry come together more than ever.

According to Catherine, people are finding more time to talk to each other, which is having a positive impact in building professional and personal relationships. “We’ve got some really good long-standing relationships but people have been saying ‘thank you so much for picking up the phone’,” Catherine says. “Some of these calls have been going on for an hour at a time. It is really a good time to build those relationships.”

Bringing the industry together to discuss mental health challenges is one positive impact on the events and hospitality industry. However, Leigh expects attitudes to also shift in delegates, as and when the industry returns. Leigh comments: “I expect delegates will be more selective in the events they participate in or being able to participate in and in which capacity, this pandemic will have much more lasting effects to us all and it is beyond washing your hands. Our mental health is being massively impacted right now and this cannot and will not just be brushed under the carpet.

“Organisers, therefore, need to make sure that their delegates’ mental health and wellbeing is absolutely considered. As and when the market picks up, people will be very cautious. Will they be willing to make that journey on the train or start mixing with people? Corporates must look at their policies of how they actually look after delegates throughout the experience lifecycle.”

The impact of this, according to Leigh, could add even more pressure onto organisers and events managers. She adds: “If you’re an event manager, you’re going to have to work smarter - and more creatively. If you’re a hotel and venue you are going to have to work completely differently – both of which will impact on budgets. If you are a delegate, you will have to consider yourself differently.”

Supporting each other

It is clear that the outbreak of COVID-19 has united the events industry. Associations like the HBAA and IACC have produced a number of supportive webinars and activities in an attempt to ensure conversations continue.

HBAA has launched a ‘ COVID-19 Response Area ’, which is a tool for professionals to explain the latest recommendations from government and industry, with relevant advice. Leigh says: “We are providing guidance and support, including free HBAA mental health and wellbeing webinars. We’re also hosting coffee mornings, where we are providing people with tool kits around topics including HR, PR and marketing in a time of crisis, as well as being a united voice into the government via BVEP on important issues and relief, that this industry so desperately needs.”

Awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues was on the rise in the events industry before the impact of COVID-19 was known, and it appears the current pandemic is opening up new lines of communication. The support network - and the growing bond and respect professionals have for each other - has been clear to see, and it is important for this to continue.

If you or a colleague would like to speak to someone, please get in touch with a member of the team today. While Warwick Conferences is closed, our door remains open to have a chat and remember it really is OK, not to be OK.