A qualitative investigation into the experiences of workers in the hospitality sector in Scotland

Chapter Three: Working conditions

This chapter explores some of the physical and mental challenges that hospitality workers experienced in the workplace, including tiredness, injuries, and stress. It then addresses the question of breaks, and the extent to which our sample of hospitality workers took regular breaks during working hours. Finally, it looks at experiences with customers, which could be a source of both great fulfilment at work, as well as stress, dissatisfaction, and anxiety.

The themes explored in this chapter address issues relating in particular to experiences of 'respect' and 'fulfilment' at work – two of the five dimensions of fair work as outlined in the Fair Work Convention's Framework.

3.1 Physical challenges at work

Our participants described a range of physical challenges associated with their work. These ranged from minor complaints to experiences of more serious injuries and accidents.

Among chefs, a common complaint was the heat of the kitchens, which they often found made their working conditions uncomfortable:

"The reality is that the job is hard on the body. And it's hard in a kitchen. It's a very hot environment to be in. You've got all the cookers, the ovens."

John, 53, head chef and restaurant manager, small town in the Highlands

"In the Indian kitchen you have to work in the heat, and the smoke, and it is more dangerous than [other kitchens]…You have to have everything in front of you, boiling something, more risk in the kitchen."

Birodh, 30, chef, Stirling

"The heat [is the worst thing working in a kitchen]."

Megan, 32, kitchen runner, small town in the Highlands

Another particularly common complaint among all the hospitality workers we interviewed was tiredness, in addition to aches and pains related to prolonged periods of standing. Many participants also linked these experiences to a lack of regular breaks:

"It's quite exhausting but I feel especially with, in hospitality when you're on your feet all the time, it doesn't, you just get into the habit and you don't really notice, until the end of the day. You do eat, just here and there, just to fuel yourself a little bit, but by the end of the day, I'm exhausted…. I [also] have had periods of time where I felt quite light headed, just because, as I said, we don't always get breaks and so you can't always have food."

Kate, 21, undergraduate student and barista in coffee shop, Edinburgh

"It's just exhausting, very exhausting…. Like running back and forth all day and in the kitchen at night [without breaks]."

Megan, 32, kitchen runner, small town in the Highlands

"You know, standing for six, seven hours at a time is really, really, at the time you're busy and you just don't feel it or think about it. But you know, once you come home and you sit down; you try and stand up again, your feet are just throbbing, you know."

Caroline, 64, bartender in golf club, Perthshire

In addition to taking breaks, appropriate footwear was important for many workers in order to minimise pain when working. Vicki, however, described how she was reluctant to wear trainers to work, as she felt they were not appropriate in a cocktail bar. While this was her choice rather than a request from her employer, she noted that a former manager in a hotel had banned her from wearing trainers to work:

"It's really like affected, it's really sore, my feet the next day, I will try and get up out of bed, and honestly, sometimes I feel like I can't walk, because my feet are so sore, killing. So, that's the only thing really, just from standing around or walking around all night sort of thing … I guess I could probably wear better shoes to work, but it's hard when you work in a nice cocktail bar, you don't really want to be trainers. I normally wear boots, not heeled boots or anything but try and wear nicer shoes which obviously, aren't very good on your feet. … [At my last job] I bought some new trainers to wear to work, but they were nice ones, they were proper, just nice little flat trainers and the owner told me I couldn't wear them and the owner told me I had to wear nice dress shoes, because I was in reception. But I'm like, I'm running around for breakfast as well. So, that really pissed me off actually."

Vicki, 28, bartender, small town in Perthshire

3.1.1. Injuries and accidents

Several of the participants that we interviewed reported suffering minor injuries at work, such as burns or cuts to hands and fingers. We additionally interviewed people who reported more serious injuries linked to their work. One example here is Tímea, who described the long-term problems with her wrists that she developed as a result of lifting large chicken fryers in a kitchen for hours on end without a break (see worker story in Chapter Two).

