Burnout is everywhere in our precarious global economy, but it's especially pronounced in the travel and hospitality industry. Knowing the reasons why can help prevent it from taking over.
In the couple of months before Lauren Westerfield resigned from her corporate hospitality job, she kept getting a sign.
A tarot card reader in her spare time, she repeatedly pulled the card for death, which signifies change, a shedding of skin, or the closing of a chapter.
“I was like: Gosh, could this get more obvious?”
So she finally did it. The day after she resigned from her role as vice president of marketing at the Palms Casino and Resort in Las Vegas, she wrote a candid post on LinkedIn about her decision, hoping to show that it was possible to step down from a high-profile role in a graceful way.
Westerfield’s story is reminder for everyone in a hard-driving job, but especially for executives in travel, where it can often feel like a desperate 24/7 hamster wheel as competition grows and the stakes climb.
Westerfield’s decision left her feeling “1,000 pounds lighter” and put an end to the 2 a.m. wake-ups, nonexistent motivation to go to the gym, and the lack of presence with her family that Westerfield had been feeling for months.
The post also hit a nerve, filling Westerfield’s inbox with messages and comments from people earlier in their careers asking where she found her courage, to those further down the career path who had gone through a similar shift.
In May of this year, the World Health Organization clarified its definition of burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” rather than a medical condition, noting it results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by physical and mental exhaustion, mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativity and cynicism and “reduced professional efficacy.”
The response to Westerfield’s decision serves as proof — as if any was needed — that the modern definition of burnout is alive and well in the travel and hospitality industry. Of course it’s true that thanks to online communication, the shrinking social safety net, and the the general precariousness of the global economy, burnout is present nearly everywhere. But Westerfield’s story hints at the particular ways that the phenomenon can manifest in the industry — and hopefully, what can be done to stem its tide.
There are plenty of reasons why burnout happens, from personality or individual circumstances, to a company or society’s structure — and of course a mixture of all of the above. However the travel industry, particularly hospitality, has several fundamental characteristics which mean it can lends itself to burnout unfortunately well.
Jannes Soerensen, general manager of the Beaumont Hotel in London, says unlike almost all other industries, there’s no “lights off” at a hotel. And while that has an obvious effect on front of house staff, it’s the same feeling for corporate and back of house too.
“A hotel is always open. This business is not like an office where you switch the lights off, close the door and everyone goes home,” Soerensen told Skift. “So it is easy for managers to hang around beyond their contracted hours and keep working. It’s what makes a hotel a kind of danger zone for the type of people who have tendency to overwork and burn out, because it never stops.”
Westerfield echoed this, saying that even working in a marketing role as she did, the daily reality of guests walking through the door never goes away.
“It’s not just the external guests, it’s the internal, your team, the guests wanting more, more, more always,” Westerfield said. “So you have all of that, but you are trying to operate strategically, planning your quarter or your year [while you] operate day to day, planning promotion, servicing guests, doing giveaways.”
In addition, hospitality has traditionally engendered a kind of calling in many people. Separated from the phrase “hospitality business,” don’t forget, and the word means generosity and kindness towards guests. Executive coach Jo Sheasby — who worked in the travel sector for nearly 20 years and now has many clients who work in the field — says she observes a high degree of company loyalty in many of her hospitality and travel industry clients, as well as a desire to not let their customers down. That can often lead to people putting work before their own well-being.
“A lot of the time in travel you’re dealing with people who literally are investing their hard-earned money into the dream of these amazing holidays and experiences, so you’re dealing with a really high risk product,” Sheasby said. “So the fact that a [travel rep] is contactable 24/7 when anything goes wrong can cause extreme pressure for people.”
The Nature of the Competition
It would be impossible to talk about burnout in the travel industry without talking about the technological, financial, and macroeconomic factors that have shaped and transformed the industry over the past twenty years.
