The recent survey on professional wellbeing and happiness that placed members of the clergy at the top of the pile and publicans at the bottom — below binmen, call-centre operatives and even barstaff — certainly seems to have caught people’s attention.
On the day the Publican’s Morning Advertiser's editor was writing his leader on the story, The Guardian phoned me and asked if I would like to write a 2,000-word feature exploring why publicans are so unhappy.
In this age of national attention deficit disorder, NO-ONE commissions 2,000-word articles any more. This was serious indeed.
They gave me 48 hours to turn the piece around, and then said: “Oh, and can you work a shift behind a bar to add some colour to it?”
The idea of working behind a bar made me very nervous. I did bar work all through my university career and it was OK. But things are different now. And I felt a sense of impending retribution: here I sit, telling publicans how they should be running their business and what beers they should be stocking once a fortnight. I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow, the fates would have their revenge on me.
In the end my bar shift was fine. Nothing bad happened. It was busy enough to make the time flow, not so busy that it got stressful. People in the trade were desperate to tell me that, however good or bad my shift was, this was the easy bit: I should factor in deliveries, cleaning, cashing up, dealing with the police and local authorities and everything else if I wanted a true picture of the life of the publican.
I do appreciate this — I have written several columns in the PMA about how the publican must be a master of multi-tasking. But my shift did give me new insight.
Last time I worked behind a bar I was 23 years old. I’m now 45. You feel the difference. I was the oldest person on my shift by at least 10, probably 15, years. It’s not so much the physicality of being on your feet the whole time as having to be mentally alert at an hour when your body is telling you it’s nearly bedtime.
When you’re young you can finish your shift, have a pint, get home at 2am and be up feeling fresh by 9am the next day. It’s a different matter when you’re older.
Thinking about this, I realised that all the brilliant pubs and craft-beer bars I frequent as a punter are lit up by the energy of bright, enthusiastic young people. Whereas all those people who dream of running a pub one day, who retire early or invest their redundancy money in a lease or tenancy, are likely to be my age or older. Their businesses are also likely to be smaller in scale, with less scope for employing a rota of young staff.
If you can’t employ the staff you can’t afford to take holidays or days off. So you get even more tired…
There is more than one story in the trade, of course. I’ve spoken to many publicans who admit that it’s hard, tiring work, but it’s work they love.
Of course the hours are insane and the pay is lousy if you’re comparing it to a normal job. But to a lot of you, it’s not a normal job. It’s a vocation, a calling, and you’re happy to give yourselves to it, a lifestyle as well as a career.
To others though, the trade can feel like a trap. You’re so damned exhausted just trying to cover the basics, you have no time or energy to think about the new business ideas that might increase footfall and turnover, and the business is failing and you can’t see a way out.
Whether you agree with them or not, the anger that some publicans feel towards their pubco business partners does at least become much more understandable, even if they are not the only problem being faced.
What I found truly worrying was the number of stories of depression, illness, even suicide, that people told me while I was researching my article. Everyone likes a good moan. And the fact that we all have fond memories of the grumpy pub landlord of our youth is perhaps hiding the true scope of a very real mental health issue in the trade.
If you are suffering, I urge you to speak out. It’s only when the true scale of the problem becomes apparent that anyone can even start thinking of doing something about it.