Salon professionals share the mental health struggles they've faced since the pandemic, as well as some of their favorite coping strategies. 

Salon professionals share the mental health struggles they've faced since the pandemic, as well as some of their favorite coping strategies.

In February 2020, when no one knew what was coming, Gregga Prothero had high hopes. She was finally making her dream of owning a salon come true and had just signed a lease for space in Los Angeles big enough for seven chairs. She planned to launch Gregga LA in June.

But as California repeatedly ordered and lifted lockdowns, Prothero felt anxiety eclipsing her enthusiasm. She considered abandoning her ambitious goal even though a supportive network of family and friends encouraged her to move forward with her plans.

“You have this dream,” Prothero says. “How exciting! And then a global pandemic hits. I was worried and scared watching everything unfolding. Then I got sad. I thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’ I was dealing with a lot of fears.”

Obsession: Perfection

Across the country in Richmond, Virginia, Rachel Lane powered ahead with her plan to open her independent salon business in May 2020 despite the pandemic, despite her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and despite the responsibilities that came with being a first-time mom of a new baby. Lane’s OCD was primarily defined by obsession and a need for routine. She fed her obsessive tendencies by filling every minute of her workday.

“When I started in hair 16 years ago, it was all about go, go, go,” Lane recalls. “If you’re not working, you’re not making money.” To calm her anxiety about leaving any non-earning holes in her schedule, Lane would text her already booked clients to tweak their appointment times.

“I called it ‘playing Jenga,’” she explains. “I was always trying to fit people into slots so that I could serve the most people. It calmed my anxiety to have a perfectly full day. If I didn’t have anyone in my book for an hour, I’d get anxious about how to spend that hour.”

Before going out on her own, Lane was working in an upscale, established salon. Although she liked the salon, Lane began to move toward a specialty in extensions, and the salon’s clientele of older women was never going to accommodate that. It was simply time to leave.

It took barely any time for Lane to become so skilled at extensions that she built a solid clientele. She found herself working 10-hour days even on her “days off.” She was feeling guilty about missing her daughter’s bedtime, and she was exhausted.


Establishing Boundaries

“The more clients you take, the more money you make,” Lane says. “That was the hamster wheel.” For Lane to jump off that wheel without crashing and for Prothero to overcome her fears and move ahead with her dream, both turned to Hayley Jepson, a UK-based salon pro coach for both British and American clients. Jepson gave her business the name “The Resilient Hairdresser”, not to reflect who she was but to describe how she wanted all hair pros to think of themselves.

“I was looking for a coach to help me with mindset, not business,” Lane says. “I’d go until 2 pm having only a coffee. Hayley helped me build in time to do things like go to the bathroom, eat, drink water. She taught me to be okay with sitting down and taking a lunch break.”

Instead of advising Lane on specifics such as how much to raise her prices, Jepson helped her structure her business—and her approach to her business—in a new way.

“I’m a numbers person,” Lane says. “I love counting—especially counting money! Together, Hayley and I figured out how much I wanted to clear and how to set that up while establishing boundaries.” By basing her fees on the number of hours she wanted to work, Lane saw that she could reach her goals every week.

“I raised my prices and hired two assistants who make money for me,” Lane says. “Hayley helped me earn more and work less.”

Prothero, who’s been a stylist for 15 years, needed similar coaching in designing a proper work/life balance. She was burning out before even launching her salon. Feeling overwhelmed, she thought it was a matter of working even harder to make sure she wouldn’t fail her staff.

“Other hairdressers were looking to me to have a place for their career,” recalls Prothero, who also works behind the chair. “In the pandemic, some were just starting out and afraid that people might not want to get their hair done anymore. We were all like: ‘What is even happening?’ I had to restore my own motivation and help myself mentally before I could act as a leader and motivate them.”

Prothero remembers questioning her energy level and asking Jepson, “Am I lazy, or what?” Jepson assured Prothero that she wasn’t the only salon owner suddenly stopped in her tracks, especially during COVID.

Pandemic Stressors

Even in ordinary times, hairdressers in their 30s tend to need to establish boundaries, Jepson says.

“We try to carry on working the same schedule after we have kids, when we have all of these new responsibilities,” she explains. “People start to feel not very happy—because their responsibilities have increased but their boundaries haven’t.” The outcome undermines the goal of keeping an overstuffed book, Jepson says, because you burn out, get sick, and can’t work.

