A Mental Health Crisis in the Hospitality Industry

“We are the generation to break the cycle. Break the cycle for a better future and healthier minds. Let’s start getting our mental health sorted out” – Angel Ng Ji

“In our society, there is still a stigma around the term ‘mental health’, and seeing a therapist means that something has gone terribly wrong.” This is the most stripped-down and heartfelt conversation with Angel Ng Ji, award-winning bartender and pioneer in developing Malaysia’s cocktail arena, owner of Three Piece Shaker, a one-stop bar & beverage solutions company, and co-founder of MY Bartender’s Handshake, a platform for the bartender community. 

She shares a rather grim and honest account of the nature of the service industry that can take a toll on a person’s psyche, in hopes to shed light on its harsh realities while facing up to the stigma of mental health problems. 

“Why can’t we acknowledge it? If this is something that happened to me, and this is how I feel, then let’s process that emotion first. We come out stronger after the process. 

A common thing in the industry is to say, “Have some balls, suck it up.” Why are we targeting the balls?

The balls are the most vulnerable part of the body.

But this is what is happening. It’s “suck it up” with everything – suppress it, keep pressing the garbage inwards. Eventually, something will burst. We need to not be so prideful and egotistical, and accept the fact that mental health problems are a genuine health issue. We need to identify it so that we do not past down all this toxic influence to the next generation.”

Let’s start with the nature of the hospitality industry. What aspect of it makes it so taxing?

The long hours often involving alcohol, handling different client personalities, always having to put on a smile even though, say, there’s issues at home. It is very common to eventually have a mental breakdown because you don’t have a work-life balance.

In general, any jobs that span long hours have the highest incidence of mental strains: from nurses to interstate truck drivers. 

“Always put on a smile, even though there’s issues at home.” Let’s talk more about that.

How I cope is through compartmentalization. It is a confusing, mentally contradicting mind game. It’s really up to your internal strength and it can actually go both ways. 

Can you share how intense this industry can be? Have you ever broken down before?

The last time I genuinely broke down was five to six years ago. It is still so vivid, even to this very day. I will never be able to shake that impact off my memory. 

That night, I was the only person behind the bar serving at least 30 guests. Of course, one of the guests waited too long and I served the wrong drink. What came next threw me off guard. She screamed at my face, shouted a lot of nasty words, and walked off.

It broke me. The floor manager asked me to take a smoke and walk it off. I came back, wiped away my tears and came back with a smile, and continued on. 

Thinking back, when the manager said to “walk it off”,

how much can you really “walk off”? 

Much later on, when I started learning about microexpressions and body language to improve my customer service, I recalled that incident and remembered that she’d just had an argument with her partner. However, when is it ever right to throw a tantrum and take it out on service staff because you are having a bad day? Is it because you’re paying for service charges? Is this part of customer service?

I would never forget how she screamed. I keep revisiting it till this very day. 

To not let the day-to-day take its mental toll on you, it is very important to start to learn that it’s not your fault as a service staff (re: learning how to read body language). If the customer is able to scream at you for something that can be easily rectified then it is definitely not fully on you. You need to tell yourself that to bounce back. 

Yes, we make mistakes. Just try to rectify it and don’t repeat it. 99% of the time, it is not fully about you to have a guest to scream at you at that level. Not from a stranger, at least. 

As customers, how do you think mutual respect is earned?

It’s actually not uncommon, even in this day, for parents to tell their young kids in front of service staff that “If you don’t work hard, you will end up like him/her.” Please stop doing that. 

Times have changed, keep up. There are a certain value and artistry attached to chefs, bartenders.

 It’s a tough industry but many of us fight on because we love it. A little appreciation and kindness go a long way. 

What triggered your desire to open this whole conversation around mental health?

When I started working, I was 17 years old. I never had a work-life balance until two years ago.

In my last major project, I would work seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours straight . I would settle down to sleep at 4am, wake up by 10 a.m., and I’m in the outlet before noon. This continued every single day, like clockwork. 

My mindset was just determination to prove myself. My parents used to tell me to “suck it up”, if it’s not 100%, it’s not good enough. Back then, I lost a lot of weight and worked extremely hard to find ways to escape the mental torment. I drank more than I ever had as an escape, and I didn’t realised that that should have been a red flag.

Then, I broke. I was in a vortex. I took a step back by taking on a management role, away from operations, thinking all will be better, but nothing changed. I was exhausted mentally and physically. Soon after, I left the company. And that was the hardest thing I ever did. To walk away from something so dear to my heart as I had built it from the ground up into an establishment. But I needed to get out. 

I was never kind to myself. Even when my work was recognized on an international level, I continued to question myself. I never learned to genuinely love myself or be able to say, “Angel, you’ve done a good job.” I haven’t been able to do it to this day, but I’m learning to now.

And now, two years later, how is your mental outlook?

I have learned to create some sort of a work-life balance. Whether it was the universe telling me to by giving me a kid, my first born really sped up the process. He gave me a stronger reason to find balance. 

I have regular therapy sessions and stumbled into IO Psychology, which is industrial and organizational psychology. It’s a study of human behaviour in a workplace environment and how to increase productivity with a better healthier mindset. 

Business owners tend to undervalue HR. I will say that it’s actually one of the most important things in this industry. Accounts department is always first because that’s who you’re employed by. HR is next, not Marketing, not anything else. Your finances will not be in check if you do not invest in your human resource, the very people bringing in the income.

This industry can bring you the highest of highs due to the compliments and accolades but it also induces the lowest of lows because you realized how broken our society can be. 

“The service industry tends to exasperate mental health”. What do you think?

It is a common scene for the service staff to clean up the mess after their drunk customers are done. As a professional, you understand that they are drunk, but you see the inner suppression of their daily lifestyle surface. 

Anyone who sees too much and does not have a strong mental mindset to deal with it can lose hope in humanity when they start to work in this industry. We see two extremes and not everyone is able to juggle these extremes.

What do you want to say to the industry? 

Just because your previous manager screamed and shouted to motivate you, that doesn’t mean that when you become a manager, you become like them. Don’t get me wrong, yes, we are who we are by how we are trained but is this something that you actually enjoy or respect? 

That also will cause mental health issues. Don’t think it’s your turn for revenge, it doesn’t go both ways. Break the cycle. We live in a different generation. 

What do you wish people knew about the service industry?

A great service is when you and your partner bartender are able to communicate at a very fast speed, on non-verbal communication during a high volume night. With a gesture, my partner knows that I’m going to throw something for him to catch and he’ll get it immediately. We’ll pour bar shots for everyone and a common thing customers would say, ”Whoa, being a bartender is so fun!”

In some ways, you become a performer behind the bar. Because I love my job so much that I’ll do whatever I can to make it the best I can. By putting a persona, I can do the impossible. And if you are not careful enough, coupled with addiction and vices, which is a common thing in this industry, you can be trapped in that persona. 

I’m so tempted to say, “Hey, it’s not all fun and games. Behind this smile and persona, is a real person with real problems but we put on a show for you guys because it is our job to serve you with a place to relax, to unwind after a long day.” But I say nothing. I wish I could. 

If our job is to help customers feel better, then who is going to help us?

Mental Health Helplines (Malaysia)

Reach out to the hotlines below to seek help and emotional support.

Befrienders A not-for-profit organisation providing emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to people who are in distress and despair  – without charge.

Rekindle Centre for Systemic Therapy Malaysia is a private practice that offers professional and ethical mental health therapy and complementary subspecialties: counsellors, clinical psychologists, and marriage & family therapists.

MHPSS, which stands for mental health and psychosocial support services set up by the Ministry of Health. For hotline and more, click here.

Malaysia National University (UKM) offers semi-free psychological assessment services and psychological interventions. The Health Psychology Clinic (KPK-FSK) provides a wide range of psychological and counselling services by clinical psychologists, psychologists, and counsellors.

Image credit: Jana Yar. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview and written by Theri B. Edited by Lim Aileen.

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