Over the past few years, conversations surrounding mental health advocacy have begun to make their way into the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Pre-pandemic, the nonprofit group Mental Health America (MHA) released a two-year study concluding that work environments within the food and beverage industry correlated with higher levels of mental health issues.
We’ve seen shows like “The Bear” popularized, with its fictionalized, but accurate portrayal of the industry’s high-stress environment reaching mainstream audiences beyond those who work within the industry.
And, individuals have more openly begun to talk about their experiences around the pressures of working in an environment characterized by high performance expectations, urgency, long hours, (often) a lack of health benefits, and inconsistent salaries.
Acknowledging these experiences and moving towards tangible solutions is vital to the success and sustainability of our industry.
As pandemic recovery continues, we’re in an era of opportunity where there is a chance for restaurants to implement new ways to support teams and their wellbeing. And as an advocate for the industry and our partners within it, we believe it’s time to continue conversations around solutions to support better mental health, by elevating industry voices.
So, we asked restaurant and hospitality professionals:
How would you like to see the restaurant industry change in 2023 to better support mental health? What are steps that restaurant teams can take?
Read on for 6 thoughtful recommendations from experienced hospitality professionals and advocates.
Invest in psychological safety and mandate workplace mental health education for leaders, owners, and managers.
“Based on the research and data I have been reviewing and collecting over the last three years, the change I’d like to see is for restaurant leaders to learn and practice psychological safety. I have worked every frontline service job out there, owned a restaurant for three years, and consulted on many others, I know first-hand the impact this would have.
We need to invest in psychological safety and mandate workplace mental health education for leaders, owners, managers and anyone else who makes business decisions that impact the workplace. Why? Because it helps to protect and unlock the potential of the biggest asset of the hospitality and culinary industry: the people. We have to remember we are not in the business of culinary and beverage products; we are in the business of people who happen to serve food and drinks.
The traditional restaurant business model has been neglecting workplace mental health for centuries and, as a result, often creates toxic work environments. Restaurants continue to hemorrhage money to turnover costs and experience labour challenges with many achieving only low, single-digit profit margins. This is all interconnected, and one truth impacts the other.”
Co-founder & Executive Director of Not 9 to 5 Organization
Address burnout, be available, and shake the fear of being “too expensive”.
“At Published [on Main], the program is pretty involved. I came up through the brigade system, Chef de Parties holding accountability for their sections. It is a way to maintain a standard, and helps build strong cooks. The days are long, and stressful. Especially as a young ambitious restaurant, we were constantly pushing hard, changing up to 6 menu items a week, the tasting menu constantly evolving, it requires serious fortitude.
Through the pandemic, with diminished capacity, our labour budget was stretched very thin. We definitely saw a lot of burnout, a lot of staff turnover. As we entered the “new normal”, we got busier. After receiving recognition as Canada’s Best Restaurant in 2021, our books were jammed for the foreseeable future, and sales were in a great place. We finally got to a point where we could afford to go to a 4 day schedule for the cooks.
The schedule is a bit more challenging at first, but it makes a dramatic difference to have an extra day off. We noticed the difference right away, cooks were happy and refreshed coming back on their Monday, and weren’t fatigued on their Friday. I think that was the single biggest change we could make to support our staff. On top of that, being supportive, and available obviously are key to making your team feel valued and heard.
I think generally, I’d like to see restaurants be able to raise prices across the board. If we all come together and charge accordingly, it’ll make a huge difference. Our products all cost more. We need to pay our staff more. Margins are slim enough as it is, if all restaurants shake the fear of being “too expensive” and get with the times we can train our guests to absorb the costs so we don’t have to.”
Chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson
Train leaders to understand the signs, and potential causes of mental health issues within the industry, and expand access to mental health providers.
“The changes we need to continue to expand are plentiful. We must train our leaders more effectively when it comes to the signs of someone struggling with mental health issues. They need to be trained to not only recognize the signs, but be aware of some of the leading issues caused by working in the hospitality industry so that they can play a part in preventing them.
Some of those issues are financial, separation (long hours) away from loved ones, lack of appreciation, high stress for long periods of time (living out of your window of tolerance), and lack of transparency to the colleagues when managers make operational decisions.
There also needs to be expanded access to mental health providers within the benefit structure that all companies should offer as a basic living right, similar to what I have available at my place of employment. Many benefits programs offer only enough to cover around 3 therapy sessions – there needs to be better assistance financially. My therapist deals with a lot of issues I built up over my 20+ years working and living in kitchens, so being able to offer that support to cooks at the beginning of their journey would help us shape more empathetic leaders down the road. We must break the cycle if we want to accomplish great things with our people in this industry.
