Break Down

Poor mental health among food and beverage workers has long been a concern, but as restaurants—and everyone else—face the great unknown of an ongoing pandemic, it’s time to do more than just talk.

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Illustration of woman in yellow sweater holding her head while clouds and darkness swirl around her.
Owners and managers can no longer just pay lip service to employees' mental health. / Irina Danyliuk © 123RF.com

In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, layoffs, and ever-changing restrictions, Jeff Osaka is facing something much more dire: The restaurateur is trying to navigate how to better address mental health in his organization after losing three staffers to suicide this year. “I’m trying to search out professional advice—how I can see these signs a little quicker,” he says. “The restaurant business, we’re like a small family, so I’m trying to help with seeing the signs, telling the management what to look for.” Balancing these worries with trying to lead during a crisis is incredibly challenging.

Mental health in the hospitality industry had reached critical levels even before the pandemic. In 2017, a workplace health survey of more than 17,000 employees by Mental Health America named food and beverage one of the three unhealthiest industries in the country. Service industry employees have higher rates of depression, and illicit drug and alcohol use and substance use disorders are more common than in other lines of work. Chefs with Issues, a website and discussion platform created by Kat Kinsman and focused on mental health, surveyed 1,600 workers in 2016, primarily kitchen staff, and found more than 80 percent were battling depression; more than 70 percent had anxiety. Perhaps most distressingly, 57 percent said they didn’t feel they could talk to anyone they worked with about these issues. 

Your job as the owner is to judge the climate of what’s going on in your restaurant with your staff.

Kevin Grossi, The Regional

“When you think about the major things that affect your physical and emotional well-being, it’s your sense of security, your sleep, your exercise, access to health insurance, your human interaction,” says Katie Lazor, executive director of EatDenver. “When you start to break that down, it’s not a surprise at all that the nature of the hourly restaurant worker—both who is called to that job and the job itself—ends up being a recipe for a lot of poor mental health.”

The strains of working in this industry weigh on everyone, from hourly workers to head chefs to owners. The pandemic has only amplified many of the intrinsic industry dynamics that contribute to poor mental health: more stress, less job security, an increase in negative interactions with guests, rising concerns about paying for health care, and low wages among them. Kevin Grossi, owner of the Regional in Fort Collins, saw these forces come to a head in one of his staffers who had a panic attack in the middle of service. “I’ve seen that a couple times. You have to be always watching your employees: Are they doing too much?” Grossi says. “Your job as the owner is to judge the climate of what’s going on in your restaurant with your staff. Right now, all of our jobs are constantly monitoring. If I’m waking up in the morning and I’ve got anxiety over this, this, and this, what are those guys worrying about?”

It’s not an exciting conversation and it’s not an easy fix, but it’s really getting into the nitty-gritty of how restaurant employees can have a better job.

Katie Lazor, EatDenver

None of these concerns are likely to surprise anyone who’s worked a day on the line or opened or managed a restaurant or bar, but the current health crisis has made it clear that it’s time to move from simply talking about wellness and offering yoga classes as a perk to actively addressing the systemic causes of poor mental health in this industry. “It’s not an exciting conversation and it’s not an easy fix, but it’s really getting into the nitty-gritty of how restaurant employees can have a better job,” Lazor says. “There aren’t obvious solutions, but there are things in our control. There are things you can do within the culture of your business and how you pay people and the sense of security you give them, and obvious benefits that can really move the needle.” 

Adding yet another task to your already overloaded plate may feel impossible, but restaurant staff are now frontline workers. Investing in their health is compulsory, and that includes mental health. “COVID has really forced the real conversation—the anxiety food and beverage can give people,” says Kade Gianinetti, Carbondale-based partner in the Way Back and Method Coffee Roasters

There’s an opportunity right now to reset, rethink, and reinvent processes so health is no longer on the back burner. It all starts from the same foundation: consistent communication. “Some people need a little more attention; some just need somebody to talk to. I offer that,” says Osaka, who owns Osaka Ramen, Osaka Sushi, and Sushi-Rama. “I do my best to be the strength or the pillar of the organization. I want to make sure they know I’m someone they can rely on. It’s constant contact with people to make sure they know they’re not alone.”

Take a look at related stories “Tipping Point,” which explores the impact of the industry’s wage disparities on workers; “Act Now,” which provides concrete steps to improve your 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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