Another notable example here is that of John – a head chef in a restaurant that he also manages. He told us how he has a long-term vascular condition in his legs, due to the effects of constant standing in the kitchen for long periods:

"[Cooking] is not great for your health. I blew the valves in my legs.... So, you end up with sores on your legs. I had open sores on my legs and things like this. So, I've got to wear compression stockings… The consultant said that there's no cure for it. There's no operation that they can do that'll fix it. [It's] because you're standing for maybe 14 hours a day every day. There's no seats, no sit down, you're standing. You're doing prep in the kitchen all the time. So, it's not a great thing for your health, mobility. [The doctors said] it's standing all the time. That's what caused it."

He described this as a painful condition:

"It's horrific because what happens is…unless I wear those compression bandages…then your legs start to twinge and then you go into full cramps. Particularly through the night is the worst part when it just, it just, your muscles just lock right up and you've just got to try and rub and rub and rub your leg... So, that's what happens, it traps the lactic acid in there and you end up with severe leg cramp."

In addition to this vascular condition, John had also developed carpal tunnel syndrome in his arms, which required an operation:

"So, what happens is you're using your hands all the time for either cheffing or mixing, all those kind of things. So, you get ailments, repetitive strain injuries. So, I had to get [an operation] for carpal tunnel."

John, 53, head chef and restaurant manager, small town in the Highlands

In another example, Tony, who had worked for decades as a restaurant manager, described to us an accident that he had in the kitchen, resulting in long-term arthritis in his hand:

"I had a bad accident with my hand, years ago... We were downstairs, doing a dinner, and the chef had come down and said: 'We're expecting an environmental health visit tomorrow. Can you just double-check everything's okay with the kitchen?' So, we pulled everything out, checked everything. It was one of the big mixers, the really big mixing bowls…. And as I put it back, I then realised it was plugged in. So, aye ... Thankfully, it was on the lowest speed. So, I put my own finger back on – it was hanging off. So, I've got really bad arthritis in my left hand…. So, when I'm opening wine and champagne ... I've got to do it a different way… It's just because I don't really have the strength in my hand."

Tony had also developed a chronic knee problem, which he linked in part to his work and the effects of standing for long periods of time. He had stopped working in the hospitality industry as a result of the injury and was currently claiming universal credit at the time of his interview with us. He described to us his anxiety when applying for new jobs with his knee injury:

"I was applying for jobs but I was getting quite anxious about things. I was getting interviews set up, but I was cancelling them and saying: 'I've been offered another job.' I hadn't been offered another job, I just didn't feel mentally strong enough to do the job…I think a lot of that was today with my knee, I would say to people: 'I wouldn't employ a limping waiter.' I don't limp, I waddle – but I think that's to do with the extra weight I've got. A lot of people were saying: 'Listen, Tony, we don't mind.' I'd say: 'No, but it bothers me."

Tony has subsequently had an operation on his knee and was contemplating returning to hospitality work when we interviewed him. He described his anxiety when undertaking a shift in a restaurant a few weeks prior to the interview, although he found ultimately that he was able to cope with the pressure:

"I did a couple of services in people's restaurants for them ... I worked in a restaurant about a fortnight ago, and for that first hour I was an absolute mess [with nerves]. But you see, once we were actually – pardon me for swearing – in the shite and we were really up against it, that was me, I was fine. I think it's a confidence thing more than anything. I've done wine tasting for people, and I've done private events for people, and I've been fine – but it was actually a proper dinner service, and it was ... We were really up to there in it. I thought: 'God, it's good to be back.' And I thought, yes, I would know when it was time to take my medication for my knee."

Tony, 54, restaurant manager, Glasgow

3.2 Mental challenges at work

Several of our participants described their work as mentally challenging and often stressful. As the sections below explore, one particular source of stress for hospitality workers was difficult customers. In addition, participants also emphasised that, in general, the pace of their workplaces was often fast, and they frequently felt under pressure to deliver efficient, quick and cheerful service without errors – a sense of pressure that could result in feeling stressed and overwhelmed:

"It gets quite stressful and that can cause quite a lot of conflict in the team. Just when you have too many clients waiting and normally we are just two in the whole place, so, one doing the coffees and the other one serving, it can get quite stressful.. and you feel like you're going to have a go at your colleagues, just because you can't keep up with the pace."