Naturally, then, burnout was the major issue Jepson anticipated encountering when, just months before the pandemic, she began coaching in the industry. She was still a working stylist herself.

“I was prepared to deal with hairdressers who don’t say ‘no,’ who extend their hours, who don’t take holidays or even lunch breaks,” says Jepson, now a qualified psychotherapist who has developed a roster of workshops—“Manage Your Mood,” “Burnout and Boundaries,” and other hot-topic programs.

“The salon owner’s main stressor is staffing and managing staff. The independent contractor’s main stressor is finding clients,” she continues. “Stress can cause burnout. We’re really conditioned as hairdressers to say ‘yes’—to get bums on seats! But when the pandemic happened, hairdressers became stressed about other things, too. I had to ‘read the room’ and figure out what they needed. The wave hairdressers were riding was wild, and it was always changing.”

Initial panic about avoiding a deadly virus soon gave way to money worries as salons remained closed. By the third lockdown in the UK, Jepson had so many clients that she began coaching full-time.

“A lot of hairdressers get their validation from someone every hour telling them, ‘I love my hair,’” Jepson says. “Without that validation, they were struggling with low mood and depression, coupled with anxiety about how they would survive without their income.”

Pandemic Plus

Like Rachel Lane, Victoria Parker already had a mental health diagnosis before adding pandemic stressors. A client of Jepson’s and the owner of The Orangery, a salon in Peachborough, England, Parker was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2009 and later with rejection sensitivity disorder, which often accompanies ADHD and is just what it sounds like—being extra-sensitive to criticism and rejection.

“I struggle to say ‘no,’” sighs Parker, who specializes in balyage. “A client would book a partial highlight and then bring in a picture that required a total transformation, and I still wouldn’t say ‘no’! I’d work in my free time just to accommodate people, because it hurt if a client went somewhere else. It was like a stake in my heart. Hayley helped me overcome that.”

Parker finds that telling her clients about her ADHD takes some of the pressure off her. “When they know about it, people are more forgiving if you accidentally double-book appointments, your salon space is messy, or you’re running late,” she says.

Still, you’re the service provider. Parker says you can let your own issues interfere only so much.

“When you’re behind the chair, it’s like being on the stage,” Parker observes. “It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or what you’ve been through during the day—you kind of put on a mask. I think I’m fine throughout the day, but as soon as I lock the door after the last customer, it hits me. I take off that mask and can feel overwhelmed.”

For salon owner and Mindbody customer Alana Long, the pandemic wasn’t even close to the worst thing that happened in 2020. Long was pregnant and lost her child when a drunk driver hit her car head-on. While grieving and dealing with the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), during the lockdown Long also had the complex task of filling out Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) paperwork to pay staff at her massage, bodywork, and esthetics salon, Longevity Wellness, in suburban Charleston, South Carolina.

“I was navigating all that the world was throwing at me,” Long recalls. “When you are responsible not only for your own wellbeing but for that of a workforce, it’s hard to balance your emotional stress. And the original PPP rules and regulations that allowed business owners to keep our lights on also made us the villain—forcing part-time employees to come back to work when they were making more with the raised unemployment payouts. I was stepping into roles of therapist and cheerleader, and I felt imposter syndrome. I was asking my staff to believe in our financial future when I was so unsure of it myself.”


Feeling Clients’ Pain

On top of their own issues, hairdressers have always carried around their guests’ baggage. First you listen, then you worry about them, then you wait to hear more. It’s a cycle. And, unlike with some careers, people in this service industry can’t style hair, give a facial, or paint nails over Zoom. The salon was one of the first refuges for people when lockdowns eased, and within the safety of the salon guests let their feelings spill out in a flood. Hair pros began to drown.

Lisa Starr, certified Mindbody consultant and principal at Wynne Business Consulting, remembers hearing about a stylist who finally told her guests, “Nothing personal, but I don’t want to hear about your problems with your boyfriend.” She lost some clients.

“That tells us that people come for the psychological release as much as the service,” Starr adds.

Mindbody’s consumer polls support that. Nearly a third of consumers book beauty services to relax and take care of themselves, according to a Mindbody survey that also revealed that 65% of consumers consider beauty as part of wellness, while 45% see facials and haircuts/hair care as necessities for their wellbeing. Mindbody found that 55% of consumers polled in the UK and 49% in the US said the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. Then they’ve spread the misery as they’ve dumped their problems on their hair professional.

