Flexible work and mental health go hand-in-hand August 2022

Flexible work and four-day weeks have been hot topics in global discussions of what employment should look like in a post-COVID world.

Meanwhile, brewers large and small have been reassessing the way they work, in efforts to combat the pressures of high intensity production processes as they look to become what the Independent Brewers Association calls “employers of choice”.

One of the brewers leading the way in the employment space is Kirin-owned Lion. It recently announced a “new approach to flexibility”, on top of its extension of paid leave provisions for those suffering miscarriages, stillbirths, gender affirmation, and for First Nations and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In terms of flexible working schedules, at its XXXX brewery, the team is implementing hybrid rosters across engineering, packaging and brewing to deliver on volume. All three groups run different rosters to reduce weekend work for family and personal commitments.

Permanent night shift is in place, and a number of employees work fixed afternoon shifts, while some teams work an extra hour every week to get a day off every eight weeks.

“Flexibility is worth the investment for a number of reasons: it promotes wellbeing and productivity, recognises the changing way work and home life are evolving, ensures that we remain competitive when attracting the best talent and when done in the right way can be a huge benefit for both the organisation and team member,” said a Lion spokesperson.

“When designing policies and practices it is important to consider how they support team members when the unexpected happens.

“For a team member to know that the support is there, rather than having to ask for it, goes a long way to building an inclusive environment. And for other team members, who will never need to access these types of leave, it still sends a strong message that Lion is an organisation that cares about its team members.

“The symbolism from these simple changes cannot be underestimated.”

While a major brewer such as Lion has the resources to implement these types of policies and procedures, that’s not to say Australia’s smaller brewers aren’t reassessing their working practices too.

Mountain Culture Beer Co. signalled its move to four day brewing weeks when it opened its Emu Plains facility, and similarly, Black Hops Brewing suggested in its most recent crowdfunding documents that it intended to rearrange its production schedule to 4 days on, 4 days off, 7 days per week, which turned out to be an extremely challenging proposition.

But flexibility isn’t just about shorter work weeks, it’s also about being able to fit work into schedules – whether that be related to family obligations, personal interests and commitments, or mental and physical health.

Flexible working and small brew teams

As breweries get bigger of course, the nature of roles change, from physical roles in brewing and hospitality to marketing and administration for instance, and this complicates the matter further.

Of course, the issue is both more complex and simpler as an owner-operator of a brewery, or for a brewer with only a small team – especially when flexibility is required by parents, or for other personal commitments.

Ryan Fullerton is currently brewing at Catchment Brewing Co., but had his first two children when working at Red Duck Brewery in Victoria.

“The first two months I was casual, when one of the kids was born you better believe I was going to take some weeks off.

“I always forget to take my annual leave, so at most breweries I’ve had several weeks and in one case a couple of months so they’ve always been pretty good about taking that off.”

There are some benefits as well as pressures of working in a smaller business as well.

“When I was at Red Duck, I was 10 minutes from home anyway – I could just duck home on my lunchbreak, or I have to take the rest of the day off, they were fine with it as long as I got the work done.”

Flexible brewing schedules also meant that a brew day can be fit in around a partner’s work and other commitments, but juggling multiple schedules can be a challenge.

“It is really hard, [and one thing] we’ve worked on is open communication and making sure we’re not bottling stuff up if there’s a problem, bring it up straight,” explained Fullerton.

Part of the motivation for moving to more flexible schedules is to enable this balance between home and work, and personal and professional life.

Flexible working and mental health

Dan Norris, co-founder of Black Hops explained that working on flexible and 4-day weeks is something the business wanted to do to enable a better work-life balance for brewers.

“It was our way of coming up with a schedule that enabled us to brew and pack 7 days a week and get the maximum volume out of the facility while also making sure brewers weren’t having to come in on their days off or work more than 38 hours a week,” he explained.

Norris also highlighted the issue for smaller brewers, acknowledging that the smaller you are the more difficult it is to realistically take time off and implement flexible working.

“I don’t think it would be very easy. It’s not often spoken about in our industry but beer is not made in 5 days during 9-5.

“It’s pretty much impossible to run a brewery with a brewer on a 5 day week working a normal 7.6 hours. In the early days it’s often founders or early staff that work a lot more hours than they should and come in regularly on their days off.

“People get burnt out doing that and it’s not sustainable or really ethical either. We are just about big enough now to be able to run a system that avoids this, but it’s very difficult to make it work because it’s extremely expensive to have coverage 7 days a week with multiple people onsite and then it’s extremely difficult to manage because managers can’t work 24/7.

“We’re a bit of an in between size without much automation at all so the model is hard to make work and we have to grow into it to make it financially viable.”

Mental health in the brewing industry is not a topic that is well understood or often discussed, but breweries have been focusing on mental health campaigns and raising funds for mental health charities.

But mental health is one of the major drivers behind employment changes, as the brewing industry seeks to become an “employer of choice”. This has particularly been a struggle after COVID and the mental health challenges that come with intense workloads and long hours.

“We’ve done quite a few things to try to improve health and wellbeing, some would have come from other industries I’m sure, some I guess we just thought might be good things to do,” explained Norris.

At Black Hops, shift times are tracked and overtime is kept to a minimum, he said.

“This ensures we aren’t overworking our brew team, preventing burning out [or] exhaustion.”

With three sites and five brewhouses and a barrel facility, this is no mean feat, and the process is constantly being worked out.

“It’s extremely challenging to manage production schedules and staff in a brewery regardless of what model you are running,” Norris acknowledged.

“The 4+4 provides coverage across the whole week but managers can’t work seven days a week so it creates a challenge for managers to be able to manage a place running seven days a week.

“To ensure we have someone trained on the floor to ensure the schedule is maintained, safety procedures and checklists are followed, we have trained our more experienced brewers to be Shift Supervisors which can ideally take a bit of pressure off Lara who oversees production. “

This is an ongoing process as kinks in the system are worked out, and communication is a key issue.

“[We’ve set up] a lot of communication things like daily site updates via Google forms and Slack, SOPs in Dozuki to ensure consistent work and trying not to schedule too much activity on the weekends, to name a few. Running a brewery is extremely difficult.

“Things go wrong all the time, managing a lot of staff is very difficult, our brewery isn’t particularly automated so brewers work very hard, it’s not an easy job and beer is made over a long period of time so there’s a lot of handing over of responsibilities over time which is a challenge. The challenges are too many to list.”

But the fact that breweries are attempting this more advanced and challenging way of working for the benefit of their brewers and other staff is a testament to industry’s attempts to make it a better place to work.

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