Maria, 38, barista in coffee shop in St Andrews

"It's a stressful [job]…just the pressure, it is a consistent pressure in this industry but the thing is, you either thrive off that pressure or you fold."

Lizzie, 23, waitress in island resort

"Sometimes it's just overwhelming. There's a lot of work in the job, and even though, it's a bar, it's not a hospital or something, but you've just got so much to do, and you sometimes feel like, I just can't finish it, so it's stressful, that's probably the worst."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

"Hospitality is not for everybody. It's a very demanding job and sometimes it's not very thankful, unfortunately…. Hospitality is just a different field, you have to be a people person, you have to work in teams, you know, it's not for everyone…. On a stressful evening when it's busy and everything, you might lose [your] rag a little bit. But as years have gone on I've kind of just gone with the flow of, you can't please everybody, you can only do what you can, and everybody makes mistakes. So I've definitely calmed down from what I was and, like I said, in the bar now I have the authority when I speak, to say, "Right, enough's enough, out you get," sort of thing. So I've toughened up, I would say, over the years. But some days you would come home after a night and…you would just want to cry, because it's just like everything's gone wrong now."

Ellen, 40, office supervisor and manager in a hotel on an island

"I think to work in a bar you've got to be thick skinned and be able to just brush it off and these people are intoxicated most of the time and [..] you've got to take [it with] a pinch of salt, brush it off your shoulder and get on with your day because if you don't it'll later affect you and I have seen people that have worked in pubs and stuff that had to take time off for their mental health and it's because they take work home. [If you do that] you're going to suffer at home […] The minute you walk out that door you've got it let it go and as I say when you walk in the pub you put your bar face on and you're good to go and your bar face stays at work and you bring your face home. That's just me and my silly methods, but I swear by that."

Kirsty, 31, bartender, South Lanarkshire

Conversely, Amy, a recent university graduate who works on multiple zero-hour contracts doing events work, reported her job to be mentally draining when there was a lack of clientele. She described to us how "mind-numbing" her job can be when she is working in a role that requires her to wait for hours without colleagues to keep her company or without tasks to complete:

"I didn't have a lot of tasks to do [today]. It was more just like directing people and helping out the event organizers and helping out the catering staff and stuff like that. And so in that respect it was fairly quiet which I suppose is quite good. But at the same time, because it was quiet and I didn't have a lot to do, I was left standing for long periods of time while meetings and stuff was going on. Some meetings, lasted like three hours and things like that. So I was just kind of stood on my own with no one to speak to, nothing to do, can't go on your phone, can't do anything. And so, I just gonna stare at a wall for about three hours at a time…So it was kind of mind-numbing my job."

Amy, 24, event worker through app, Aberdeen

To conclude the last two sections, our sample of hospitality workers reported experiencing a range of physical and mental stressors in their work. It is worth noting that while none of the participants reported receiving any formal support from their employers in relation to these stressors, our research did not focus in depth on questions of occupational health, nor did it include the perspectives of employers on these issues. That said, one issue that frequently arose in the narratives of workers in relation to these challenges was that of breaks, as these were typically seen by workers as an important way to help mitigate some of the challenges described above. However, as the next section explores, hospitality workers reported that they were often unable to take breaks when needed, or were forced to skip them altogether.

3.3 Experiences of breaks

Many of the hospitality workers that we interviewed reported not taking regular breaks during their working shifts, despite being aware that they were legally entitled to a break after a certain number of hours at work. There were a number of different reasons for this: most typically, our participants reported that they were only able to take breaks when the venue was quiet, something that was rarely guaranteed, as suggested in the below quotes:

"Sometimes it is so busy you work like 14 hours, 12 hours with no break."

Alek, 35, chef, Glasgow

"We work through, yeah. Well, when I start work, service starts within half an hour. So, you have got the first half an hour for prep and getting everything [ready]. And then it's a case of service itself starts. So, you don't really get a break during service."

Megan, 32, kitchen runner, small town in the Highlands

"I only [take a break] if it is quiet. If it goes quiet then yes, you can sit down and have a wee drink but if it's busy right through then you're busy right through…I've just accepted that's just how it is you know."

