In this first part of a two-part piece looking at negative spaces within the beer industry, and their impact on our individual and collective wellbeing and mental health, we start by making a case for human-centred working conditions and practices that embrace our frailty, rather than work culture that seeks to deny aspects of our humanity. This piece, and its follow up, are intended to encourage the openness we want to see around mental health and wellbeing in the beer industry, as well as convey what we’ve learned to date from private conversations both within our team and with members of other brewery teams too.
We all endure negative spaces in our internal worlds, often irrespective of external conditions. Aiming for ever more positive and realistic working cultures in the industry will undoubtedly serve our team well as we try to do right, be well, and give it everything we’ve got during our work days safe in the knowledge we’re as free to give our energy as we are to preserve our right to muster the same for tomorrow. The beer industry as a whole is a tremendous catalyst for change in so many ways, and with enough momentum, we are capable of influencing worlds beyond our reach if our ideals are powerful enough.
This wonderful industry is full of some of the most devoted, committed, and hardworking people, from brewers through to bartenders and beyond. So many people I’ve met, and worked with, are driven by a passion for their work that runs so deep that their personal needs often come a firm second to that of their workplace or customers. It is not uncommon for bravado or pride to fill the energy debt that’s left by fatigue, or outright, overworked exhaustion.
In our early days at Cloudwater it wasn’t uncommon for James (our head brewer, and my co-founding partner) and I to pull 80-hour weeks most weeks, with most of our initial team feeling the pressure from working 60+ hours too. We were, and still are, driven by passion, and are committed to making Cloudwater work in the fullest sense, but our work has to be centred around all our people for it to be truly sustainable. I used to, and sometimes still do, make mention of all the hours we put in to get us off the ground. What was a badge of honour is now more of a confession as we shift our focus to a long view from having our heads down trying to make it through each week with our dignity and reputation intact.
In January this year we reduced our non-management team’s actual working hours by an average 20% to a contracted 40 hours a week (and we have largely hit that target since), forcing some cultural changes rather than endlessly waiting for them to appear. We also reinvested the very first profits we made (thanks for all your support folks), and increased our wage bill for the first time, to around 23% higher than 2017. Now, with rather more adequate time to rest, and with fewer financial constraints than before, our team are a bit lighter, happier, and more productive, though there is more that we need to achieve. We get better results now, in less time than ever before, giving us a little time on occasion to come together for deeper reflection on where we are and what challenges we face, with energy to plan future work because we’re not being crushed by the job at hand in the present. We are aiming to end the year with every member of our team averaging 40 hours a week, and feeling good about both their workload and achievements in the process too, including those of us charged with organisational and managerial responsibilities, despite how impossible hitting that goal currently seems!
Every business is driven by a sense of bringing something meaningful into being with adequate rewards in exchange for effort, but our individual and shared humanity must be central to our company goals, targets, systems, and culture, if we’re to build long-term sustainability. Our ambition should not just focus on protecting our staff from physical, mental, or emotional harm, but also be centred around a sense of holistic, collective, and individual happiness too.
It is undoubtedly true for most of us that our lives are destined to be shorter than we’d probably like. The lines between making beer, socialising, and drinking beer for fun are blurred, and most of us work in beer, and socialise around beer because we really love it, even when it draws us in and near consumes us for most of our waking lives. In our quest for achieving balance in our beer - and balance between the business concerns that keep our lights on and pay our wage bill, and our creative ambition - we are broadening our focus to include a self-supporting culture that strives for an excellent and healthful work-life balance. Moving beyond a culture that superficially, and in some cases harmfully, rewards overexertion and unpaid overtime, we’re reaching for a time and place we haven’t yet fully experienced, but one we are sure will reflect very positively in the quality of our beer, our business practices, our interactions, and the energy we all bring to life day by day.
In the world of music, an equal measure of notes and rests forms every piece. Without rests only noise exists. From a place of physical and musical rest comes the musician’s possibility to turn to action and create with a deep sense of purpose, through creative, emotive, and physical harmony. Inspiring musical performances can display intense physical control, as well as athletic fitness and strength, but they must also be sustainable, or risk damaging the artist’s ability to show the wonder that is human ability through a deep intellectual, emotional, and physical oneness.
In our work at the brewery, pauses between jobs are opportunities to engage more energy in our next task list, gain perspective to chart a course based on up-to-the-moment reality checks, and move fully on from one job to the next in a way that allows us to catch up with ourselves and the emotional and physical strain each job can exert on us. We need space for our bodies to heal after hard physical exertion, and we need space for our minds to consciously relax into the moment after a day’s work that invariably pulls our attention in many directions.
Beer culture has contributed greatly to progress made towards the enjoyment of quality-focused beers, brewed not only to be delicious, but to act as social lubricant and aids to conscious relaxation. What many of us strive for when we crack open a can or pop a bottle of our favourite beer - the positive physical and mental effects of mild intoxication from delicious sensory experiences - we can also strive for in our daily work lives within the industry, however far we feel we have to go from where we find ourselves now. Here’s to progressing our attitudes towards our work to make our wellbeing, in the broadest sense, as central a goal as delicious beer.
In the follow-up to this piece you’ll hear from members of our team as they unpack previous and recent mental health issues, and also how changes to our working culture can improve further to better support their mental and emotional wellbeing.