We need to continue to break the silence and the stigma around mental health. I am absolutely an advocate for good mental health, but I still struggle from time to time. I support every member of our teams, whatever they need, whenever they need it, but I can not do it alone. I am open and honest about my therapist to whoever will listen, but we all need to get on board with this to make real change. I hear a lot of people talk about work/life balance.. that is not a blanket statement. Work/Life balance means something different to everyone, so you have to know your people to find out what is important to them. Food always reacts the same, it’s the people that react differently – get to know your people.”
Chef Dennis Peckham
Corporate Executive Chef, Glowbal Restaurant Group
Embody a collaborative mindset, and prioritize reliability.
“In 2023, I hope to see businesses embodying a collaborative mindset. A restaurant is more than just a building to feed customers in – it’s a beautiful and exciting place that’s full of unique skill sets, points of view, and individual experiences. By focusing on this, a restaurant can encourage diverse interpersonal connections, and develop a deeper sense of meaning and purpose within the people who call it home. We – the restaurant community – need to stick together for better and for worse.
The people within the restaurant industry are known for being the life of the party. They are also known for experiencing high levels of addiction and mental health issues. It goes without saying that both go hand in hand.
I consider the restaurant industry to be one large family – and so I hope to see more businesses engaging together, encouraging positive thinking, and creating safe spaces for everybody – like a family would. Instead of trying to fight the fight individually, we can be stronger together.
What are steps that restaurant teams can take? As managers, we need to prioritize our reliability. To me, an important step to take is to continuously remind our teams that we are present and there for them in any situation. We have to create and maintain meaningful relationships, teach and learn from others, invest time in creating a community that understands each other’s lifestyle, and involve more meaningful connections within our day to day lives.”
Sommelier & Assistant General Manager, Sims Steakhouse
Listen to each other. Even if you don’t have the right answer, listening is a first step to hearing what is needed around you.
“The one thing I think people really need to understand is that as service industry people, we are already trying to manage our own mental health on a daily basis. Most of the ways we manage and cope often aren’t the best options, but it’s all we have. Often because the easier way of coping is also the most harmful, it’s a cycle that can’t easily be stopped.
So my ask for the industry in this following year, that I feel can be most effective, though may be hard to do, is to listen to each other. Honestly, sometimes all we need to do is listen when someone is reaching out to you. Our lifestyle is ultimately a solitary one, and feels very much like every person is on their own. And from a managerial standpoint, the way people are promoted and moved up the ranks is structured to keep us pitted against each other. Even if you don’t have the answer, listening is a first great step to hearing what is needed around you.
The ease that comes when you walk into a place where you are heard is a blessing. One that not many places in the hospitality industry offers.”
Host of Terms of Service Podcast
Stop checking emotions at the door, and start treating one another as humans instead of commodities.
“The number one thing that I’d like to see from the industry in regards to mental health is first and foremost – empathy. Hospitality has long been about checking your emotions our realities at the door to provide a temporary relief to our guests, however, treating one another as humans and not commodities can lead to deeper understanding amongst one another and most importantly – a belief system that makes everyone realize that they are more than their position and what they can offer to one another for a paycheck.
The first step should be acknowledgement followed by mental health resources funded by the organization that are readily accessible and transparent. Also, I believe that the industry as a whole should provide initiatives to prevent mental health issues through physical wellness programs and meditation to showcase that if we are to accomplish anything as a team – we truly uplift everyone as a unit as well.”
Justin E. Arnett – Graham
Host of Terms of Service Podcast
Change can be daunting, but it starts at an individual and community level.
We hope this advice got you thinking about ways you can support restaurant teams and mental health within the industry, whether it’s through your daily behaviour, or larger scale changes to your business model.
Thank you to Hassel, Chef Gus, Chef Dennis, Maripier, Nariba and Justin for sharing your thoughtful advice and experiences, and helping to bring awareness to mental health challenges and steps that those in the industry can take to support their teams and one another.
For further reading, educational resources, and support, please check out these resources curated by the experts at Not 9 to 5, a non-profit global leader in mental health advocacy for the foodservice and hospitality sector.
A collection of industry-specific resources and organizations for supporting mental health and substance use challenges.
Practical guides for mental health in the workplace, training resources, online mental health benefits providers, and employee assistance programs.
Created by Not 9 to 5, CNECTing is a platform to access educational content and mental health training. Find access to industry-specific resources including CNECTed, a groundbreaking training and certification course to develop mental health and substance use support skills.
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