“When you’re a hairdresser, you take it home with you,” Starr says. “You used to leave work, go home, and watch TV. Now you have your phone with you. Maybe you’re booking or posting your work on social. You have your device with you all the time and can’t leave work at the salon.”

Prothero has helped her team thread the needle between being welcoming and empathetic without feeling pressed to provide solutions.

“Everyone had been through something, and there was just a collective sigh of relief,” Prothero recalls about the first weeks after lockdown. “They were grateful for the salon, happy to be doing something for themselves. That’s the power of human touch, of human interaction. I tell my stylists to be there to listen, but they can’t give life advice. They can provide comfort and tell clients that this is their time to escape instead of focusing on everything they were going through.”

In addition to dominating the conversation in the chair, the pandemic seemed to grow new crops of difficult clients, quick to complain about a service or angry that they couldn’t get into the salon right away.

“One axiom we work with in psychology is that frustration leads to aggression,” says Michael Adamse, a practicing clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida, and author of Make America Sane Again. “People were restricted during the pandemic, so there’s been an uptick in aggression. People are less patient, less tolerant with each other. That’s been particularly challenging for workers in the service industries, who are expected to be upbeat and optimistic. It’s not easy to keep on their game face when clients are being aggressive.”

Remembering the aggression in their clients after the first lockdown, salon pros were terrified to return to the salon when the second lockdown in the UK lifted, according to Jepson.

“You can have a clientele with 95 percent really nice people,” Jepson notes, “but you become occupied by the anticipation of the other five percent coming in—offloading on you, being constantly late, complaining about the price, or whatever it is that sucks your energy. Hairdressers leave the profession either because of a physical problem or because they get sick of people.”

Isolation Is the Enemy

It’s a bit ironic, then, that returning to their guests—and team members—is what’s helping salon pros bounce back. Research repeatedly has identified isolation as a petri dish for mental illness. On NBS’s Today show recently, Ken Duckworth, author of the new book You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health, stated it flatly: “Isolation kills people.”

Adamse wrote about this as well. “One chapter in my book is ‘Loneliness, the Silent Killer,’” says Adamse, who counts beauty pros among his clientele. “What’s piggybacked on the virus is social isolation and loneliness. People who are lonely have suppressed immune systems, especially people who usually enjoy being around people. The single most prominent life predictor of whether a person will get through a stressful event, whether it’s something like a pandemic or something personal, is being connected to other human beings.”

Staying socially connected means more than seeing people at the salon, Adamse adds. “Beauty pros deal with people all day long and might not want to be social after work,” he says. “But on your days off, get together with family or friends. Tell your stories just as clients sit in your chair telling you their stories. There’s huge value in getting things off your chest.”

Isolation applies not only to physical distance but to feeling alone in your situation. As the pandemic environment evolved, Jepson’s “resilient hairdresser” label would prove apt. She reports that hairdressers have been coping by following their professional instincts—turning to each other for support and using all of the unexpected downtime to further their learning.

“Hairdressers were looking for connection, wanting to pool resources and ideas,” Jepson recalls. “I made loads of friends on Instagram during the pandemic, and lots of Facebook groups were popping up. What’s amazing about hairdressers is they all threw themselves into education and came out of lockdown stronger. And we became more solid as a community.”


Advantages of the Beauty Industry

The buzz of a salon is infectious. The benefits go beyond just being around any people; at a salon, you’re with salon people.

“Our culture is one of happiness, which is not the case for every business,” Long says. “Our customers are happy to see us, and the staff is positive and happy to be there. When I am having a hard day, often I look forward to going to work, as it is almost always a positive reset with supportive individuals who are there to listen and help.”

Parker echoes Long’s praise of the industry’s sunshine.

“I enjoy each and every day,” Parker says. “You laugh and smile all day. And when there’s bad news, you share that. I’ve been through a lot with all my clients, watching their kids grow up and sharing their lives with them. I see these people as friends. And I find the creativity therapeutic. Every client who walks in the door has a different personality and wants something different, so I’m not doing the same style or talking about the same thing every day. Boredom is a big thing that can make me go downhill. I need constant stimulation.”

Adamse confirms that a creative job offers relief during tough times. “Hairdressers can engage and lose themselves in their work,” he notes. “That can help.”

Flexibility is another plus. In the post-pandemic culture, employees have had more input into structural aspects like work hours.

“Forget the 40-hour work week,” Starr says. “The rules have been erased, and staff feel they have more power. Since the pandemic introduced us to the idea that you can get sick, people no longer want to put their life at risk for their career.”

