mental health

If your team finally falls apart – mental health & addiction in foodservice

An industry with a long history of not helping itself must do better in a pandemic world

By Sascha Barby

A kitchen can be a magical place when everyone back and front of the house is synchronized as one.

A busy night, all tables are booked, a party of 10, starters, mains, and dessert; let’s start the evening off with an amuse-bouche. All perfectly plated, cooked to perfection, quality and flawless service, customers are happy. That is what we all work for.

Yes, working in this industry is hard. The long hours and the stress are sometimes more than one can take. From experience, there are very few moments where you can feel more of a satisfying rush of the moment than in a restaurant that has just finished a busy service. This energy and excitement can make great teams and people – or break them. 

Welcome to the other side

There is a dark side of the professional kitchen; a “dirty little secret”, as Gordon Ramsey once stated. It is often obvious and easy to see, especially when you are part of the team. Even as a customer, the signs are there. But it is a stigma that we all too often don’t want to see.

The fact that the foodservice industry has an issue with substance abuse, from alcohol to self-medication and illicit drugs, is widely known. But it is often ignored and silently accepted. 27 per cent of chefs report that they consume alcohol to get them through the shift, while 12 per cent engage in heavy alcohol consumption daily. In addition to this alarming number, 19.1 per cent said they had used illicit drugs in the last four weeks. Finally, almost 17 per cent of employees developed alcohol misuse or a drug addiction while working in the foodservice industry – approximately three times higher than the average American citizen. 

A toxic mix

Kitchen culture

Clearly, we don’t need to argue that the kitchen is a tough place to work: a fast and frantic environment, long shifts and nights, a hierarchic structure with alpha-male habits.

Everyone starting a career in the industry knows that. Some are even looking for this kind of thrill, fuelled by role models like Bourdain or Ramsey (both later withdrew from this role) and an image of the kitchen that can be romanticized in an almost masochistic way. The signs of stress and exhaustion are worn like a medal of honour and personal breakdowns labelled as a rite of passage. We also know from chef interviews and research performed by Dr. Richard Robins from the University of Queensland that young people in the industry are deeply affected and shaped by a toxic working environment.

“Work hard, party hard” is a mantra you hear quite often when somebody shows up to their shift with a hangover. Hanging around with friends and colleagues for a couple of drinks is fun, and exaggerating it once in a while is just normal. However, this becomes an issue if there is nothing in between “working” and “party”. The foodservice industry is heavily dependent on young workers. The age group between 18 and 25 is particularly prone to drinking excessively and later developing alcohol addiction. 

If you start your career early and make it in the industry for a couple of years, and manage to keep your head above water, you have proven that you can handle stress and hard work. However, there is a price tag for everything and we are leaving too many behind on this road, more than in any other industry. It is worth looking at the mechanisms that weaken mental health and trigger addictive behaviours.

Personal stress

The immediate working conditions in the kitchen are only one reason for the personal stress of employees. Many foodservice industry jobs are in the low-wage sector, characterized by unpredictable schedules and high fluctuation. A turning point like COVID-19 does the rest and increases fears about the job and family. All these factors add additional pressure on employees. 

Permanent stress caused by pressure develops eventually into chronic stress with recurring headaches, sleep-pattern disruptions (such as insomnia), fatigue, and changes in sex drive. Long-term effects might be high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, and gastrointestinal diseases. In a study from 2017, 51 per cent of chefs reported that they suffer from crippling stress and depressions.

However, the tricky thing is that the effects of stress only become very slowly clear to us, and can be delusively suppressed with alcohol and other substances. It is the start of a vicious circle, which makes stress a silent killer lurking in the industry behind every corner. The employees concerned do not realize the situation in which they find themselves, and colleagues often keep a collegial silence on the subject. 

A server with a bad laceration or a chef with a broken arm will stay at home to heal, but what happens if your psyche is broken? As important as the “bro” attitude in the kitchen may be, here it is both a curse and a blessing. Hence, these employees don’t get sick and drop out; they gradually fade away.

Access to drugs

Drugs are everywhere in a restaurant, especially alcohol. In the kitchen, it is used for cooking (sometimes the salted version, so the kitchen crew does not get seduced easily). Beer, wine, and spirits are at the bar, in the storage, and on the tables. You desire what you see the whole day. 

More so, it is still customary for many restaurants to have an after-work beer on the house or to consume tipped drinks to end the evening. What is meant with the best intentions to help strengthen team spirit leads to a gradual drinking habit, especially for young employees. Hanging onto this tradition is outdated and simply not worth it. 

Although the scent of alcohol or a joint’s consumption during an outdoor break is easy to identify (if you want to recognize it), other illegal drugs are not. However, these drugs easily find their way into the restaurant: by colleagues or drug smugglers who are still gravitating around the industry. 

