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May 23, 2019 Shedding a Light on Mental Health in the Restaurant Industry

mental health in the restaurant industry

We usually try to keep things light and fun here at Buzztime – it’s sort of the root of our business model. But in honor of Mental Health Awareness month, we wanted to shed light on the state of mental health in the restaurant industry. It’s a topic that, historically, hasn’t been discussed much. But due to the tragic loss of several culinary icons over the last few years, it’s something that the industry is taking a good, hard look at – and making changes for the better.

A Closer Look at Mental Health in the Restaurant Industry

Recently, the Wall Street Journal shared a video of current chefs discussing their views and experience on mental health in the restaurant industry. The picture they painted of working in restaurants is very different than the one the general public has come to know from reality TV shows and food competitions.

Working in restaurants is not easy.

The hours are long and strenuous. The pressure to work until you drop is prevalent. And while most chefs would tell you that no topic is off limits in the kitchen, mental health in the restaurant industry is something that usually gets brushed under the rug.

Then Anthony Bourdain passed away, and it shook the restaurant industry to its core.

A man who had become the voice of restaurant professionals, who had the respect and admiration of almost everyone in the industry, who explored the world and shared his joy for food and cooking and travel, took his own life.

Anthony Bourdain’s struggle with substance abuse was something he talked about openly. But his battle with depression went almost completely undiscussed. And if someone so successful could take his life, what did that mean for the average chef or line cook who faced many of the same struggles Bourdain did at the beginning of his career?

So, a more open discussion about mental health in the restaurant industry began.

In the Wall Street Journal video, chefs shared several of the contributing factors to their struggle with mental health – issues that have been part of the restaurant environment for centuries.

Issues Contributing to Mental Health in the Restaurant Industry

According to the chefs in the Wall Street Journal Video, trying to discuss mental health in the restaurant industry is something that gets shut down pretty quickly. Often, people who try to discuss it are told to “suck it up” or “it’s not that bad”.

But the truth is, the restaurant industry has some of the highest rates of mental illness.

In a recent survey conducted by Chefs with Issues and the Heirloom Foundation,  73% of participating chefs reported that they suffer from multiple mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

And there are a multitude of factors that can lead to undiagnosed or untreated conditions of mental health in the restaurant industry, resulting in lives lost.

First, it’s about pressure…constant pressure.

When you work in hospitality, every service counts. Every plate, every greeting, every drink pour is like a mini-performance employees are putting on. Sometimes, it makes the job a lot of fun. But it also means that you can’t have an off day – ever.

The pressure to smile through pain is a constant factor taking a toll on mental health in the restaurant industry. No matter what you may be battling on the inside, there’s an unspoken rule that you can’t let it show in case it affects your team or performance. So, chefs, servers, and bartenders will bury it deep down, which causes even more damage.

As a result, it develops a culture where mental health in the restaurant industry is never discussed. Those who are suffering start to feel even more alone and isolated, because they don’t see their coworkers going through the same thing. Then they start to assume the problem is only with them.

Another factor that is finally getting attention…harassment.

The restaurant industry is designed for people who like to stay on their feet, who enjoy working odd hours, and who can’t stand the idea of a stuffy corporate job.

But the laid-back environment comes at a price.

The lack of rules that draws people to waiting tables and working lines is often the same thing that jeopardizes mental health in the restaurant industry.

As any restaurant veteran will tell you, it often feels like anything goes in the business.

Language and behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in a traditional office setting are often thought of as second nature in the restaurant business. And as long as it doesn’t disrupt service, it’s considered totally fine.

In wake of the #MeToo movement, the dark underbelly of what many female staff members endure on a daily basis has to come to light. In fact, Anthony Bourdain was known for speaking out on behalf of the sexism women face in the restaurant industry.

Now that it’s being talked about, people are beginning to come forward about other forms of harassment that contribute to issues with mental health in the restaurant industry.

Once someone has the courage to step forward for help…lack of resources may stop them in their tracks.

Another ongoing issue with mental health in the restaurant industry is a lack of funds or benefits for employees to get the treatment and support they need.

The Heirloom Foundation survey reported that only 18% of restaurants offer health benefits, which can sometimes cover necessary treatment for those battling mental illness. And even those seeking help will often experience therapists who don’t quite understand what it’s like working in the industry. They may say that their job is the source of their unhappiness or anxiety, but how is that helpful for someone who needs to pay the bills?

And speaking of paying bills, most restaurant employees are working for less than minimum wage, and relying on tips to make a living. While tips can be lucrative, the uncertainty of a fluctuating paycheck can be stressful.

A recent study from the American Journal of Epidemiology revealed that service employees who rely on tips are more susceptible to depression, sleep problems, and stress.

And in most cases, restaurant employees still have to work multiple jobs. This only adds to their stress and doesn’t leave them much time for self-care, which results in a detrimental effect on mental health in the restaurant industry.

To cope, many turn to alcohol and drugs.

Due to the pressure to always be “on” at work and the stigma of discussing mental health in the restaurant industry, many employees turn to alcohol or illicit substances to self-medicate. Usually, alcohol is served in the place where they work, so there’s easy access to their drink of choice every time the clock in.

The need to turn to substances is habit-forming, to the point where it’s almost an epidemic with mental health in the restaurant industry.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that restaurant professionals have the highest rates of substance use disorder than any other industry surveyed.

Suicide is a major concern.

People who work in restaurants are strong, but many suffer from untreated illnesses. And battling mental illness and addiction increases the likelihood that they may end their own life. According to the Addiction Center, over 90% of suicide victims have suffered from depression, substance abuse, or both.

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How Things Are Improving Mental Health in the Restaurant Industry

The state of mental health in the restaurant industry has been an avoided topic for decades. Most people thought things were fine as they were. But after Anthony Bourdain’s death, more and more prominent chefs and industry influencers have spoken out about the factors threatening mental health in the restaurant industry.

And now, they are taking action.

The simplest and so far, most effective way of dealing with mental health in the restaurant industry is talking about it. Discussing mental health removes the stigma and lets employees who may be suffering know that they are not alone.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it, and allowing a place for an open discussion about mental health in the restaurant industry has already opened doors and opportunities for those who may be struggling.

Chefs are stepping up…

Chefs have stepped forward to share tips for better self-care and are beginning to question if the traditional kitchen environment is necessarily the best thing for their staff. More restaurant owners are exploring different practices that are still profitable, but no longer at the expense of their employee’s mental health. Raising the minimum wage and offering health benefits are some of the first steps being taken, and there are more discussions on other ways to provide help and support for mental health in the restaurant industry.

People are taking initiative and making real changes.

Beyond new practices and open discussions about mental health in the restaurant industry, chefs, restaurant owners, and other industry veterans have started multiple support groups and organizations for restaurant employees who may be suffering from mental illness:

  • Chef’s with Issues: Started by Kat Kinsman, the organization acts as a support outlet and resource center for restaurant workers suffering from depression or substance abuse.
  • Ben’s Friends: This online support group, founded in honor of Charleston chef Ben Murray, was created as a safe haven and support group for restaurant professional who suffer from addiction and substance abuse.
  • Local Community Organizations: Organizations like Big Table in Washington State and the Giving Kitchen in Atlanta, Georgia, are also available to help professionals access resources for mental health in the restaurant industry on a local level.

Mental health in the restaurant industry is an important topic that deserves our time and attention. It’s an ongoing battle, but with support, we can build a better future for our restaurant professionals.

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