Employee well-being should be priority

It was heartening to hear a general manager of a five-star luxury Maldivian property I was visiting say that she had a personal connection with everyone on her island – from the front desk to the kitchen staff, housekeeping and facilities management. Her team knew that she practiced an open-door policy and that any of their concerns would be dealt with fairly. This is the kind of reassurance one looks for from a leader (especially when you are, as it turns out, stranded on the island with them).

In order to contain the pandemic and promote tourism, most resorts of the 150 or so resorts in the Maldives did not allow staff to commute between islands or even permitted people from the main populated island of Male to visit their resort islands. As a result of this, every staff on the island is, in a way, was trapped within their respective resorts all the while serving guests with a smile. (Wait, you wouldn’t see their smiles because they were all wearing masks so that guests could instead enjoy a mask-free stay.)

Today, every brand is looking to scoot under the sustainability umbrella whether their business models truly allow it or not. This is not a new trend, even prior to the pandemic, some high-end lodges in Africa sold safari packages at an inexplicable premium citing all their sustainability initiatives – all the food came from their own gardens, all the staff came from their native surrounding villages and all the materials used to build the property came from regenerative resources. Many of these resorts had to shut their doors as the pandemic tested their profit margins and with their doors, they even shut out all their sustainability initiatives.

Suddenly, villages who were dependant on the resort for their livelihood (and who at one point had justified the resort’s high profit margins under the sustainability label) were left impoverished, without a means of income, and in times when they would have needed it most. The so-called sustainable resorts had abandoned their families with a promise of opening months later.

Resort brands more closer to home in the Middle East haven’t been too kind to their first customers – their employees – either. One resort, located in the middle of the veritable desert, has employed some staff to shuttle guests around in the summer heat so guests don’t feel the discomfort of the burning summer. These butlers spend majority of their times outdoors – driving shaded golf carts, picking guests from the villas dotted all around the property to the various points in the resort in temperatures that could easily exceed 50 degrees.

Staff requests for air-conditioned carts have gone unheard and they have been advised to be grateful to have a job in this market. We, of course, speak of luxury resorts touting sustainability as their main ethos. 

This paints a disturbing picture of modern slavery in hospitality – staff sacrificing their own happiness, freedom and even basic human rights – to ensure their guests return happy and satisfied. There’s no doubt that life in hospitality can be stressful, whether it’s the odd hours, dealing with disgruntled guests or managing an unpredictable workload. Add to that furloughs and limited job opportunities in the post-Covid world, a struggling economy and employers who are keen on profits above everything else.

But all is not lost: Marriott’s TakeCare programme aimed at employee welfare and benefits ensures their managed properties provide happy and healthy workplace such as having healthy snacks available, being involved in local communities, and promoting career development for associates. According to 2019 figures, 88 per cent of Marriott managed properties supported physical activity during work hours by hosting walking breaks or by sponsoring fitness breaks.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the worst crisis the hospitality industry has ever seen, Accor, prioritised the mental and physical well-being of its staff through a range of programmes and apps that could be used at home. Accor was also the first hotel operator to announce an employee fund to protect staff who might face medical bills and who don't have access to insurance.

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