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Perfect Daily Grind: Looking out for barista wellbeing after Covid-19

Across the coffee supply chain, there are certain actors which are more vulnerable to instability in the industry. While there is rightly a focus on coffee producers, at the consuming end of the supply chain, the barista job role can also be highly susceptible to uncertainty and insecurity.

For some, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue, leading to financial uncertainty. It has also been difficult for those who have returned to work, with the pandemic affecting their wellbeing and mental health in a number of different ways.

To learn more about what has happened and what businesses can do to support their baristas, I spoke with two people who work at Kofra Coffee Roasters – a roaster and coffee shop chain with four locations in Norwich, UK.

The challenges of the Barista role

But let’s backtrack. Beyond the pandemic, a barista’s work is challenging in itself. Simeon Jankowski is the General Manager at Kofra. He says that for most baristas, a shift can be strenuous and difficult.

“The work is [often] physically demanding,” he explains. “Staff are [constantly] on their feet, moving in ways that can lead to repetitive strain injury (RSI).”

Injuries that baristas commonly report include pains and aches in the lower back, wrist, neck, legs, and feet. These are generally due to repetitive movement, using equipment (such as espresso machines) at uncomfortable heights, and standing for extended periods of time.

A Wilfred Laurier University study found that 68% of surveyed baristas reported shoulder pain, while 73% experienced lower back pain. In many cases, these can be attributed to RSI, which is caused by performing the same movements over and over again (such as tamping or placing portafilters in groupheads). RSI can cause tendon and muscle damage, and even lead to long-term health issues.

However, it’s not just the physical health of baristas that is at stake. Diego De Leon Arguenta is a barista at Kofra. He says: “The role of a barista is not just about making coffee – there are a lot of social and humanitarian [aspects to handle].”

While both Simeon and Diego emphasise the positive aspects of barista work, they note that continually providing excellent customer service requires a lot of physical and emotional effort.

“It is socially draining,” Simeon says. “As with any kind of customer service role, a barista is there to serve customers and be positive, which can be exhausting.”

Diego adds: “Anxiety and depression can be common [among] hospitality workers. The pressure is intense and mentally exhausting, and sometimes, going into that ‘robotic flow’ leads to a lot of stress.”

Alongside that, Simeon also notes that baristas generally consume a lot of caffeine over the course of a shift, which can exacerbate any existing issues.

“[The] need to taste and dial in coffee before and during service can heighten awareness and affect cortisol levels, [leading] to increased stress and anxiety,” he explains.

How has the pandemic affected baristas?

“At Kofra, we were fortunately able to open six weeks after the initial lockdown,” Simeon explains. “We were able to adjust our small shops quickly and easily to serve efficiently from the door.

“This was at a time when little else [nearby was] open, so for many we were the only people outside their household that they were seeing face-to-face,” he says. “In a way, we opened our stores so early to provide that support for customers, and we knew how valuable it was.”

For many, interactions with baristas were one of a handful of regular social experiences during lockdown. Simeon says that this meant customers were often more “open” with service staff.

“Conversations that might have previously been chit-chat became deep and meaningful,” he says. “It was often moving. It was an absolute privilege to work and serve people at such a difficult time, and it added much more value and purpose for the role. For many, we were the only people they were seeing, and I know how valuable that was.”

Simeon says that from his experience working during the pandemic, baristas even came close to being counsellors for their customers – listening to their issues and providing an extra layer of support for them at a difficult time.

He notes that this was an “absolute privilege”, but also tells me that the management team understood how emotionally demanding it could be. In response, he explains that they systems in place to support baristas to perform this role.

“[The baristas are also] dealing with the anxiety of a global pandemic,” he adds. “There were days where I’d be anxiously checking the news to see what was happening locally or globally. Customers would be doing the same.”

Supporting baristas through the pandemic

Firstly, Simeon notes that making sure baristas had enough time off to deal with the pressure and stress of the pandemic was important.

“During the pandemic, we were able to ensure no one worked more than four days a week,” he says. “This allowed for plenty of time away from work to rest, and helped people to enjoy things outside of making coffee.”

