LIKE MANY IN the hotel industry, Silpa Patel grew up in the business, the child of hard-working immigrant parents. And, also like many in the industry, she saw the toll it took on her family. She saw how the stress of the job affected her parents, particularly her father.
“Throughout my childhood I just saw their anxiety get worse,” she said. “For him, unfortunately, rather than getting the help he needed he turned into a substance abuser.”
Patel decided to face her own struggle to maintain psychological well-being. She has become an advocate for better mental-health training in the hotel workplace. It is an issue that could not only lead to happier employees but also to greater efficiency in operations. According to some experts, it may also reduce turnover in the hotel industry.
Breaking the cycle
There came a point where Patel’s father was no longer able to keep up with his responsibilities. It was up to her mother, siblings and Patel to save the family hotel.
Years later, she helps manage a 107-room Days Inn in Cookeville, Tennessee, that her partner’s family has owned for years. Her partner, Kalpesh Patel, had taken over the business from his father and was working on expanding it into what it is today, Imagine Hospitality Management.
“I saw the same cycle going on with him,” she said.
The stress affected Silpa, too, as she helped him with the business until one year ago she reached a turning point when she was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety.
“That’s when I got the help I needed,” she said. “I decided in order to stay healthy I needed to get involved with mental health treatment.”
Silpa worked the anonymous call-in line for the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drugs and Other Addiction Services.
“So many Indians I saw calling in and trying to get help, and each of them was tied into the hotel business.”
She also works with StigmaZero as an ambassador/developer for the online program that promotes better workplace mental health and balancing work with home life. As the organization’s name implies, though, it’s also a matter of overcoming the stigma that comes with seeking mental health treatment.
According to StigmaZero, 81 percent of employees surveyed said fear of public shaming prevents people from seeking help. Another 54.6 percent of survey respondents with depression would not disclose their illness to their manager.
“I know nobody’s going to go check into a mental health care facility,” she said. “If there’s something you’re feeling, something happening at work, you can log into one of our modules.”
Patel has already made StigmaZero resources available on Marriott International’s website. She also approached Vinay Patel, AAHOA’s treasurer, and other board members in September about providing online mental health training for members.
“Our hotels are going to be affected by this sooner or later. With the ADA enactment laws and regulations changing, disability no longer only affects physical but mental health as well,” she said. “As owners, we need to understand that not only does our mental wellbeing matter, but so do our employees as they are the footprints to our businesses.”
Removing the stigma
StigmaZero has been available in Canada for some time. It was founded by mental health advocate and professional speaker Jason Finucan along with marketing and sales director Rylan McKinley.
On its website, StigmaZero offers video guides, downloadable resources, individual and group activities and interactive training. It also offers certification for people who complete its StigmaZero Online Training Academy.
“We have become reluctant to express ourselves due to the shame and stigma that is perceived. Emotional behavior is something we should be continuously be talking about.” Silpa Patel, Nashville hotelier
StigmaZero does not offer medical advice, Silpa said, but rather shares the experiences of other people who have found help and solutions.
“Once I gave my employees access to this it changed the dynamic of my hotel 100 percent,” Silpa said.
For example, Prian Patel, a front office manager for Imagine Hospitality’s Country Inn and Suites by Radisson and Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott properties, was instantly interested in the StigmaZero program.
“When I explained what StigmaZero was he was ready to dive in,” she said. “He pointed out that everyone deals with big personal challenges, including financial, relationship, and caregiving stresses. Being able to handle such matters helps everyone perform at their best. Employees also need to be comfortable in their relationships with their bosses or supervisors, he says, and employers need to work with supervisors to train them in the best ways to support their employees.”
Prian completed the StigmaZero certification training in a month, Silpa said.
Along with tips on how employees can protect their own mental health, the StigmaZero program includes training on how to help guests with mental health issues.
“ADA standards are now changing so they’re really focusing on mental health,” she said. “As an owner, the one thing I don’t want to get hit with is an ADA lawsuit.”
And mental health issues cost employers money. Depression treatment costs the U.S. economy an average of $210 billion annually, according to StigmaZero, and employers pay more than half of that cost.
Help for the holidays
In Lexington, Kentucky, Kinnari Patel works at Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa. She and her husband are co-owners of SpringHill Suites by Marriott Atlanta Downtown. They also helped fund the construction of the Oliver Winston Urgent Behavioral Care Center in Lexington.
Kinnari said her husband and she decided to fund the clinic because they are friends with Dr. Abner Rayapati who runs the clinic.
“We wanted to open a business where he could help patients,” she said.
She said they encourage other hoteliers they know with properties near the clinic to send their employees there if needed.
“We have always openly encouraged our employees to go,” she said. “There is a need, especially during the holiday season. The business slows down and hours get cut drastically. We have helped our employees during the holidays with a bonus or a gift.”
Keeping employees happy is not just a nice thing to do. It could also help retain employees at a time when skilled labor is at a premium.
The work/life balance
With hotels facing a shallow labor pool, employers are more focused than ever on optimizing their staff, said Del Ross, chief revenue officer at Hotel Effectiveness, which provides software solutions to help hoteliers manage labor costs. The difficulty in recruiting and retaining hotel workers has led to an increase in overtime across the industry, Ross said.
Previously, overtime accounted for about 2 percent of the amount of hours worked.
“Today we are seeing 8 percent being pretty common, four times the amount of overtime we see in normal periods,” he said. “That’s a lot.”
Overtime can be a positive for employees’ paychecks, but it can also become too much of a good thing and wear thin as workers grow overworked and resentful. It can also lead to greater employee turnover.
“We are seeing lower turnover rates at hotels with lower overtime,” he said. “These are hard jobs. It’s nice to get 10 hours of overtime at times when you need it, but if you get 10 hours of overtime every week, that gets fatiguing.”
Hotel employees may be getting overworked, Ross said. There is a four-quadrant model Hotel Effectiveness uses to judge a company’s turnover rates based on the correspondence between salary levels and turnover rates. On one end is companies with low salaries and low turnover, indicating high job satisfaction, and on the other is companies with high salaries but also high turnover rates, which Ross said indicates a workplace culture problem.
“You have something making your workplace really bad,” he said.
While eliminating overtime is not practical, Ross said he believes there is a “sweet spot” for the amount of overtime employees work. In other words, a level of overtime that does not force employees to consider leaving.
Hotel Effectiveness recommends hotel operators try to maintain the 2 percent overtime level.
When to seek help
For Patel, the issue of mental health in the hotel business is not just a matter of economics. It’s personal.
The hospitality industry has changed since her parents migrated to the U.S. from the United Kingdom, Patel said. Hotel owners have to change their approach to staying healthy on the job by recognizing their feelings.
The first step, she said, is knowing when to reach out for help with stress.
“We are not running hotels the way we did 30 years ago. We have to change with the times and the expectations of guests that walk through the door every day,” she said.
“We are reluctant to express ourselves due to the shame and stigma that is perceived. Emotional behavior is something we should be continuously be talking about.”
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