For Lane, the seemingly terrible timing of starting an independent career at the dawn of a pandemic turned out to be fortuitous, letting her pursue her passion for specializing in extensions rather than going back to work she wasn’t fully enjoying. Command over her schedule became even more important to her in early 2022 as she faced a second major mental health crisis when postpartum depression followed the birth of her second child.

“When I made the switch to independent, I started doing the hair I wanted to do,” Lane says. “And I get to set up my business however I want. You want to do things that really light your fire. You’re a happier worker when you have more control.”

Parker, too, finds controlling her career to be helpful to her mental state. She was 30 when she went back to school 14 years ago to train as a hairdresser and is now the owner of a two-stylist business with more than 900 clients.

“I’m able to manage my environment,” Parker says. “I’ve definitely found the right profession for me.”

Owners: It’s Loneliest at the Top

While employees and independents have picked themselves up and dusted themselves off, salon owners have had the additional burden of leading their teams and navigating a pandemic with no roadmap, no precedent. Through Jepson, Prothero found a network of other salon owners.

“It’s been so important to have a group of stylist-owners to talk to,” says Prothero, who eventually opened her salon about a year after she’d planned. “We all felt alone, and connecting made me realize I wasn’t alone.”

That’s exactly why industry coach Nina Kovner provided a community for her salon owner clients.

“I went live with my clients twice a day for nearly a year just so they could talk, process, and not feel so alone,” recalls Kovner who, through her company, Passion Squared, works on brand development, leadership, marketing, and personal empowerment with creative small business owners, mostly in the beauty and wellness space. “Mental health is a huge part of leadership. Leadership is lonely without a pandemic; in a pandemic it’s worse.”

When her owner clients felt they were losing their dream or their purpose, Kovner reminded them, “Your purpose doesn’t change. Only your plans change.” She helped them address their fears about keeping their team employed, keeping their clients coming back, and keeping both groups safe from the virus.

Even after they returned to work and were keeping busy, many owners told Kovner they didn’t know why they still weren’t feeling right.

“Workaholism can make you unaware of how you feel,” Kovner notes.” A lot of people who seem to be thriving have unprocessed loss and grief. I try to keep people aware to check in with their feelings. Unprocessed grief and trauma can cause depression.”

In continuing to guide her owner clients, Kovner recommends they take the free two-hour class to receive their Be There Certificate [link -]. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation partnered with the certification creator,, to help people recognize signs of mental health struggles and know how to address them while also maintaining their own mental health.

“Make mental health resources available in the back room,” Kovner recommends. “Care for mental health should be infused into the culture of the business.”

Jepson agrees that owners should make mental health a priority in their leadership.

“Validate your team,” Jepson advises. “Let them know you’re grateful and pleased with their work. Just making someone a coffee and saying, ‘Thanks, you did really good work today,’ is amazing for mental health.”

Long makes sure her team knows that the salon leaders are available to them.

“Our open-door policy has allowed staff to come to me or other management leaders so we can be a sounding board for any issues they need to discuss,” Long says. “We were there prior to the pandemic, but now we’re putting in extra effort to help team members feel they are growing personally and professionally. The pandemic gave a lot of people a ‘stuck’ feeling, and we wanted to help them out of any depression they may have felt. We added a monthly in-house meditation, a personal development program, financial planning education, and company outings to things like a comedy show to raise morale and have fun.”

Starr says she is seeing many owners taking a similar approach.

“I’ve seen a lot more team-building activities,” Starr elaborates. “Teams go bowling together, or the owner brings in a pizza lunch. This isn’t about paying them more. They want the owner to say, ‘I see you, I recognize your challenges, and I’m ready to help.’ Day after day, all day long, they have people sitting in their chair saying, ‘I want to look and feel better.’ That’s very draining. If the owner or manager isn’t refilling the professional’s cup, who is? They want to know they’re a valued team member.”

Kovner agrees that owners are stepping up.

“The good news is that owners have done the greatest job,” Kovner reports. “They’ve focused on ensuring that their team and clients feel safe and supported. It has made a huge difference. On the other side of this now, so many of these owners are thriving even as they’re still dealing with some of the fallout. They’re traveling and reconnecting with friends and family. It’s really quite beautiful to watch.”