Today, however, more and more coffee shops and roasters have started to open their doors as vaccination schemes gather speed around the world. The global hospitality industry is rebuilding.

“A global pandemic was something that nobody planned for,” Simeon says. “Realising how it affected every single area of society has been important. We’re getting to grips with what we’ve learnt this year, and looking at how we can learn from it in the long term.”

For some coffee shops, this might be as simple as clearly communicating opening hours to staff. Many coffee businesses have operated on restricted or limited hours during the pandemic, to accommodate for a lack of in-store demand and the rise in curbside and takeaway orders.

However, these unusual and less reliable working hours can mean more stress and anxiety because of a lack of financial security. As such, Simeon says consistent internal communication has been essential.

“Key through Covid-19 has been the communication between management and the in-shop team,” he explains. “Decisions have been made with input from the baristas, and they have been explained clearly to everyone.”

Diego adds that in the UK, the easing of restrictions has provided new hope for baristas and customers alike. Trying to be positive and optimistic, he says, has helped everybody – on the Kofra team and beyond.

“Having something positive to talk to people about was key,” he says. “And it was really therapeutic for me in these situations, too.”

On a slightly more positive note, he also notes that Covid-19 has changed the way that many customers think about baristas and service staff. Their role in society, he says, has changed for many consumers.

“People changed, and they now see baristas in a different way a lot of the time,” he tells me.

“For a lot of people, we became friends; someone who would unconditionally listen, no matter how bad their day had been going.

“It has been a really exhausting year, but full of experiences and new ways of bonding.”

What can cafes specifically do to help in the long term?

Thankfully, there are a few successful examples out there of how people and brands have come together to support coffee shops, roasters, and baristas during the pandemic.

Alpro donated £325,000 to UK independent coffee shops in 2020, while the Come Together initiative from Fellow Products, Glitter Cat Barista, GoFundBean, and Mage has supported small coffee businesses in the US. Virtual tip jar schemes have also supported baristas financially.

However, as footfall starts to increase in coffee shops, café owners should be prepared. This means looking at ways to better equip their baristas to handle the rise in customers.

“Long-term solutions need to be made with training and infrastructure,” Simeon says.

“Also, baristas need help to make sure they are prepared for customers who are struggling personally – as often they can end up playing the role of a counsellor.

“Covid-19 showed us that customers are keen for genuine interaction. It would be really valuable if staff are supported to provide service in this way more widely.”

At Kofra, he notes that there has been support for baristas to fulfil this role, which has equipped them to listen to customers at a difficult time where many felt vulnerable or lonely.

Beyond this kind of support, cafés can also provide baristas with equipment that gives them more time to focus on meaningful customer interactions. Automation and higher quality equipment can also minimise the risk of any kind of strain injury – helping them improve their mental and physical wellbeing.

Simeon says: “Each [Kofra] shop has a PuqPress, a device that tamps coffee in the portafilter automatically. Tamping can cause RSI in different weak spots in the arm, [so] this piece of equipment greatly helps the workflow and [mitigates] any physical strain.

“During the pandemic, [Kofra] invested in other equipment like Ubermilk frothers, to support baristas to produce perfect milk on demand [more easily]. Ultimately, investment in the shops minimises strenuous tasks and allows the barista to engage with other parts of the job, and means they can worry less about things that can be automated.”

Ultimately, he adds that changing consumer perceptions of the barista role will aid in improving barista mental health and wellbeing.

“Communities were so grateful for their local coffee shop or food outlets that were serving them through the pandemic,” he concludes. “[In response], customer service needs to be treated with respect as a profession.”

Being a barista can be rewarding, enjoyable, and affirming, but it doesn’t come without its challenges and disadvantages – many of which have only been worsened by the global pandemic.

As the hospitality industry gradually progresses out of Covid-19, business owners can start by ensuring that their baristas feel supported and secure in their job positions. Clear communication and mutual respect are essential for a healthier, happier workforce.


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