The Great Resignation of 2021: Lessons Learned in Hospitality & Food Service

Help wanted sign on door of restaurant

You’ve probably seen the effects first-hand. Slower than usual service at your favorite restaurants. “Help Wanted” signs on the front door of every café, restaurant, and bar in your neighborhood. Hotels doing away with daily housekeeping during your stay. Out of every industry affected by the Great Resignation of 2021, hospitality, food service, and leisure – including restaurants, hotels, event venues, and bars – have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. While overall hiring in the U.S. job market dropped by 31% during the peak of the pandemic, hospitality and food service hiring dropped by over 60% – significantly more than any other industry.

It’s a complicated issue. In an industry where workers are trained to provide top-notch customer service to consumers, the effects of the pandemic have caused many of them to struggle with feeling a lack of appreciation in their own careers. Though many hospitality and food service workers involuntarily lost their jobs during the height of the pandemic, many others have since chosen to leave on their own for reasons that emerged during these unprecedented times.

Why have hospitality and food service been hit the hardest?

In a recent Q3 2021 United States Job Market Report by Joblist, a staggering 77% of hospitality workers responded that even though they’re currently employed, they’re still looking to switch careers because of the pandemic. If that’s not shocking enough, over one quarter reported that they’d be comfortable quitting even without another job lined up.

help wanted sign on restaurant door

Why is this? A few reasons seem to be common denominators among hospitality workers. With staffing shortages comes longer hours, and more frequent employee burnout. Many hospitality and food service workers have also reported that their priorities changed during the pandemic. 25% of former hospitality and leisure workers surveyed in the Joblist report responded that they would not consider working in the industry again. Some of the biggest reasons cited for this are low pay, lack of benefits, difficult customers, long hours, schedule inflexibility, risk of exposure to COVID-19, and physical demands of the work itself.

So, if workers are leaving the industry, where exactly are they going?

Many are looking for office jobs that offer the flexibility of working from home, a perk that’s not often feasible for most hospitality workers like waitstaff or housekeepers who must perform their job tasks in-person. Others have transitioned to roles in manufacturing and industrial settings like warehouses and factories. Some have moved into healthcare, and others have become drivers. A number are also considering alternative avenues, like going back to school or enrolling in training programs to learn new skills for a different occupation. Many hospitality and food service workers have been simply getting by on unemployment checks, rather than returning to work. Even as the industry is finally beginning to rebound with the rollout of vaccines and mask and travel mandates lifted, countless workers have already made up their minds that they want to leave their hospitality careers for good.

How to entice workers to stay

Despite hospitality and food service workers quitting in droves, many have indicated that they’d change their minds about leaving if their employers were willing to address some of their grievances. Here a few ways to proactively combat turnover within your company:

1. Open communication: There are opportunities to retain employees that are potential flight risks by having open, honest conversations about their concerns at work. Establishing an open door policy where workers feel they can trust management is imperative to creating a positive workplace environment in which employees feel comfortable being candid about issues at work. Your staff should have a clear understanding of expectations and feel that their voices are heard.

2. Proactively manage stress and burnout: It’s also important to prioritize making sure that employees don’t feel burnt out during these stressful times. Jobs in hospitality and food service can not only be emotionally tough but can also be physically demanding – employees often work long hours and are on their feet for most of the day. By allowing your staff to work flexible schedules and swap shifts with coworkers when necessary, hospitality workers can take well-deserved time for themselves to recharge and can adjust schedules when personal commitments pop up. Enabling your people to create their own schedules is sure to raise overall employee morale.

3. Provide surveys and town hall meetings to gauge employee satisfaction: Getting feedback directly from your employees is one of the best ways to measure engagement and happiness in the workplace. By offering open forums like annual surveys or collaborative meetings between managers and employees, regular check-ins can present a wealth of knowledge and insights into potential issues that may need attention from management.

4. Evaluate your pay and benefits: It’s a great time to evaluate pay and benefits as well. To stay competitive, it’s a smart idea to analyze what other organizations in the industry are doing and see how your offerings measure up. Added perks and incentives can help employees feel appreciated and increase their likelihood to stay. Offering training can go a long way, too. By providing workshops and training courses, you can demonstrate to your workers that you’re invested in their growth within the company. When your staff feels they’re valued and compensated fairly, they’re generally more likely to be happier and productive at work and less likely to leave for a competitor offering better wages and benefits.

What does the future of hospitality hold?

As we’ve gone through this economic crisis together, some important lessons have been learned in the process. Employers and employees are communicating more openly than ever and are proactively addressing problems. The bar has certainly been raised for the future – though the pandemic has been incredibly hard on hospitality and food service in particular, the changes that have been made because of it are ultimately transforming businesses for the better long-term. Hospitality and food service have always been people-centric industries that aim to deliver extraordinary guest experiences, helping customers create memories and celebrate joyous occasions. The employees who passionately dedicate their work to creating these moments for guests deserve a great experience behind-the-scenes as employees, too.


Check out UKG’s recent webinar Beyond the Great Resignation: An Action Plan for Hiring and Retention for more insights on transforming the employee experience.

Click here.