Resort employees and mental wellbeing — Lessons from the Maldives

The impact of the pandemic on mental health should not be ignored and lessons learned should not be left unaddressed in the sole hope the pandemic is abating.

Maldives Ad Agency

Maldives Ad Agency

On 27 July 2021, the breaking news coming from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was ground breaking – the most celebrated, and widely recognised as the G.O.A.T in gymnastics, 24-year-old Simone Biles decided to walk away from the women’s team final. Projected with the responsibility of leading her team to a gold, when Biles pulled out it was an unexpected yet revolutionary move. Explaining her decision, Biles said;

I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and well-being’

Prior to this, the most prominent case was when tennis pro Naomi Osaka stepped away from press conferences and then from tournaments earlier this year out of a need to protect her mental health. Clarifying her decision, Osaka, who is ranked second in the world said;

... it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it...

Now, with Biles’s decision, mental wellbeing has rightly been put back into the conversation where it was once considered a taboo topic.  

What is mental wellbeing?

Contrary to popular belief, mental health is much more than the absence of mental disorders. More precisely, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is a ‘state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’.

Speaking on mental wellbeing, Aaiz Ahmed Rasheed, Lecturer and College Counselor at Villa College explained that the mutual goal of human life is not just to live, but to live well; and living well by definition includes mental-wellbeing. He further points out that it is not possible to sustainably be physically well, financially prosperous, have good social & familial relations or feel content without mental wellbeing. It is the goal and the agent of the individual as well as the institutional endeavor.

COVID-19 and the resorts

On 7 March 2020, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) reported the first confirmed case of infection on a tourist resort in the Maldives. As a result, one of the containment measures established by HPA was to either lockdown or place resorts under monitoring status. Ultimately, in mid-March 2020 the government introduced a travel ban to and from resorts.  This resulted in guest and staff quarantining and the implementation of isolation areas within the resort itself. The lockdown or monitoring status brought about restricted movement of staff and guests. 

COVID-19 and resort employees

While on 5 May 2020, a circular shared by the Ministry of Tourism communicated regarding the transfer of ‘staff stranded at resorts.’ This gave little to no comfort to the employees in their hopes of getting to their loved ones as they ultimately found themselves stuck on the property for an extended period of time, with some having to stay for a staggering 18 months or more.

The subsequent plights of the employees

The report ‘Impact of the Covid-19 crisis in the Maldives’, published by the Ministry of Economic Development chronicled some of the distressing situations of the workers as;

  • Restricted movement of staff to attend personal and family emergencies  
  • Restrictions on weekly and daily commutes of workers between resorts and their homes on inhabited island
  • Relocation of off-site staff to onsite to overcome travel challenges which in turn, created crowding and decreased morale amongst staff

While the report does not highlight the impacts on the mental wellbeing of the employees, various social media posts and reports in media brushed the surface of this issue. Research publications such as the 2018 article titled, ‘Factors affecting psychological well-being: Evidence from two nationally representative surveys’ or the July 2020 article, ‘Factors Affecting the Psychological Well-being of Health Care Workers During an Epidemic: A Thematic Review’, all highlight how relationships, specifically that of friends, family and colleagues can have an immense impact on the mental wellbeing of people. Therefore, for someone who had not been stranded on an island, away from their loved ones for over a year, one cannot simply comprehend the toll it has on the mental health. 

What were the feelings?

While conversing with five employees, some of the words they used to describe their experience of being away from their loved ones were, helplessness, frustration, anger, isolation, dark, no energy, moody, physically sick, no appetite, and unfair, among many others. It is also alarming to note that the negative impacts on relationships with spouses and children were unanimous among the respondents. 

Nasrulla Ali, the Resort Manager at SAii Lagoon Maldives Curio Collection by Hilton, who was away from his family for one and a half years described his experience;

It was the hardest time of my life, being forced to stay away from my kids, wife and loved ones. Psychologically it was very hard. I kept myself connected with them through video calls and social media. I was also busy with work, improving the condition of the resort including landscaping and beach maintenance. Netflix was a big help during the evening hours to keep myself entertained.

Mohamed Athif, the Director of Human Resources at Kandima Maldives, who was away from his family also almost one and a half years penned his experience; 

2020 was a challenging year to stay away from our loved ones. I have spent 17 months on the Island with zero movements. We all were uncertain of our future and became choiceless. At the beginning of this pandemic, it was unbelievably difficult to manage our mental health and families back home. Everyday thinking about if tourist arrivals stop, how to pay our family expenses. We are fortunate that Maldives has taken lead in reopening its doors to the world which brought some light to our life. I must say technology has bridged to our life during these difficult times. By now it is more challenging to manage both employee wellbeing and pandemic operations simultaneously.

What was done?

To maintain morale and support employees, many resorts had a similar take on the challenge. There was a focus on socialisation and physical activities. 

Nasrulla recounted what was implemented at his property;

The resort organised many recreational activities for the skeleton crew of all three islands who stayed back to look after the property. We had fishing trips, staff gatherings and BBQ nights. Since it was a small group of people, we formed a strong bond with the team members during the period the resort was closed. The resort took excellent care of the employees and everyone was very grateful for that.

Athif also recalled what was done at his resort;

It’s obvious, social activities play a huge role in employees mental and physical health. To bring more life into our team, we have reopened all our team pool, gym, coffee shop and all sports activities. This pandemic has opened the opportunity for us to live a hygienic and healthy lifestyle. Therefore, we educate our team to adhere to the basic steps, mask, wash hands, distancing, and personal hygiene.

Moving forward

While speaking regarding what more can be done to support resort workers, Aaiz believes that the harsh reality is that resort workers face significant challenges to their mental health and wellbeing due to their unique working conditions, social isolation and due to a lack of the feeling of connectedness. 

Nonetheless, he strongly believes that there are strategies for combatting this challenge for healthier mental health and wellbeing;

  1. Allowing and encouraging varied channels of communication between employees and their loved ones — 'channels' such as, where possible, visits to and from their islands, good internet connection to allow daily communication, avenues to send and receive care packages etc, all help to decreases feelings of alienation and isolation
  2. Fostering a supportive community within the resort with communal activities — this helps team members have a sense of the "we" feeling that all humans depend on for their mental-wellbeing
  3. Strong and compassionate Human Resource Management practices and policies — avenues for recreation, good working conditions, renumeration and healthcare can also contribute to minimise despair. It is also imperative to have good and impartial HR systems to empower workers and enable a platform to voice grievances and report offences
  4. Having an onboard counselor or psychologist can also be very helpful to ensure continued mental wellbeing and overall growth of the individual as well as prosperity of the resort itself

Bridging what Aaiz has expressed with the experiences shared by the anonymous respondents and by both Nasrulla and Athif, it is worthwhile to note that the measures taken by resorts closely mirror with Aaiz’s recommendations. Having an onboard or on-demand counselling service available for employees fares an important path resorts could think to walk on in the future. Afterall, COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a huge negative impact on the wellbeing of resort workers, irrespective of gender, organisational standing, designation or nationality.

More from MFR