mental health

Foodservice mental health crisis sparks major support program

As prolonged COVID-19 related lockdowns continue across Canada, the restaurant and foodservice sector has reached a critical point when it comes to mental health. Survival of the industry as a whole may not be an option if viable widespread relief doesn’t arrive soon.

A major casualty of this crisis is a growing mental health epidemic comprised of one of this country’s largest and most vulnerable workforces.

Not 9 to 5, a global non-profit organization based in Toronto advocating for mental health in the foodservice industry, was recently granted close to $240,000 by The Future Skills Centre (FSC) to provide critical support to this population.

Just days ahead of CMHA’s Mental Health Week in Canada, Not 9 to 5 is ready to amplify awareness and deploy help to the industry.

“The hospitality industry is precarious even in the best of times – and now the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the mental health crisis. The grant from FSC will be instrumental in leveraging our programming so that we can get help to those who need it,” says Hassel Aviles, Executive Director at Not 9 to 5.

The funded initiative helmed by Not 9 to 5 will address new issues caused by the pandemic and the immediate need for resources to assist workers in crisis.

Aptly called Mind Your Health, this program will provide mental health education and substance use support for those affected in the foodservice industry, from back-of-house staff to managers.

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Mind Your Health is one of 64 initiatives being funded by The Future Skills Centre as part of their “Shock-proofing the Future of Work” program that was specifically launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to encourage the creation of partnerships that to promote resilience in the face of further potential future disruptions.

Based on research previously conducted by Not 9 to 5, the hospitality and foodservice industry has unique and extreme obstacles because it tends to attract people who live with mental health and substance use challenges. And with relatively low entry barriers and easy access to alcohol and illicit substances, these pre-existing challenges are further perpetuated.

In addition, unconventional hours, low pay, high-stress pressure, reliance on tips, lack of healthcare benefits, and a culture that has traditionally encouraged workers to repress and suppress mental and emotional experiences, have created a toxic environment that during the pandemic has only become further inflamed.

There is currently no comprehensive data examining mental health in the foodservice and hospitality industry in Canada, but according to Mental Health America (MHA), this industry ranks as one of the worst for workplace mental health. A study was conducted in 2017 wherein findings were based on data collection of workplace culture, stress, employee engagement and employee benefits to measure workplace stress levels and overall mental health. These findings further verified for Not 9 to 5 the need for Canadian-specific research, confirmation that a mental health epidemic already existed before the pandemic and has only intensified, and that help is needed with compounded urgency.

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The initial stage of programming by Mind Your Health will be to conduct the first-ever comprehensive, nationwide research on the state of substance use and workplace mental health in the service and hospitality sector in Canada to support program development and knowledge mobilization. This research will be led by Not 9 to 5 in partnership with Reunion Inc. under Ovare Group, a management consultant firm that specializes in business transformation.

Pedro Barata, Executive Director of the Future Skills Centre, says that tackling these issues and challenges in the hospitality and foodservice industry is a perfect example of the programs FSC is investing into broader systems that support employers, service providers, and vulnerable populations that create a workforce of the future that leaves no-one behind.

“This program’s approach takes into account the unique needs, challenges and barriers of the sector and offers an important step in the effort to create more resilient working environments that attract and retain workers. This is just one of the exciting shock-proofing projects that FSC is investing in to build a future playbook for shared prosperity, and help Canadian workers and businesses seize opportunities in our future economy,” says Barata.

After formal research, Mind Your Health will launch an online educational guidebook designed for mass comprehension across the sector, followed by a webinar series featuring experts and key findings from the survey. This will be followed by a certification program to continue breaking stigmas, deepening practical mental health awareness and education for workers, and encouraging decision-makers in the industry to practise accountability.

The announcement of the funding from FSC to support Not 9 to 5 in deploying Mind Your Health has been a welcome one for many industry insiders. Restaurants Canada, a non-profit national organization representing restaurants and the foodservice industry has been a longtime supporter of improving workplace mental health.

“Mental health was already a global issue within foodservice prior to COVID-19,” says Roberto Sarjoo, Director of Marketing and Communications at Restaurants Canada. “We encourage restaurant operators and staff to take advantage of programs like Not 9 to 5’s ‘Mind Your Health’ that are designed specifically for our community in order to help prioritize our industry’s mental health and well-being.”

Mind Your Health is funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre.