Covid-19 has taken a devastating financial and personal toll on the travel sector – and the mental health of the people working within it. Tom Parry reports.
"I was too afraid to leave the house in case I saw angry customers. I had such anxiety; I was constantly looking over my shoulder.”
After a successful 30-year career, Janette Healey recently made “the hardest decision of my life” – to leave her beloved travel industry behind.
The “heartbreaking” choice followed months of abuse and anger from customers over refunds brought about by the Covid-19 crisis.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the job any more – I just couldn’t go on. I was passing out through stress and I had to see a counsellor. I realised that enough was enough."
Healey’s story is sobering and all too familiar to the thousands of travel agents, reservations staff and customer service workers pushed to their limits during this crisis – more often than not dealing with problems far beyond their control.
ANGER FROM CLIENTS
Like many travel firms, pre-pandemic Healey’s Essex-based agency The Travel Boutique was “absolutely flying”, turning over £1.5 million in its third year.
After being “born into travel” stamping brochures and making tea at her grandma’s travel agency in the north-east of England as a child, Healey had made her life in the industry – working alongside husband Peter to grow the Vertical Travel Group.
It was always Healey’s dream to run her own agency, but Covid-19 changed everything.
After furloughing staff, Healey and her remaining team member were left to battle 800 cancellations as the chaos of coronavirus broke like a wave over the industry in March.
"It was like the whole world was against us – every single day we were just getting screamed at,” she recalls.
Healey took a barrage of clients’ fury, with more than 30 calls each day “demanding money” as credit notes were favoured by suppliers seeking to save business.
“Customers would also scream at me in the street. They just couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get their money back straight away.
“It was getting to the point where I’d start work at 5am and wouldn’t finish until midnight.
“We had already lost every penny of profit we could make for the year and so we were working for nothing trying to help people, but nobody cared. My mental health was just getting obliterated."
Things came to a head when one of Healey’s customers served a county court judgment against her in a bid to reclaim their money.
“Having that personally against my name was awful and felt like everyone was out to get me even though I was doing all I could,” she says.
Throughout her ordeal, Healey says Peter has been her “absolute rock” and has since taken over management of the agency after she stepped away.
“When I felt a complete failure and hit absolute rock bottom and felt so alone, he stayed with me 24/7 and helped and supported me on the road to recovery.
“When I’m scared to leave the house alone following the abuse, he has been so patient, even when through all of this he is dealing with so much across our businesses, his unconditional love, support and patience throughout has been immense.”
Healey also found support through friend and Vertical Systems managing director Chris North, who wrote about his battle with depression for TTG in May and is a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and support.
North says: “Because I opened up, people started opening up to me. Janette was a bit of a closed book like me, so it was important for her to be able to talk through all the things that were weighing her down.”
After detailing his story, North has recently hosted support sessions with Vertical staff.
“The travel industry does have a huge mental health problem and things are being made much worse now with concerns around job security and being unable to travel – which was something we all loved before the pandemic,” he says.
“I think especially when you’re a homeworker you can suffer with depression as you feel like you’re on your own, but the best therapy is talking. People should and need to be willing to listen.”
Abta LifeLine director Trudie Clements says the industry charity wants to put greater emphasis on its mental health support services throughout this time.
Those in need can apply online and be referred to a 24/7 counselling helpline run by The Centre for Crisis Psychology (CCP).
Clements says travel agency owners and managers have used the service so far during the crisis due to the abuse they’ve suffered.
“We don’t want people to get so low that they find themselves in such a difficult place – please don’t suffer in silence,” she says.
The helpline is provided by the CCP, which has worked with travel staff in the aftermath of traumatic experiences – such as terror attacks in Tunisia and Manchester.
“They understand the industry and the pressures everyone is under and what travel is going through so they can give the right support,” says Clements.
“Everyone has their positive and negative egos,” advises North. “You need to make sure you don’t feed the negative as it will take over.
“Celebrate your successes and tell yourself how brilliant you are and what a great job you’re doing for your customers because it really is true.”
As the industry continues to react to Covid-related challenges and frequent frustrations, Healey says she can’t see herself returning to travel with her feelings too raw. “I just feel so sad and angry about everything.”
She blames the government and the mainstream media’s treatment of the industry for the abuse she received.
“I think they’ve both got so much to answer for in all of this. Customers didn’t understand the mental pressures those in travel were under at the start and I don’t think they understand now.
“My heart goes out to every agent working so hard and I tip my hat to them.
“I haven’t set foot back in the shop since I left as it’s just too difficult. I loved that place and all the team so much. Leaving was the last thing I wanted to do.”
LOOKING AFTER YOURSELF
Chris North’s tips for improving your mental health
• Try to base your decisions on facts – don’t worry about what you can’t control and what hasn’t happened yet.
• If you feel low, you’ll stay low – switch up routine to change how your body is feeling.
• Don’t sleep too much.
• Don’t feed your negative ego – focus on your achievements instead.
• Talking is the best therapy