Julie, 57, full-time administrator and front-of-house in take-away, Glasgow

For two hospitality workers that we interviewed, Daniel and Caroline, a lack of breaks was a product of working alone. Daniel, a night-time hotel receptionist, told us how difficult he found it to work alone at night, something that he never had to do at his previous hotel. Part of his concerns around working alone were to do with security and feeling tired, although he also told us that working alone made it very hard to take a proper break:

"You don't really, you take your break when you can take a break because you don't have anybody who can let you go for a break…. You shouldn't go out [the hotel], you shouldn't leave the hotel empty. [So on a break] I usually sit in the office. And watching the cameras at the same time so it is not really a break, it is just sitting."

Daniel, 55, hotel receptionist, Glasgow

By comparison, Caroline, a 64-year-old woman living in a village in Perthshire, described to us how she regularly worked alone in her previous job in the local pub. She went into detail about one particular occasion where she had found it extremely tiring and stressful to work alone, without a break:

"In the bar I didn't [get a break], because you were on by yourself…even on a really busy night. ..[Once] they were doing a pool competition thing and it was quite busy and there was two girls on during the day. And I knew it was going to be really busy at night. And I just presumed that two people would be on… But I was told 'No' I was going to be on myself so by the time I got in at 6 o'clock the [customers] were half-cut [drunk]. And it got busier and busier and I was on my own…and it was just manic…from 6 until 1, no break….So I just didn't think it was fair and I said [afterwards], 'I would never do it again'. And actually I just said, 'I would rather just put in my notice'. And they said 'Well, we don't want to lose you'. So 'that's okay, you won't have to work on your own again'. But I did."

Caroline, 64, bartender in a golf club Perthshire

Other hospitality workers reported that they did usually take breaks, although that there was often little flexibility as to when they took their break, again due to the venue being busy and/or due to staff shortages:

"I mean I'm on my feet all day. I'll get half an hour break and that will come really and truly whenever the café is more quiet and we can afford to have less staff on hand. So, it might be that I have to take my break two, three hours into my shift. It might be that I take it five, six hours into my shift. It's very dependent on when is the best time for your time and I don't leave my co-workers with a massive amount of work to do whilst I'm sitting around taking it easy."

Andrew, 21, undergraduate student and waiter in coffee shop, Edinburgh

"We do get [a break], which is a lunch break and we get food as well, which is nice. But as I said, if it's really busy, you have to work around that and you might have to take your break a lot later or a lot earlier than planned, but we do try and make sure that everyone does [take one]. But it is also from our point of view, it's more controlled by us, as employees…But sometimes we wouldn't get one at all, because we were short-staffed."

Kate, 21, undergraduate student and barista in coffee shop, Edinburgh

As implied in Kate's final comments here, some of our research participants also told us that they had to take responsibility for organising their own breaks, or for making sure that their colleagues took their breaks: in other words, supervisors and managers rarely enforced breaks. Denise, for example, told us she took it upon herself to ensure that her colleagues took breaks:

"I'm sort of, I'm like the mum, I just go like, come on, you go and half an hour and then I'll have half an hour. Because we help each other out, it's fairer. If you're all working together, it's like a spider's web, and it all joins up. So, one person is off, you're not missing them, because the other person is sitting down, because the other people are covering you, sort of thing."

Denise, 59, waitress in coffee shop, Dunfermline

By comparison, Lutsi, who worked as a supervisor in a large coffee shop chain, commented that she tried to be very disciplined in taking her break, even though it was busy. She commented she found it best to leave the building, otherwise people would continue to ask her questions throughout her break:

"I try not to [miss breaks]. [Also] if you let people, you know, most of them don't mean it badly, but they test you, they test [with one] more question, small question[s], you know…where [are] straws supposed to be?.. In real life it can be very busy, but if you postpone that lunch break, then [another staff member] comes in [and needs a break], and it's a rolling effect."

Lutsi, 41, barista in coffee shop, Aberdeen.

Finally, a few participants told us that they preferred to skip their breaks and finish earlier in the day, as Tom explained to us for example:

"[We are] supposed to get half hour breaks, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't…[Also] if I take a half hour during the day, it just elongates the day…I'd rather give the staff breaks, rather than myself, and then I [can] just sit down at the end of the night."

