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Inclusive hospitality– how to support customers with continence challenges

By Jamie Woodhall, UK Technical & Innovation Manager, Initial Washroom Hygiene

After a challenging 18 months of pandemic-related lockdowns, hospitality businesses and entertainment venues across the country are now able to trade without restrictions. The phased reopening is reported to have led to  a boom in trade – with the hospitality industry cited as the main contributor to the country’s economic growth in Q2.

While the higher levels of activity provide welcome relief for the sector, it’s more important than ever that business owners ensure their facilities comply with hygiene measures and support customer needs.

Closures throughout the pandemic really shone a light on the importance of out-of-home washroom access. With the closure of many public toilets over this time and reduced access to facilities in businesses such as pubs and cafes, this provided particular issues for people suffering with continence issues (the ability to control movements of the bowel and the bladder), which are often  linked to stress and anxiety.

In this piece we’ll explore why the issue of continence is so important, and how to break down the stigma as well as looking at how to ensure washrooms are equipped to support sufferers.

The continence issue

As previously mentioned, continence refers to an individual’s ability to control movements of their bowels or bladder. Many people experience varying degrees of continence challenges, ranging from occasional symptoms to everyday loss of bladder control. Despite affecting lots of people in the UK, there remains a lack of public education on continence issues.

The issue is becoming even more prevalent today. Research from Initial Washroom Hygiene has found that more than half of UK GPs believe diagnoses of continence related problems are increasing, while also citing stress as one of the leading causes of continence problems among patients.

For those who are suffering silently, restricted access to washrooms may have created an added source of stress during lockdown. Lifting restrictions may also leave those with continence issues feeling vulnerable or anxious about whether venues can offer access to hygienic, properly equipped spaces, with the waste disposal facilities that they require to manage their condition with dignity.

Breaking down the stigma  

It’s important to understand that continence is a complex issue that affects more people than most realise, and that there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to it. If more people talk about the issue, and businesses create a more inclusive washroom experience, we can make great strides at breaking these stigmas.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that continence issues only affect the older generation. In fact,  one in five (21%) of the GPs surveyed said they were diagnosing a patient under the age of 40 every week.

The condition also appears to be  increasingly impacting younger, working-age people. And it’s often males who often face greater barriers. They tend to have less access to sanitary pads, and male washrooms rarely have discrete disposal facilities for waste in each toilet cubicle, unlike the ladies’ washrooms.

The role of hospitality managers in equipping washrooms for use

Given that more young people are now being diagnosed with continence related challenges and are likely to be heading back out to venues over coming months, it’s vital more employers, hotels, restaurants and social venues offer the necessary provisions to ensure customers are comfortable and happy to keep coming back.

After all, the consequences of living with continence related issues can be profound. Almost all (91%) of the doctors surveyed said people find it difficult to talk about continence issues, with over two thirds (73%) suggesting those living with continence related issues are more likely to experience mental health issues. This combined with ‘re-entry anxiety’ after lockdown means that some individuals may be feeling worried about heading back out again.

So, what role can hospitality managers play in making all customers feel comfortable, assuming that they will likely be unable to tell if an individual has a continence issue?

It starts with looking at the expert advice. Almost all the doctors who talked to Initial Washroom Hygiene said that better access to disposal facilities in washroom environments would allow sufferers to lead a more ‘normal’ life. Equal access to washroom facilities such as sanitary waste disposal bins in all cubicles, and regular washroom assessments to ensure that resources are kept well-stocked, can go a long way to helping customers feel safe, and able to manage any condition discreetly.

Final thoughts

Continence issues have always been around – it’s just that now we are starting to understand more about the condition. The NHS estimated five years ago that between 3 million and 6 million people in the UK may suffer from some form of urinary incontinence, but the actual figure is likely to be much higher considering that many people keep it secret for years.

With the latest findings showing that over half of GPs (54%) believe new diagnoses of continence related problems have increased over the past two years, and venue managers thinking about their facilities more carefully to comply with Coronavirus safety measures, there has never been a better time to consider how your facility can support anyone dealing with this issue.

By taking the time to learn about the issue and ensuring that all washrooms – for male, female and non-binary customers – are adequately equipped to support those who might be using pads or products as part of a continence condition, facilities managers can go a long way to encouraging repeat business and satisfied customers.

About Sarah OBeirne

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