Break Down: Act Now

Nine strategies that can help foster a more positive environment for your employees (and you, too).

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Illustration of confident businessman standing with pencil after completed all tasks on a checklist.
You don't have to check off all of these action steps at once; implementing just one or two can make a big difference. / Nuthawut Somsuk © 123RF.com

Establish an open-door policy.

Restaurant and bar staffs become their own families, but there’s still a boss–employee dynamic that can discourage frankness. Embolden staff to speak up by consistently communicating—through words and actions—that the leadership team is available to talk and that your business is a safe space. Better yet: Provide a way for employees to reach out anonymously. “It’s a hard thing. It’s a hard space to come forward and to want to say [something] to your boss (or your GM) in a restaurant because it’s busy and it’s not like you have much quiet time to bring that up,” says Kade Gianinetti, Carbondale-based partner in the Way Back and Method Coffee Roasters. “I think it’s just transparency throughout your business and how you talk to your employees.” Not sure of the answer? Tell them you’ll find out—and follow through. 

Actively check in with your staff.

Team meetings are great—the New Sheridan Chop House in Telluride uses its pre-shift lineup each day as an opportunity for staff to bring up concerns and connect—but real conversations happen one-on-one. Managers should regularly sit down with every single employee and instigate casual check-in chats, too. You want your staff to know they’re not alone, show them you care, and make sure they understand they’re supported and heard. Keep an eye on social media posts; if something looks or sounds off, reach out. 

While you want your staff to be focused solely on work once they clock in, you have to remember they’re human beings, too. They can’t turn off all of the pandemic/racial justice/political/you-name-it stresses of the world as soon as they cross your threshold. In fact, the industry folks we spoke to for this story said they heard about their employees’ personal issues most often. Their outside lives may even sound familiar: The Regional’s Kevin Grossi says he thinks he’s been successful at connecting with employees because, “I’ve been there, and I will let them know my past. People who feel like they want to make changes have come to me—’I remember you telling this story, can you give me some advice?’” he says. “This time right now is definitely not easy for me. I let them know: We’re all struggling. It’s OK.” He talks with his employees about savings, paying rent, relationships, and even troubling alcohol use when he sees it. It’s on leadership to initiate these efforts, he says: “A lot of people don’t really take advantage of it until it’s actually brought to them.” 

Fetien Gebre-Michael, who owns Konjo Ethiopian Food at Edgewater Public Market, the Ethiopian Food Truck, and Konjo Catering, always starts employee reviews with two questions: “Are you OK?” and “Is there anything you want to talk about?” “I constantly check in with them,” Gebre-Michael says. “I want you to know you can talk to me—that’s my goal with my staff.” 

Enforce rest breaks.

Per the Colorado Overtime & Minimum Pay Standards that were updated in August, hourly employees are entitled to “an uninterrupted and duty-free” meal period of at least 30 minutes if their shift lasts five or more consecutive hours. Depending on the number of hours they’re working, employees are also entitled to a set number of 10-minute rest periods. One 30-year-old server we spoke with said he picked up smoking just to get a breather during his shifts. “If you’re going, going, going, you’re not really taking care of yourself and taking care of whatever [your] physical, emotional, or psychological needs are,” says Todd Fredrickson, a labor and employment attorney at Fisher Phillips’ Denver office. “I think of the rest and meal period structure…as a way for restaurant employees to recharge their batteries.”

(Re)consider your pay structure.

Money is a major stressor, and financial insecurity can impact both our physical and mental health. Learn more in “Tipping Point.”

Stop pouring shift drinks.

Substance use is prevalent in F&B, and alcohol and drugs can become forms of self-medication in response to stress and anxiety. It’s also part of restaurant culture: Jack, a server in Fort Collins, developed what he called a “three to four day a week habit” of drinking—he’d down a shift drink, sometimes after a shot or a drink with customers while on the clock, and then head to a nearby bar with co-workers. He’s currently dealing with the repercussions of a DUI. “It’s an industry thing for sure, but a lot of it has to do with the culture the restaurant is cultivating,” he says. To counteract that, Jeff Osaka (owner of Osaka Ramen, Osaka Sushi, and Sushi-Rama) and Hosea Rosenberg (chef-owner of Blackbelly and Santo in Boulder) don’t offer shift drinks at their eateries. 

Train your staff.

Hire a counselor to educate your leadership team about how to handle and address stress and other mental health concerns for themselves and their teams. Chefs and GMs aren’t supposed to be counselors, but knowing how to address an acute situation—and where to direct someone in an emergency—can be life-saving. 

Listen to employees.

If you’re thinking of implementing a policy change, present it to your team and gauge how it goes over. Take feedback seriously. Your employees might bring up a consequence you hadn’t considered. Or someone might have a better idea of how to accomplish the same goal. It’s all part of creating a team environment where everyone feels valued and able to contribute. 

Model healthy behaviors and work-life balance.

Change starts at the top. You can’t foster a healthy, respectful, empowered environment if you’re not taking care of your own well-being. (It’s worth noting: Productivity actually declines when you work more than 50 hours per week.) “I don’t want to exhaust people,” Osaka says. “Very few people other than myself work more than 40 hours a week.” Set your own boundaries when possible, whether that’s signing off for dinner with your family or fully disconnecting at least once a week. If you’re in a leadership position, make sure you have someone who can check in on you; Gianinetti started a monthly “intentional conversation group” with a group of friends. Beyond that, show respect for your employees’ lives outside of work by setting schedules at least two weeks in advance so they can plan ahead. And be gentle with yourself: This is a learning process, and no one is going to be perfect—or happy—every moment of every shift. 

Disseminate resources.

Post the phone numbers and websites of mental health organizations like Denver-based CHOW, which hosts weekly Zoom meetings, in a heavily trafficked spot (see “Consult The Experts” below). Even better: Offer therapy—and health insurance, if possible—as employee benefits. Front Range-based groups Edible Beats and Big Red F both have employee assistance programs that include free counseling. Among other initiatives, Rosenberg posted a hotline number on the wall at both of his restaurants that employees can call anonymously at any time. “Sometimes just knowing you have someone out there you can talk to, it helps,” he says. “Even if you don’t do it, it’s a safety net.”

Consult The Experts

Keep these resources and training opportunities handy for staff—and for yourself. DiningOut also has previously posted a list of additional mental health resources here.

  • CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness), chowco.org
  • I Got Your Back, igotyourback.info
  • Healthy Hospo, healthyhospo.com
  • Fair Kitchens, fairkitchens.com
  • Chefs With Issues, chefswithissues.com
  • A Balanced Glass, abalancedglass.com
  • Ben’s Friends, bensfriendshope.com
  • James Beard Foundation, jamesbeard.org/mental-health-resources
  • Colorado Crisis Services, 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org
  • Crisis Text Line, text HOME to 741741, crisistextline.org
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Take a look at related stories “Break Down,” which explores restaurant owners’ responsibility when it comes to employees’ mental health, and “Follow the Leader,” on how to keep leading during a crisis. Then email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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