Tom, 35, assistant manager in a café in a tourist venue, Edinburgh

3.4 Relationships with customers

Many of the hospitality workers in our sample described customers as simultaneously the 'best' and 'worst' things about their job. As the first section below describes, most of the workers we talked to cited interactions with customers as something that boosted their mood and made their work enjoyable and, in some cases, meaningful and purposeful. However, it was also fairly common for hospitality workers to report negative experiences with customers – experiences that ranged from the frustration of dealing with customer complaints to incidences of sexual harassment and racism. The final section on customers takes the story of Hannah as a case-study. Hannah was fairly unusual in our sample in that she cited little pleasure in her interaction with customers at all. However, we have told her story here as she is a good example of the general point highlighted by our research, namely, that relationships with customers, when difficult, can be a source of significant distress for hospitality workers.

3.4.1 Positive interactions with customers

The majority of our research participants reported that interactions with customers were one of the favourite things about their work and an important source of contentment and job satisfaction. Many participants emphasised how much they enjoyed talking to customers, particularly regulars, and that this sort of regular social interaction had a positive effect on their mood.

Furthermore, some participants emphasised how such interactions with customers gave them a sense of purpose and meaning in their jobs because they felt that they were able to make a difference in the lives of others:

"I would say my mental health when I work with people is very good because you see different nationalities, different people… Of course you have difficult people, you have good people, you have all kinds of people but that is the job you have in hospitality; you don't know what you are getting. And I love it because…there is not a bad person, a person can have bad days but you can make it different because you can make the person smile in the end. That's my goal."

Daniel, 55, hotel receptionist, Glasgow

"You're also doing it for the passion and creating that experience,. My main thing is I want people to enjoy themselves and I don't care if they're in a five star environment or where I am now, in the pub environment, if they're there for one week, or one day, if they're buying the cheapest of things or the best of things, I want to give them that best experience. I've looked after people from royalty and celebrities all the way to my next door neighbour's granny and granddad and I don't care who it is, I just want them to have the best time."

Mike, 44 bartender and former hotel manager, Dundee

Two hospitality workers, both of whom worked in their local villages or towns, told us how they felt that through their work they were able to make a difference by supporting regulars who might be vulnerable or in need of support:

"I chat to people if I see they're looking a little bit flat or something…they trust you and they see your face every week… I know what they tell me is confidential. So, you're like doing counselling as well… There's a lot of people as well, they can't get out, or they can only maybe go out once or twice a week, and maybe they don't feel like, oh I can't tell my family or they can't tell the doctor, so, you're helping them as well. ...They might chat to you about little things… or they're worried [about something]. Because I know loads of people… I'm like a middle man, if they're saying about energy bills, or something, I might just go, have you been to [this company], they've got a man that comes out and looks at your house and tells you how to save money. Or if they're saying they're struggling, I say, if they want clothes or something like that, I say well there's a clothing bank, do you want the address? I'm like a middle man."

Denise, 59, waitress in coffee shop, Dunfermline

"I would say [my job affects me] positively because you know, I'm meeting people; I'm speaking to people. And half a dozen times I've said that I am a 'people person' and I like communicating with people, so I really enjoy it, so I would say positively [and] it's a real local pub and [there are] some characters, you know. For instance, there's an old man, he's 84 years old and he's just a sweetheart. He's like Santa Claus…I'm actually going round to see him today, he's just round the corner from us so I'm going to go round and see him. And my husband's had a clear-out of clothes and I'm just going to try and help him a bit, you know, but it's, it's that kind of, everybody knows everybody in the village, you know."

Caroline, 64, bartender in golf club in Perthshire

As a final point, some hospitality workers also saw interactions with customers as a way in which they used or developed their own skill-set, which added to their sense of value and purpose in their jobs, even for those who were not planning to work in hospitality in the long-term

"I'm practising my [English] language as well, you speak with more native people….I'm speaking [with people with] like local accents and things like that, I quite like that."

Maria, 38, barista in local coffee shop, St Andrews

"I love working with people because I speak six languages and I can use them when I need to use them and that's very, very good in hospitality because you get lots of different nationalities."

Daniel, 55, hotel receptionist, Glasgow

"I've picked up skills like customer service and I guess just working as part of the team. And, I have learnt how to interact with my co-workers and to be organised, which has been useful."

Andrew, 21, undergraduate student and waiter in coffee shop, Edinburgh

3.4.2. Negative experiences with customers

While most of our participants told us that interacting with customers was one of the best things about their jobs, these same workers also told us that customers could simultaneously be one of the worst things about their jobs. The following sections explore a range of problems faced by hospitality workers, namely: drunk customers; customers who were overly demanding or quick to complain; and customers who were verbally or physically abusive. The final section looks at the experiences of Hannah, who identified difficult customers as the reason for her desire to leave the hospitality industry. Dealing with drunk customers

Daniel, who worked as a night-time hotel receptionist, expressed concerns about drunk customers, particularly because he worked alone and was responsible for the well-being and security of his guests. It is worth noting that Daniel was currently looking for another job, which he attributed, at least in part, to his concerns about having to work nightshifts alone. He described one incident where he had to try to handle a drunk customer who was sleeping in a corridor, an experience that he had found difficult to manage alone:

"The only problem I am not happy with is because [I] work alone in the night. And I know it is quiet in the night but I see it a different way because if there is a security risk you can't really do much alone, you need to be two people probably. Because you're not allowed to lock in anybody if something happened because that's a breach of human rights as well because – [if] people [come] home drunk and then, or coming to the rooms drunk and then starting to fight… You have to be concerned about that because of course you can call the police but how long will it take for the police to come?.... I had once that they came home so drunk so they fell asleep on the hallway and I tried to get them into the rooms… but by law you're not allowed to touch people because that is, I don't know if it's called assault or something because you can be charged for something, if you touch somebody and the guests say okay you have touched me. So you just try to wake them up and try and get them back in the room."

Daniel, 55, hotel receptionist, Glasgow

Other concerns among our participants about drunk customers revolved around their increased likeliness to engage in discriminatory or abusive behaviour (see sections below), and around the challenge of when to stop serving customers who had drunk too much. For example, Alistair, who worked in events catering, described how he found it difficult to handle the reaction of customers when it was time to stop serving them alcohol:

"A lot of the shifts are at football games, so, it depends if they're winning or not… especially at football games, Scottish football, the clientele can be a bit rowdy…It's a bit hard to deal with sometimes, because they are either drunk or angry and they expect a lot more from you than what you should be doing. So, like the other day, they're obviously quite happy that they won, the Rangers won, but they were getting very drunk and just sort of pushing us to give them more drinks than they should have been getting. We closed the bar and they were like, come on, just another one! They were very pushy, which is a hard one for us, because we obviously have to say no, and then we feel like we're disappointing [them]. We made like a nice relationship throughout the whole day and then we don't want to ruin it by saying, oh the bar is closed now, especially when they're all very drunk at that time."

Alistair, 20, undergraduate student and waiter in events catering, Edinburgh Dealing with unhappy customers

Many of our participants reported finding it hard when customers were unhappy, both because it could feel unjustified and hard to handle, as well as because their complaints could reflect badly on the workers themselves. This was something that Lily spoke about at length in her interview: she talked about a range of problems that she faced with customers, including complaints that she spoke too quickly, as well as complaints from customers when she asked them for ID to buy alcohol. She also spoke to us about how COVID restrictions had created more of these types of difficult interactions, due to the requirements on staff to enforce restrictions (see Chapter Seven). For Lily, one of the most difficult things about unhappy customers was that they could leave complaints online, which could then made her employers unhappy, as she told us:

"According to one of the reviews, [I spoke too fast]. I'm like I'm sorry but I wish I knew that I'd spoken too fast and you didn't like it… I feel very frustrated and I don't know what else to do because most of the time I try to do my job and I don't mean to give them a bad experience at all..[Also] some of the [customers] just for all kinds of reasons get upset that we ID them and [think] it's our fault that we ID them or we didn't ID them the last time. That frustrates me a lot…they will say all these kinds of things…they even threaten to leave bad reviews online if we don't sell them alcohol."

