The Mary’s Group founders have stood by their controversial comments about mental health in a podcast episode, but said they were taken out of context for “clickbait”.

Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, who own popular Sydney venues The Unicorn and The Lansdowne, as well as the Mary’s joints, made headlines for a conversation on their podcast, The Fat.

In the episode, they spoke about “whining” and “self-entitled” young workers, who put too much stake into the idea of a “work-life balance” and didn’t take responsibility for their own mental health. The Sydney Morning Herald write-up of the episode prompted widespread backlash, which was covered by outlets including PEDESTRIAN.TV.

In an interview with P.TV on Monday, Smyth apologised for the use of “whining” and “self-entitled”, but stood by the rest of his comments, saying they were taken out of context.

“Using terms like entitled or whiny, if that has upset people, then I apologise for that, but it doesn’t take away from the core message,” Smyth said.

His ‘core message’ is that aside from a minority group of people with “exceptional mental health issues”, it’s important for people to take some responsibility for their own mental health, whether that’s through seeking treatment, cutting out drugs and alcohol, exercising, or enforcing your time off from work is exactly that: time off.

“When you’re told, ‘I need more work-life balance’ from somebody who’s not doing anything to enable that balance themselves, and laying the blame for their lack of work-life balance at the feet of the employer, that is not appropriate,” Smyth told P.TV.

Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth. Photo: Supplied.

He stressed that his comments weren’t directed at Mary’s employees or even the hospitality industry as a whole, but at what he calls a “small but powerful” attitude towards shirking responsibility for mental health.

“My industry is full of the most wonderful, hard-working, passionate, individuals who sacrifice a lot for the happiness of others,” Smyth said.

“And that’s what my career has been built on. To have it warped into another framework, it’s not fair to the staff who are still sweating next to us, and it’s not fair to the conversation as a whole.”

Some of the criticism painted Smyth and Graham as ‘entitled rich boys who were playing at being working class’, which Smyth said couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I’m a Year 9 dropout from Singleton High School in regional NSW,” he said.

“I got my first job at McDonald’s at 14 and 10 months because my mum and dad needed help paying the rent. I’ve come from the world that I’ve come from, and I’m not going to apologise for it. What Mary’s is, isn’t two rich boys playing at poor. This is who we are, we celebrate it. This is why people resonate with our brand and love our venues.”

There was also criticism about Smyth calling work-life balance “one of the most dangerous terms young people have been introduced to”. Contrary to that statement, Smyth said he’s completely in favour of a work-life balance, not just for himself but for his staff, encouraging them to disconnect from work on their days off.

“Treat your days off as sacrosanct and as if you are on a holiday,” he said.

“We do not need to hear from you if you’re not at work.”

He said Mary’s had taken a range of measures further beyond industry standards to support mental health, including providing four extra sick days (called a YOLO day) to full-time staff per year, and refusing to include pokies in their venues because they “rip the heart and soul out of communities”.

“I empathise with the people who are angry [about the podcast], but I feel like a lot of them don’t know the full context of what we’re talking about,” Smyth said.

“They certainly don’t understand who we are or what we’re talking about or what we’ve fought for for so long.”

In a statement, Smyth and Graham acknowledged that the work to overhaul the hospitality industry – which has been linked to poor mental health – was not yet done.

“We came through the abusive shit-storm that was Old Hospitality, and have worked day in, day out, year on year to change these poisonous cultures that were so deeply entrenched,” they said.

“Are we all the way there? Not at all.

“Wage theft and crushing work conditions still exist in corners of the industry.

“Mental health pressures are exacerbated by the ready supply of alcohol and the normalisation of drug use. As humans who wrestle with these issues personally, there is a fine line to walk between normalising these behaviours and encouraging people to explore their own agency and support that path.”

If you would like to listen, the episode is called The Fat #27 Mike Rodrigues – COVID & The Future Of Culture, and can be found here.

Image: Supplied