When two Category 5 hurricanes hit the US Virgin Island of Saint John in quick succession in 2017, it was the most devastating thing to happen to restaurant owner Karen Granitz in her 50 years in the service industry. But then the 65-year-old picked up the pieces, reopened her business and carried on. “I could see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she recalls.

Covid-19 has been another beast entirely. “There’s no end in sight and we’re not in control, which is very unnerving,” says Granitz. The unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic ultimately forced her out of business. “I closed the restaurant this past February, not because of a desire to be secluded from Covid, not because we weren’t busy enough, not because I couldn’t get supplies and not because of the shocking misbehaviour of the minority of the masses of tourists we got,” she says. The problem: staff were so burnt out they stopped showing up to work.

“Rude customers were causing tension in house, wearing masks was exhausting and my people were scared, whether they admitted it or not,” she says. When staff didn’t show up for work, Granitz was left to pick up the slack. “I am too old to be carrying on working 16-hour days and doing the work, physically, of six people, so I said I would walk out at the top of my game before a stretcher had to carry me out.”

The World Health Organization recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019. While it’s often discussed in reference to office workers, studies show service-sector workers are uniquely affected by burnout, thanks to a combination of factors including long workdays, odd hours and a lack of regular time off. In many nations, including the United States, they are often under-paid, under-resourced and undervalued, with no sick pay or holiday-pay provision.

Right now, service-industry burnout could be worse than ever, due to a volatile mix of added stressors brought on by the pandemic, including unruly customers and dire staff shortages. It’s possible these high levels of burnout could play an important role in helping companies better understand the phenomenon and make changes that could lead to better workplaces. Yet that will be of little comfort to those experiencing daily hardship in customer-facing roles.

Customers have been taking pandemic-linked stress out on service industry workers, experts say

'Roll-your-eyes horrible’ customers

Many service-industry workers can hardly remember the early days of the pandemic, when they were lauded for their labour as essential workers. These days, people are more likely to come across news of attacks on workers in restaurants, stores and airplanes – often as a result of their new role as enforcers of Covid-era health rules. Of course, one of the quintessential tasks of a customer-facing job is dealing with problems, making these workers uniquely positioned to have hostile interactions during the pandemic.

Granitz says the past few months on Saint John have been the most volatile she can remember, with tourists fighting to get on ferries, misbehaving on tours and putting restaurant staff on edge each shift. “You’d have 100 fabulous, amazing people and then five would show up that were unbelievably, roll-your-eyes horrible,” she says.

In a recent survey of UK retail workers, 91% of managers said they’d noticed an increase in mental-health issues among staff. Chief among the reasons: 88% of frontline retail respondents said they had experienced verbal abuse in 2020, and 60% reported being threatened by customers.

I am too old to be carrying on working 16-hour days and doing the work, physically, of six people, so I said I would walk out at the top of my game before a stretcher had to carry me out – Karen Granitz

Jennifer Moss, author of new book The Burnout Epidemic, says this is likely the result of 20 months of being in a state of crisis, where workers are stressed out and, when they interact with the public, are being met with high levels of stress in return. “We’re always sort of at the edge right now and we’re not taking moments of pause before we react,” the Ontario, Canada-based expert explains. “So, there is just a level of volatility that those in the service sector haven’t necessarily dealt with before.”

Moss says this increased friction can lead to heightened levels of cynicism and hopelessness among service-industry workers as well as a sense that things are out of control. As a result, they may become disengaged, anxious or experience a negative personality change – all symptoms of burnout that are often misconstrued as poor performance.

The cycle of burnout and staff shortages

Studies show burnout is a key driver of employee turnover. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that the service industry has been among the hardest-hit by the Great Resignation.

Hospitality workers in the US have left their jobs in droves since shutdowns began in early 2020. Job vacancies in the UK hospitality industry are at the highest levels since records began, with many leaving the workforce to study or re-train in a new field. A lack of service industry workers in Australia has led to bidding wars in which chefs offered up to AU$200,000 ($143,520; £106,911) salaries just to accept a gig.

Staff shortages and new, complicated ways of working have added to the burden on some service sector workers

As a consequence of these worker shortages, many businesses in the US have attempted to raise wages to lure them back. Studies show they aren’t interested. According to a Joblist report, former hospitality workers are transitioning out of the industry in search of a different work setting (52%), higher pay (45%), better benefits (29%) and more schedule flexibility (19%). Meanwhile, half of former hospitality workers looking for other work say no pay increase or incentive would make them return to their old restaurant, bar or hotel job.

Kevin Oliver is the manager of a variety store in the US state of South Carolina, who has lived the consequences of severe staff shortages. The 54-year-old, who has worked in retail since he was 21, says he’s logged an average of 60 to 70 hours each week this past year. There was a period of nearly eight months during which the only way he could take a day off was to ask the other manager-level employee to work a 16-hour shift.

“With those kinds of occurrences becoming more and more common, it’s no wonder some of us have been burnt out,” he says. Instead of having work-life balance, “for the bulk of the pandemic it's been mostly work, pretty unbalanced”. Oliver is leaving his job this month to take on a new position with a non-profit that he says offers fewer hours and higher pay.

Industry exodus

Moss says the pandemic has made it easier for burnt-out workers like Oliver to make career changes. “We’ve all gone through 20 months of facing our own mortality,” she says. “We have questioned, intentionally, what we want to do with our lives, what we want to do with work. We’ve also learned high levels of emotional flexibility, which makes you much more open to change.”

Half of former hospitality workers looking for other work say no pay increase or incentive would make them return to their old restaurant, bar or hotel job

If companies in the service industry want to keep their employees, they may need to start playing a major role in combatting burnout. Among entry-level staff, Moss says the relationship has long been transactional. “There is an expectation that they are going to leave, and we need to stop thinking like that,” she explains. “That means changing the way that we support those employees.”

This could be allowing workers to share their gripes openly without fear of repercussions, ensuring all assigned workloads are sustainable, checking in with employees to gauge their wellbeing and making workers aware of clear steps for career advancement.

“We’re in a paradigm-shifting moment in our workforce right now,” adds Moss. “Those companies that did a good job of listening to people, caring about their mental health, providing them with the support they needed, developing trust, building two-way communication and feedback – those types of organisations are the ones that will see their employees stay.”

Moss hopes the current situation may serve as a wake-up call, heightening awareness of burnout and its effects not just in office cubicles and hospital wards but also behind café counters and store registers. And with more attention to the problem, perhaps all of us can begin to reflect on our own interactions with service industry workers and start the process of de-normalising the poor behaviour reported in recent months, too.