Study finds zero-hour contracts lead to burnout for hospitality workers

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A new study has found that hospitality employees who perceive they are on a ‘zero-hour’ contract, where their hours are unspecified, are particularly vulnerable to burnout.

The study was carried out by Dr Elaine Wallace, University of Galway, and Professor Joseph Coughlan, Maynooth University, and was published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.

As part of the study, researchers examined how challenges such as workload, antisocial hours, emotional demands, and the attitude of customers can lead to burnout in the hospitality sector.

They also looked at how this risk is compounded by the uncertainties many hospitality employees face about their working hours.

The study gathered responses from 260 employees, 56% female and 44% male with an average age of 23, working in hospitality in Ireland.

Researchers found that almost half had less than a year’s experience in their role, and several perceived they were on a zero-hour contract.

Results showed that 58.8% of participants felt burnt out at least once per month, 35% multiple times a month, and 18.1% of participants felt burnt out at least once a week.

As managerial support, and employees’ own commitment to their employer can sometimes mitigate against burnout, these variables were also measured.

In addition, some employees ‘act out’ when they are under burnout, and therefore the study also investigated whether the employees ever engaged in counterproductive workplace behaviours, such as coming to work late or leaving work early without permission, neglecting to follow bosses’ instructions, or acting rudely to someone at work.

The results found among the group of employees those who were aware of their hours, had managerial support and were committed to the job helped to mitigate against burnout.

However, when this group of employees experienced burnout, they engaged in counterproductive behaviours against both the organisation and their colleagues.

This result was especially evident when employees were younger, perhaps to fit in with a culture where work stresses are high.

When employees who believed they were on a ‘zero-hour’ contract experienced burnout, managerial support or commitment to the job did not help to mitigate against it – suggesting that these employees may be more disconnected from the organisation, feeling like an ‘outsider’, yet experiencing burnout from the work.

At the same time, this group of employees did not ‘act out’ through counterproductive workplace behaviours when they experienced burnout, unlike those who knew their hours in advance.

Dr Elaine Wallace, co-author of the study and lecturer with J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at University of Galway, warned that the study raises questions about the effect of burnout for staff on zero-hour contracts, and its effects on their wellbeing.

“They seem to be less able to draw from supports in their organisation, such as having a good manager,” said Dr Wallace.

“At the same time, although these employees don’t engage in ‘acting out’ behaviours when they experience burnout, their stress must go somewhere. This may manifest in unhealthy behaviours which could affect their own health and wellbeing.

“Hospitality managers should put supports in place to protect the wellbeing of precarious workers, and also recognise the vulnerability of younger employees who may also be more susceptible to burnout than their older colleagues.”

The full study is available to read at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IJCHM-02-2022-0195/full/html