Lily, 26, undergraduate student and part-time waitress in Thai restaurant, Edinburgh

Other participants expressed similar sentiments of frustration at difficult customers, particularly when they were quick to complain:

"[You get] the occasional customer who is just inappropriate or clearly has had a bad day…just rude, inappropriately rude, it's just unnecessary, the way they treat you, and they just expect certain things from you and they don't realise that it is just a normal job, that is just a person, doing their job and trying to do their best and sometimes it just doesn't work out. There are problems, things happen, and some people just don't really realise that, so, I think it more comes from that. So, if it takes a bit longer for their coffee, then some people, you just kind of have a different reaction, so, they kind of complain a lot more than others."

Kate, 21, undergraduate student and barista in coffee shop, Edinburgh

"The bad things [about the job] is, I guess, the front facing role, customer service and dealing with the general public. So, again, there's plenty of lovely people who come in with a smile on their face, it's a lovely attraction, but equally you can deal with some really nasty people who are miserable and come in and just almost want to ruin your day, which is like that everything that you do there's always an issue with it. There's never, nothing's ever perfect and you just have to again grin and bear it."

Andrew, 21, undergraduate student and waiter in coffee shop, Edinburgh

"This industry is definitely not for the light-hearted…I think just because it is a tough job, you're on your feet, all day, you're running around all the time, you need a thick skin, because you do get arsey people, you do get some, like you have they nicest customers in the world and then you could have a table that just complains all night. So, I just think yes, you've got to be tough."

Lizzie, 23, waitress in an island resort

Finally, some of our participants also told us that they often felt that customers lacked respect for hospitality workers, treating them as somehow 'inferior' or 'subservient'. This was Hannah's view, for example (see worker story below). Amy, who worked in events work, made similar comments about feeling unappreciated and even dehumanised by her customers:

"I think all together working in hospitality is generally soul-crushing and because you do have that thought of like these people don't see me as a person. I'm just a number. The public that I'm serving don't see me as a person and I am wasting my life. I do not have a passion for customer service." Experiences of physical and verbal abuse from customers

The majority of our participants reported feeling safe at work and being treated with respect by customers. There were exceptions here, however. Lutsi, for example, told us about an experience in a previous job when a customer had physically accosted her:

"The worst case [I had], it wasn't even because I was foreign it was just because I was, you know, [I am] service sector. [It] was two American ladies. My worst customer experience ever. [It was] a tourist hostel… They had a policy, you are checked out, you want to leave your luggage, it's okay, we lock it up for you. But there's a big, long lunch break in the middle. At that time you can't access it, okay, it's locked up, so nobody was allowed to unlock it.. Somebody was working after lunch, in the street I met those two in their 50s, Americans, who had left her bag there, and she like 'oh, we are going to leave now, we want our bags.' And I said 'I'm sorry, I can't do it'. One grabbed my hand and tried to drag me."

Lutsi, 41, barista in coffee shop, Aberdeen

In another example, Marek, a chef, explained how verbal abuse towards his colleagues had also had a negative impact on him at work:

"I don't work in the open kitchen so I don't really interact with our customers…One of my colleagues, she had a very hoarse voice today and…with their shift progressing, slowly getting worse and worse…until the point where she almost lost her voice by end of shift, she was wearing masks all the time…[A customer] told her she shouldn't work in this state and he was very rude while saying it. And she told him that she needs to pay her bills and this guy called her names, he knocked the cup full of coffee that he ordered on the floor, he make a mess and left and yeah, she was very foul mode after this interaction, and she told me about it, it also affected my day."

Marek, 30, chef at an international airport Experiences of sexual harassment from customers

A number of participants also reported either experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment from customers. For example, Lizzie, a 23-year old woman who had worked in the hospitality sector since leaving school, recounted to us a recent experience of sexual harassment in her new job as a waitress in an island resort:

"I've had a bit of a horrible, shitty experience with a young, well they weren't really young, I think they were in their 30s, with some lads. They all wanted to pay separately, they'd been hammering the cocktails…and there were six of them. I dropped one of the receipts and as I bent down, he just, I don't even want to say it, but he just said something as I bent down…I was a bit shocked, that hasn't happened, I used to work in [an army camp], which is the biggest army camp in Europe, even some of the lads weren't that bad, I was taken aback by it, I don't know, it just hasn't happened to me in a while. Someone making a sexual comment, do you know what I mean? I was just a bit, but I told the manager and they were straight on it…they weren't allowed back in the restaurant after that and they were here for a few days, do you know what I mean? I was [pleased] like, oh the managers] do care."

