Attempts to boost morale by being overly-optimistic during the Covid-19 pandemic risked causing negative mental health outcomes among staff, according to the boss of Kuoni.

The warning came from Derek Jones, chief executive of parent Der Touristik UK, and chairman of Abta Lifeline, at this week’s Travel Weekly Mental Health Matters brunch.

Jones said the temptation throughout the crisis was to exude positivity, but that it became clear staff wanted an honest appraisal of the situation as the pandemic unfolded.

“There’s this whole idea that the last 13 months has been a rollercoaster, and that’s exactly what it has been and the whole thing around hope and recovery,” he said.

“We realised quite early on that it was quite damaging to be overly-optimistic with our teams.

“We communicate a lot and the temptation was to constantly look on the bright side and to promise that recovery was just around the corner.

“But we realised that that was actually quite damaging from a mental health point of view.”

Jones said that, after some positive signs towards the end of 2019, it was hugely disappointing in January when the UK was plunged into a third lockdown.

“At that point we were definitely swimming against the current,” he said. “Our briefing to our teams was that this is not the end, this is going to go on for longer.

“I personally would rather have been wrong about that and we hit a stronger recovery than to call it more positively and things turned out to be more negative.”

Jones said efforts Kuoni made to keep communication channels alive have been very positive but that it was important to resist the temptation to “take the jolly idiot approach”.

Chris O’Sullivan, Mental Health Foundation head of communications and fundraising for Scotland and Northern Ireland, said people have been more hopeful than in the first lockdown.

“But there were some feelings of hopelessness too,” he stressed. “Particularly among younger people and older people over 70.

“We saw at the beginning a huge proportion of young adults who said they felt lonely which corresponded with people not being in work.

“This is particularly an issue in travel where the social dynamic with colleagues is so important.

“Hope is vital. But we see when hope rises, and when expectations are dashed, that’s when there are challenges in people’s mental health.

“Building up a lot of hope and it being dashed had a real impact. And having a sense of agency and control is really important in mental health across the piece.

“If anything good has come out of this situation it’s [that] we have been able to have more conversations about our mental health.

“We have been able to talk about how we feel and been able to share in a common experience of challenge which has given people a platform to talk about the challenges in their lives.”

Wilma Taylor, human resources director at Barrhead Travel, said the many young people the agency employs particularly missed the social aspect of engaging with colleagues and customers.

“Getting up in the morning and getting on the bus or the train, we are missing all of that social interaction,” she said. “I am sure that’s been a challenge for them.”