The foodservice industry’s turnover is high, and many employees see the job as more like a gig rather than a long-term commitment. This makes jobs in the foodservice industry attractive for people with issues like alcohol abuse or drug addiction and it fosters drug access. Background checks with former employers are not performed regularly, which could help to identify candidates that could add additional substance pressure on the team. 

RELATED: Providing a mental health first aid kit in the foodservice industry

The way out

The industry has come a long way to admit that it has a problem with addiction. Still, we are fortunately at a point where this topic is discussed openly. There are now excellent programs and sources that not only help with addiction problems but also tackle them at their roots. A great example of this is Ben’s Friends, which is offering “hope to the F&B industry” or Chefs With Issues taking care “of the people who feed us”. 

Resilience is a popular topic these days, which means the ability to deal with trauma, fear, and stress, among other things. But why do we keep focusing on treating symptoms instead of tackling the cause? Knowing the process that contributes to drug abuse and addiction, such as pressure and stress, means being able to handle and deal with it. There are some points to keep in mind when establishing a healthier working culture in the foodservice industry.

But first of all: establish clear rules and regulations as an important part of your company culture:

Zero-tolerance strategy 

Establish a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs – this includes alcohol. In contrast, it should be clear that the use or being under the influence of illicit drugs can’t be accepted and leads to a warning. The ban on alcohol might help others not to bite the bullet. Be clear: your operation is not a social room for drinking. Explain and communicate this openly and reference legal issues like insurance claims and clearly state that consumption of alcohol on-premise may reduce the inhibition level for harassment.

No drink tipping

Customers like to honour good service by tipping employees with drinks. Needless to say that this does not work with a zero-tolerance policy. Customers will understand a “hey, appreciate that offer, but we keep an eye on the health of our team. You are very welcome to tip something extra for the team!” That way, the team gets some additional tips and more money in their pockets.   

Know who you hire

Despite a short-term surplus of employees as a result of the pandemic, hiring new staff is and will be a challenge in itself. The chronic shortage of qualified labour and the need to fill vacant positions frequently lead to a hasty hiring process. More so, it is frustrating when an employee does not have the promised qualifications, leading to increased training or re-hiring costs.

Addiction problems that come with a new employee are a real threat – especially for the rest of the team. It is always a good idea to get details about prospective employee’s qualifications, attitudes, and any other concerns from their previous employer. Keep in mind that for a background check, you must have the consent of the candidate.

In addition to the rules mentioned above, it is crucial to support employees in reducing stress and the trigger for substance abuse:

Foster and reward physical activities

Working in the kitchen is a physically challenging job; hence it is highly effective to balance it with some sport. Running should be possible everywhere, and workouts in a gym can be fostered by company memberships or grants for the fees. Develop incentives schemes if employees participate in sporting activities and create challenges (e.g., a “Team-Distance-Challenge”) in the team. Be the first one to put on the training dress and celebrate success!

Push for real food

It is an irony that people in an industry dealing with fresh ingredients often lack balanced nutrition. Ensure that your staff meals contain fresh greens, vegetables, and fruits along with valuable proteins. Offer drink options that are natural and contain less sugar. However, there should be enough time for a break and the chance to enjoy a nice meal, ideally together with colleagues in a relaxed atmosphere.

Room for social activities and time to relax

It is not surprising that studies show how time for social activities and relaxing reduces stress significantly. Time with family and friends is a “quality time” for discussions, playing, and enjoying life – topics that Gen Y and Z have on their agenda anyway. This quality time allows workers to maintain a healthy work-life balance and is a crucial part of the company culture. Offer flexible shifts, allow consecutive days off whenever possible, and involve your employees in the planning process. 

Get professional help

If you recognize employees with addiction problems, you often find yourself at a loss about how you can best help. In the daily business rush, we sometimes don’t see if we are standing beside an employee who is trying their best not to fall apart. Even the best manager cannot solve everything himself and does not have an answer for everything – nobody is an island. 

Most important is that addiction problems belong in professional hands. Notwithstanding, you can also make an important contribution: create a work environment free of alcohol, keep an eye out for signs of drug use before or during work. Tackle the issues early and try to identify stressors that might make people sick – sometimes the ones who are all high-five are the ones who really need attention. People suffer differently. Talk to employees with obvious problems in a confidential environment and offer your help. 

Many people with addiction problems have already lost control of themselves; they are living literally on the edge. It speaks for our industry if we reach out to them, show perfect appreciation, and support them to live the healthy life they deserve.

Sascha Barby is a seasoned international foodservice professional and writes for different magazines as well as his own blog Sascha is a trained Chef and MBA, currently working in marketing. He lives with his wife and three kids in Bavaria, Germany.