Lizzie told us that she had experienced harassment in the past from customers in different jobs, although she said she had found this particular experience more upsetting than these previous experiences:

"Like [I've had] the cat calling, I've worked in old man pubs really, where I'm from….Yes, just be chatting and I'd be like okay it's fine, it's just one of those things, I think, I don't know, especially for women, it sounds horrible, but you kind of get used to it….Just like it is what it is, but yes, no, I haven't had someone kind of, especially that explicit, I don't think anyone has said something that bad [as those lads did]."

Lizzie, 23, waitress in an island resort

In addition, several other workers reported having witnessed co-workers experience sexual harassment from customers:

"As long as they are not overly drunk they tend to be absolutely fine....[when they are drunk] they can be sometimes a bit more sleazy. It tends not be to the lads, it tends to be more to the ladies if that makes sense….Usually the supervisors deal with it or whatever… but it is rare it's the exception not the norm."

Neil, 38, full-time administrator and part-time waiter in events catering, Glasgow

"There's a couple of customers that can be, you do get the occasional leery customer… especially to girls. So there was one guy who was a local, a regular guy, and he used to come in with his sister all the time, and used to drink loads together, and he started, not stalking her, but he used to start making some inappropriate comments to her. And she just didn't want to go and serve him anymore. And eventually another manager had to step in and say, I think you need to like stop saying that to her, and so this guy stopped coming for a while. But now that girl's left, so he's started coming back, but he doesn't do it to anybody else. But I think yeah, we had to step in and say something." Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

"As I say, the fish restaurant I was working in a couple of months ago, helping my friend with all the young, the young staff. I had to say to a couple of girls: 'Listen, I know you would rather wear a skirt than trousers, but' – and I thought, I've got to be very careful about how I word this now, because it's now 2022 – 'you're not on the menu.' And 'you will get that' and ... without scarring them, I'd say to them: 'If there is an occasion when you're serving a table and you feel uncomfortable, let me know and I'll start serving them. You don't have to tell me anything. You just say, 'Listen, I don't want to serve them because of such-and-such' I'll say: 'Not a problem, I'll serve them."

Lizzie, 23, waitress in an island resort Experiences of racism from customers

Among those workers with histories of migration, two reported having experienced discrimination or racism from customers. Birodh, a 30-year old chef who was born in Nepal and was the only non-white person that we interviewed in our research, described experiencing racism from customers in the take-away restaurant where he worked after first arriving in Scotland in 2020. He told us how he felt anxious for his safety at these times, as well as disempowered and mentally distressed by these experiences:

"Yes, not friendly, sometimes, you work in the takeaway at the weekend night, people coming in drunk, I don't like this… Because, if you are working, they are, like starting laughing with you.. They are coming in drunk, they come in drunk… but one or two times, I think people, they look at the colour of my hair, the colour of my face…people directly said, 'Oh are you from India, Pakistan?' And they are trying to laugh with you and normally my English is also not, so, I can't talk with them, and I ignore them. So, they are talking in a different way [with you]…. Like some people, make comments like this… you feel unsafe, if you have to… say something, you're going to be attacked… so, the only option, you have to be quiet. … they are drunk and they could do anything, so, I have to be quiet and control myself… It mentally affects you; you feel like why is this happening?"

Birodh, 30, chef, Stirling

By comparison, Lutsi, who had worked in various hospitality jobs since moving from Estonia over 10 years ago, told us that she had experienced prejudice from customers:

"It's you know, sometimes [people are] really funny about foreigners. [They say] 'that's normal there, that's how they do it where you come from'…I can be sensitive [to it], but normally I have enough to do with my work, you know. And I say it probably helps I'm normally quite strong personality."

Lutsi, 41, barista in coffee shop, Aberdeen