Chip Conley, strategic advisor to Airbnb and the founder of the Modern Elder Academy, a resource and workshop series for mid-to-late career professionals, founded the boutique hotel company Joie De Vivre in 1987. He said since then, the nature of competition in the industry has changed entirely. There’s more competition from international players (especially in the airline sector), technological disruptors, and an explosion of boutique and independent brands. “It used to be that everyone wanted to create their own restaurant — that was the cool thing — but today it’s boutique hotels.”
He goes on: “So what that’s led to is, even in a strong economy, people — especially mid-life travel industry leaders — feeling sort of confused by how do you stay ahead of the competition.”
Another thing that Conley said has changed is the nature of investment in the hospitality business. Family owned properties are becoming more rare, and more often it is private equity or venture capital looking for high-volume returns.
“If you create an environment where the investor pool is focused predominately on the highest internal rate of return or return on investment, what you see is a very trading-type mentality … trying to maximize everything in the short term.” He added that this is the kind of mentality that leads to small urban properties charging resort fees even though it comes across as the very opposite of hospitable to their guests.
Then there’s social media, a factor which was a constant source of stress for Westerfield in her former role. Twitter trolls weighed in on every celebrity chef partnership, online promotion, and decision the Palms made. While bad reviews in a newspaper may have concerned hotel or tour operators before, a rogue Instagram post from a disgruntled guest at midnight can become a viral incident before they’ve even had a morning coffee.
“The Twitter trolls really make it harder to operate, especially with a publicly traded company,” Westerfield said. “It was a constant chatter. It leads to an emotional toll if you take your job seriously and you’re invested in the brand,” adding that she often started to “second guess did I make the right decision” because of what was said by random people online.
Social media and a culture of instant gratification — you can thank Amazon Prime for that — amplifies what was already the always-on nature of the business.
“Hospitality has always been a 24/7 business, but it’s more of a 24/7 business than it’s ever been,” Conley said. “People have an expectation that if they have a problem, then it’s going to be solved in this moment.”
Curiosity Meets Wisdom
Just as there is no one cause for burnout, there is no single fix. Sheasby said the solution will depend massively on the client, but there certainly are cases where the role a person is feeling burned out by is simply a mismatch: An introvert in a customer-centric, fast-paced role for example, might mean they have to move on. But she added that quitting your job is definitely not the only way out
“A lot of the time, it has to do with habits that you can create to be able to put down boundaries,” Sheasby said, saying that a common pitfall is people-pleasers reflexively agreeing to after-work drinks or celebrations when really they need to go home and rest, or compulsively checking emails when they don’t need to. “Boundaries are really important to put into place … you can go into into a variety of different roles that seem stressful, but it’s the way you’re handing it that will allow you to do those roles.”
Westerfield is now pondering a career move that will allow her to potentially help others navigate the change in mindset that she just went through. She hopes to amplify the idea that despite what a high-pressure and results-focused industry may lead us to believe, you don’t always have to take the next biggest, impressive role by default. And for high pressure roles like hers was, “maybe there is an expiration date on a certain position,” — and that’s just fine.
Conley takes a more philosophical view. In addition to saying that hobbies, exercise, practices like meditation, and periodic sabbaticals are essential, he hopes we can embrace a broader idea about how mid and advanced-career level people can equip themselves for the longer careers ahead without feeling burned out.
“Feeling irrelevant and burned out at the same time really means that you’re not prepared for the fact that you’re probably going to have to work for another 20 years — in some cases by choice, and other cases by necessity.”
His Modern Elder Academy is built on the idea that a mixture of wisdom honed from experience, paired with a curiosity that comes from an openness to innovation, is needed in the modern workplace. A big component of this is accepting that learning and mentorship can go both ways; you don’t have to be as smart as a 25 year old disruptor who might steal your job if you begin to see that person as an ally. In other words: You can learn from a 25 year old — and invite them to learn from you as well.
“To realize that you can actually become fresh and new at whatever age,” is the goal, Conley said. “When you’re in a learning mindset and a beginner’s mind there’s a certain freshness that you feel.”
To the burned out, that freshness is the holy grail.
Photo credit: "Hospitality has always been a 24-7 business, but it’s more of a 24-7 business than it’s ever been." Khara Woods / Unsplash