With pivots, closures and ongoing widespread staff shortages, there’s little doubt the past two years have been incredibly tumultuous times for anyone working in hospitality.
But even before lockdown was a word on everyone's lips, hospitality could be a challenging industry in which to work; often the hours are long, the work both physically and mentally demanding, and alcohol readily on hand in the workplace.
David Spargo believes the lack of mental health support in hospitality is something that needs to be tackled head on, which is why the Melburnian recently launched Mind And Strength Support (MASS) to focus on providing managers and venue owners with the tools to support their staff.
“The goal of it is to keep people in the industry and to keep people supported and safe,” he told The Crafty Pint.
David says that throughout the pandemic, while many venues and breweries have shown an eagerness to reach out to staff and ask them if they're OK, he has felt such support can often be generic, with businesses providing a link or number to call but no means of follow up.
“That can be really stock standard,” he says. “I felt there wasn’t enough practical support for staff in our industry and I don’t think people know what’s available to them."
David's main focus through MASS is the Beyond The Bar training courses he's developed for owners and managers in small bars, pubs and breweries, while he's also keen to provide mental health first aid training for workplaces. Those short courses aim to cover the prevalence of mental health issues in workplaces, develop skills to understand psychological hazards, and foster effective conversations around wellbeing. He's also aiming to give business owners and managers a better understanding of the support available to them and their staff, as well as relevant legislation and workplace safety issues.
He believes it’s essential to help leaders in small businesses better understand mental health, pointing out that the smaller the operation, the more hats owners and managers have to wear.
“With smaller venues and breweries, the owner or the manager is HR, is payroll and finance – it’s all in one,” David says.
“If you aren’t supportive of staff then you will burn through roles quite quickly.”
While workplace safety is often a feature of job descriptions, and places are quick to provide training for health and safety, rarely is the focus on other issues around wellbeing.
“Most jobs will say, 'Can you lift a keg that’s 30 kilos?' But they won’t talk about the psychological demands of the job, with late hours and high stress.”
Having started his career in hospitality before spending the last eight years working in social work and focusing on mental health issues within workplaces and community settings, David seems uniquely placed to work with venues on mental health. Indeed, his close connection with hospitality hasn’t really ceased either; you'll regularly find him helping out behind the bar at breweries and at beer festivals. He's also still a co-owner of Old Street Brewery in London, which was the first time he appeared on this site when he organised fundraisers through the Bethnal Green brewery to support those impacted by the 2019 and 2020 bushfires.
On returning to Australia as the pandemic caused borders to snap shut, the idea for MASS was sparked by the regular conversations he saw about ongoing issues with mental health in the industry in large hospo Facebook groups. Having found work in mental health support with a local council – a job that came into being thanks to extra funding due to COVID – he felt such a service could be developed for small venues.
Further to that, conversations with close friends in hospo made him realise the issue required serious attention.
“One spoke about anxiety and said he started experiencing anxiety during lockdown and thought he was having chest or heart issues,” David says.
“And one of the others said, ‘Actually that happened to me as well.'.”
It's an issue he believes is widespread; after mentioning his idea to people in the UK, he received a response along the lines of: "We could use that here."
David says: “I was talking to a friend back in the UK who was taking personal leave and got demoted for it because they said she had to keep up with the job demand.”
For now, however, David’s focus is on delivering local Beyond The Bar courses that will target local council areas across Melbourne in the hope he can help reconnect bar managers emerging from ongoing lockdowns and overloaded by a city whose population is eager to get out again.
“I want to create a network where people come and get to know the other managers in their community and rebuild that sense of community,” he says.
The other benefit is funding for the classes; while he just missed out on sourcing support from one Melbourne council, they’ve suggested he apply again. And while the search for funding is ongoing, his other hope is that larger suppliers, such as drinks companies, will help fund the courses once they understand the benefits that come from better supporting those in the venues they work with.
“If you foster people through the industry then they’re going to stick with you,” he says.
“I don’t want to charge any venues; they’ve had it tough enough over the last couple of years.”
To connect with David or find out more about his services, head the MASS website. For other entries in our Collaborators series, head here, and for our two-part series on mental health in the beer and hospo industry during the pandemic, head here.
For support surrounding mental health issues, you can contact: