THE hospitality industry, it seems, is facing its reckoning. Yesterday, Rail Gourmet catering staff at Edinburgh Waverley went on strike to protest an alleged culture of bullying and harassment. Last week, senior staff at chef Tom Kitchin’s restaurants were suspended after former workers claimed to have been bullied and sexually harassed in the workplace (the Kitchin Group is conducting an investigation into the allegations). Last month, BrewDog employees wrote an open letter to management about the “rotten culture” they say they’ve experienced at the hands of the craft beer company, for which co-founder James Watt has apologised.

Whether there’s truth to these particular accusations or not – that’s for someone else to decide, lest I be sued – it has long been recognised that hospitality has an attitude problem. Not just recognised, but accepted. Encouraged, even. There’s a devastating irony in how an industry that exists to nourish people is starved of morality when the door swings shut. And despite high-profile condemnation of toxic kitchen culture over the years from the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who described it as an “abusive system”, the voices of the everyday people oppressed by it have rarely been heard. So why now?

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell once said widespread behavioural change requires the same three conditions as an epidemic in order to take hold. According to him, we can’t reach a tipping point unless there is contagiousness, the ability for small causes to have big effects, and a change that happens “not gradually but at one dramatic moment”.

Read more: Tom Kitchin staff suspended amid bullying claims

The #MeToo movement marked the start of a particular tipping point; one where many women – including me – who had been sexually harassed and abused felt able to call it out. There was a shift, not necessarily in the behaviour of the perpetrators (a problem so deeply and systemically entrenched I doubt it could ever change in a dramatic fashion, though I’d be delighted to be proven wrong), but in the way survivors could speak candidly about their experiences. The bravery of a few resulted in an outpouring from many. Suddenly, the world was listening.

There is strength in numbers. In knowing you are not alone. Stories of bullying in the workplace have never strayed far from the headlines this year, and not just within hospitality. Actor Noel Clarke was accused of bullying and harassment on set by women and men (claims he vehemently denies) and subsequently suspended by Bafta. A number of British politicians have been investigated recently for rude and aggressive behaviour at work. American brewer Brienne Allan posted on social media in June about her experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the craft beer industry and received thousands of messages from others with similar stories. Staff at Serco, Scotrail and St Mungo’s have variously gone on strike over the past few months due to claims of bullying behaviour from management. A prominent figure in Scottish publishing lost his job after his conduct in the workplace was deemed coercive and manipulative.

HeraldScotland: Actor Noel Clarke was accused of bullying and harassment on set, claims he vehemently deniesActor Noel Clarke was accused of bullying and harassment on set, claims he vehemently denies

It is not easy to stand up to bullies at work, but the pandemic has perhaps made it easier for some. Lots of us have been physically distanced from our usual place of work, if not permanently then for periods of time. For office workers now doing their jobs remotely, hierarchical structures have weakened because there’s no longer a system whereby they arrive at a set place every day to be watched over by bosses, which may make reporting issues less of a daunting prospect. This does come with a caveat, though: that toxic behaviour can easily be transplanted to the digital space, as events of the past week have made all too clear.

Still, that distance is important because it allows us to recalibrate what we will and will not tolerate. I imagine many of those who worked in highly toxic environments prior to the pandemic, while undoubtedly unhappy, had normalised that toxicity to an extent – the boiling frog analogy – and resigned themselves to it. But what happens when you receive an enforced break from that type of workplace, either due to furlough or unemployment, before returning to it once again? When the frog is taken out of the vat and given time to cool off, it’s a shock to the system to be plunged back into the heat. It might be impossible to acclimatise a second time.

And why should anyone? There has been a constant stream of dialogue and pieces of research over the past year about how Covid-19 has reshaped us, particularly within the context of work. Flexible working, once an anomalous arrangement we had to jump through hoops to achieve, is something we now expect. Our wellbeing is as important as how much we’re paid. If we are forced to needlessly work in an office during this time while our friends are permitted to work from home, or we’re consistently berated by a line manager, we start looking elsewhere. We’ve done quite enough enduring.

Read more: Let's switch to a four-day week. We won't regret it

America is currently experiencing what Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University calls “the great resignation”, where people are quitting their jobs in droves, while in the UK a new study suggests 38 percent of workers plan to quit in the next six to 12 months. Service workers will be looking at the vital role they have played in the pandemic and wondering if they have been treated the way they should have been by uncaring managers, members of the public and a government that was happy to roll out the rhetoric about them being heroes when it suited but is quite happy to risk their health for ‘freedom’.

We are re-evaluating what we want from our jobs and I think that’s because we have learned how better to value ourselves and the sanctity of our lives. The sharp reminder of our own mortality, and that of our loved ones, has emboldened us to make choices that prioritise our happiness, and stand up to the people who are barriers to it. Though the pandemic has rendered us powerless in many ways, particularly in this country where it has been so poorly managed, it has nevertheless illuminated the aspects of our lives we can take control over. Why should we be expected to silently put up with bullies?

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