mental health

A look at the mental health of today’s hospitality workers

By Jessica Brill

The last few years have certainly taken a toll on the hospitality industry. However, some would argue it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as restaurants adopt technology and review operations to boost efficiency and their bottom lines. Perhaps even more importantly, the pandemic shone a bright and critical light on the working conditions and mental health of foodservice and hospitality workers.

“I would argue that there has always been a labour crisis,” says Peter Keith, chef, entrepreneur, and director of the eHUB Entrepreneurship Centre at the University of Alberta. He points out that the pandemic was a wake-up call, drawing attention to some of the fundamental issues that so many people in the industry are facing. “Mental health and wellness are inherently tied to the way that our industry works, so we need to be asking how to build this better and move forward together,” he says.

The current state

Historically, the foodservice industry has demanded long hours, minimal time off, stressful scheduling, and very little work-life balance, causing many people to experience burnout. The added stresses of the last few years are keeping that cloud over many workers, managers, and owners.

The great resignation was really tied to uncertainty and the possibility of losing your job, and your business. That pressure continued to build without any real relief before people had to go back to work.

Anxiety is another cause for concern. Most restaurant employees are familiar with the anxiousness that comes with knowing that you will have a stressful day at work, maybe there will be big tables, a busy event, a lot of prep, or not enough staff. It’s these kinds of conditions that can keep anxiety high as staff stays in a fight-or-flight state, affecting them at work and their ability to attain work-life balance.

We can’t overlook addiction as a catalyst, too. With late nights, consistent proximity to alcohol and drugs, and the social isolation of being at work when everyone is home (and vice versa), many foodservice workers turn to drugs and alcohol to try and alleviate that stress.

Keith says we need to look at the bigger picture. “It’s not a matter of simply working hard or paying your dues – no one is questioning that, but it’s about creating a better life for generations to come. Hard work doesn’t cause mental health issues.”

Hospitality is inherently stressful work, alcohol will always be in close proximity, and the hours will always be in opposition to many of our friends and family, but Keith asks, “What does the structure of these roles need to look like so people can cope in a healthier way, with a natural recovery?”

Making progress

While we have a long road ahead of us, mental health is something that people are talking about, and awareness itself is progress. Some of this progress has been forced as a result of the lack of skilled labour but it is also a pull from leaders who have finally reached a place where they have a platform and are in a position to make change. As well, Keith points out that there has been a shift in the workforce – the 16 to 24-year-olds of today know what they want and they are willing to sit at home unemployed, rather than settle for working under conditions they don’t think are right.

“It’s practices like these that will force our industry to change,” he says. He acknowledges that these steps are relatively new, but while wellness should always have been a priority, historically the majority of the workers were not raised to know and talk about mental health. “It’s not that the older generations don’t care, it’s just that it wasn’t talked about, or it wasn’t socially acceptable, or maybe they just didn’t have the language to have those conversations,” he says.

Moving forward

As the desire for change becomes more mainstream and the stigma of mental health challenges fades away, we need to question the reasoning behind working so many hours for, in many cases, such a low rate of pay. Finding balance is not an easy feat, but Keith suggests that it can be better achieved with a shorter work week.

Adopting a four-day work week, or a four-on-four-off schedule may create more balance in the industry, as overworked team members struggle with the time to catch up on sleep, recover mentally and physically, and perform necessary tasks like laundry and grocery shopping. Many are left wondering how they will have the time to enjoy their lives.

However, it’s not just as simple as a schedule shift. This solution would require employers to have more people on staff and have better cross-training so that more people can perform the same tasks on different days. This takes work and money, and that’s a challenge for many right now.

Another issue Keith addresses is tipping, advocating for a future without restaurant gratuities, where foodservice pricing structures account for fair pay for everyone, eliminating the need for customers to make a split-second decision at the end of their transaction.

“The issue with the gratuity system we have in Canada is that it’s left up to the customer, creating a kind of inherent social pressure on consumers without knowing who is getting paid what, how the tips are being split, and more,” Keith says. In a perfect world, the menu price reflects a fair wage for everyone involved, from dishwashers to senior management.

How can this happen? We know that a lot of restaurant operators do want to make these changes but are trapped. However, with that higher cash flow coming in, there’s an opportunity for employers to hire more people, train better, and provide health benefits because the cash is flowing through the business before being dispersed, as opposed to going straight to the staff. This could help create consistency and stability throughout the industry.

There’s a cultural shift that needs to happen. The cornerstone is a change in the industry’s business model, but it also requires a change in customer perception and what makes hospitality different.

When consumers pay retail prices, the question of overhead does not often come into play; generally, we accept and pay the price we see on the tag. But there is a disconnect with menu pricing. For example, when the price of fryer oil is tripled, that cost needs to be covered. It means that restaurants need to better communicate the value of what’s involved in the meals they’re providing.

Keith suggests that another factor could be the perceived skill level of foodservice workers. Hospitality needs to be recognized as a special experience that’s not just about consuming food, and when a cultural shift occurs, a bigger conversation can be had about society wanting to improve working conditions for these workers.

From the top down

While policy changes like scheduling or tipping need to come from management, it’s important to note that restaurant owners, managers, and supervisors may well be bearing the brunt of the symptoms of stress and burnout as well. Thus, they cannot bear the sole burden of making change.

Small steps make a difference, starting with management looking at the culture and atmosphere of the restaurant. Providing a judgement-free, psychologically safe space, where employees know they can come to management for support, help, and acceptance. Keith points out, “All of those things cost zero dollars,” and they open the door to acknowledge a problem before it gets out of hand.

These days, so many industry leaders are recognizing this and want to make a change, committed to looking for solutions, but as many managers and owners are under stress themselves, it can be really hard to set that intention. In fact, 84 per cent of operators say that taking care of their employees’ mental health is important to them.

There is an education piece here, too. Management needs to be proactive, taking steps to educate themselves on health issues, and recognizing the signs of when someone needs support. In today’s economy, owners and managers might be tempted to pull double shifts to try and cut costs – overworking themselves just to keep the doors open, making it hard to lead a team with empathy, care, and attention to mental health. But rather than giving everything to the business to be successful, in order to lead at their best, they need to be able to show up rested, happy, and motivated.

Of course, Keith acknowledges that health plans and financial support might be out of reach for some employers, but he encourages operators to research available resources for their teams. Organizations like In the Weeds in Alberta allows anyone who works in the field locally to access a mental health professional for free (a registered therapist). More and more of these resources are popping up around the country to help people looking to address mental health concerns.

It takes a village

From chefs on cooking shows to restaurant employers, the industry needs to champion change, celebrating restaurants that are getting it right, and talking about why it matters. Consumers need to get on board, too, supporting businesses that offer a fair working wage and put their employees first, to raise the bar for the rest of the industry.

When diners put their money where their values are, businesses will grow, hiring more employees and spreading the word, causing a ripple effect.

The conversation needs to be about making life better for everyone, whether you work in a restaurant, eat in a restaurant, or own a restaurant. Keith sums it up perfectly, “A rising tide needs to happen where there’s awareness of the issues, of how fragile the restaurant business model is right now, and what is required to make it right.” Change is coming, moving the industry forward with compassion and inclusivity, as we head into 2024.