Folding Mental Health into the Benefits Package

At the two Spa Bleu locations just north of Chicago, owner Tammy Coakley decided to do something tangible to help her team move forward when the pandemic lockdown lifted: she added mental health to the salon’s package of health benefits. Since then, her team has had 24/7 access to a three-person care team. The salon pays 100% of the monthly $545 cost for this benefit.

Through the Marketplace Chaplains app, Spa Bleu staffers can contact the care team to ask for a phone call, text conversation, or in-person visit. This is confidential; while the care team shares tracking numbers with Coakley, they do not reveal the names of the people who reach out. On a rotating basis, the three care team members also informally stop into the salon to connect. 

Although they’re chaplains, the three care team members take an approach that does not introduce religion. If they feel the person’s situation requires more intense professional counseling, they help locate an appropriate mental health professional.

“The counselors are basically first responders,” Coakley says.

It immediately became apparent that the salon was investing in a service that the employees needed and appreciated. Team members were contacting the care team with concerns ranging from depression and financial stress to marriage and parenting issues.

“Our first quarter was one of those bittersweet moments,” recalls Salon Chief Operating Officer Heather Hazlett. “We were shocked at how many people were utilizing the service. You know people are hurting and need support, but you don’t realize how widespread the need is. Of our 65 team members, 24 asked for help that quarter. It was heart-wrenching, but it also gave us a sense of calm to know that we have this available for them.”

Seek Help

If something good has come out of the pandemic, maybe it’s the spotlight that now shines on mental health, bringing it out of the shadows. For the first time, a national advisory panel of medical experts has recommended that doctors screen all adult patients under 65 for depression.

Triggered by the increase in mental health needs since the pandemic, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force [link -] cited depression’s association with “an increased risk of cardiovascular events, exacerbation of comorbid conditions, or increased mortality,” as well as suicide.

“To get to the root cause and try to get better and heal, you’ve got to go to an actual mental health doctor,” Kovner says. “This is serious stuff. I don’t pretend I’m a doctor. I share my experiences, and I connect people to resources. I stay in my lane.”

Adamse reports that more people are seeking professional help. “Demand for therapy has gone through the roof in the past three years,” he says. “It’s hard to get appointments. At least talk to a friend. If you don’t get help, the problem will either stay static or get worse. Getting on the right medication can be a game-changer.”

Time for You

While forced isolation can be debilitating, finding “alone time” is valuable.

“There’s something called caregiver burnout,” Adamse continues. “If all your time and energy are spent caring for other people’s needs, you can burn out. Find some sliver of time, as a daily practice, when you’re focused on yourself. Read a book, watch TV, take a walk.”

Jepson talks a lot to her salon pro clients about self-care.

“Self-care can feel abstract,” she says. “What does it mean? Is it a bubble bath? It’s about being real with yourself about how much you can cope with. It’s about surrounding yourself with supportive people. It’s going back to the basics: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. When someone turns up on my door overwhelmed, burned out, I ask them things like, ‘Are you eating? Are you getting quiet time?’ I tell them to go for a walk in silence for 30 minutes. When you’re burned out, you have no brain space to think through problems.”

After losing her son in the car collision, Long says she explored “every type of healing there is,” from mental to physical to emotional, in some cases with mediums and Reiki masters.

“Then I took myself on a private getaway where I was able to feel what I needed to without any judgment or expectations put on me by others,” Long adds. “I cried as hard as I wanted and healed the way I wanted to heal. No one could do this for me; they couldn't make me feel better with words or therapy. I had to do it for myself, to feel the discomfort and fears that I’d been locking away, and I had to let go to make room for positive ideas.”

Long also discovered equine therapy. “I purchased a horse in 2021, and he has given me purpose, a goal, and a healing companionship that cannot be matched by anything else,” says Long, who followed suggestions she found in the book The Unteathered Soul by Michael Alan Singer. “You are your worst critic and roadblock, but you’re also your biggest advocate and the one to trust. Unapologetically, be you.” 

For Long, the maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” proved true.

“I have done so much personal growth and learning about myself throughout the past two years,” she reflects. “I realize how mentally strong I truly am, and I feel well equipped for the future.”

Jepson emphasizes that the end of the pandemic doesn’t equate to the end of mental health issues.

“I’ve known there were mental health struggles in hairdressing, but people didn’t see it until the pandemic,” Jepson notes. “Now the cost of living is the new panic. Hairdressers are worried about their bills, worried that clients won’t spend as much. But this is just the new cycle. Life will always be like this—going from one crisis to another. I want hairdressers to be resilient so we can roll with the changes.”

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