Mental health in the hospitality industry and the need for change

By Kimberly Flear

Hospitality is an industry where the lights never dim, and the energy never fades, filled with people who thrive in the chaos, master the off-hours, live for instant gratification, and dedicate themselves to exceeding the expectations of others.

But the truth is, when the shift ends, when the guests have departed, and when the doors are finally locked, what’s left? The nightlife, the parties, the endless temptation, a world unknown to most, that’s the underground society for hospitality workers. It’s exhilarating, it’s magnetic, it’s addictive… and the statistics are harrowing.

According to the American Addiction Centers, one in five employees reported the use of illicit drugs within the past month, the highest rate of any industry. As well, 12 per cent of employees engaged in heavy alcohol use during the past month, and 17 per cent of employees were diagnosed with a substance use disorder, again the highest rate of any industry. Lisa Conatser wrote an in-depth article uncovering some alarming data showing, in one study of restaurant employees, almost 56 per cent consumed alcohol and almost 37 per cent used marijuana on a daily basis.

The restaurant business in particular has always been a bustling and dynamic space, characterized by its fast-paced environment, culinary creativity, and a certain degree of chaos. Yet, amidst the hustle and bustle, a deafening silence often prevailed when it came to discussions about mental health, substance abuse, and excessive alcohol use. Throughout my journey of two and a half decades, 24 restaurants, spanning three countries, these issues were seldom acknowledged, creating an environment where such struggles were perceived as a norm rather than an exception.

In the culinary realm, a unique culture has been created, where stress and pressure are constant. CHOW, a hospitality outreach and wellness organization, claims 53 per cent of employees have been pushed to their breaking point. The adrenaline rush of a busy kitchen, the relentless pursuit of perfection, and the demanding nature of the industry have given rise to a culture that romanticizes unhealthy coping mechanisms. In my experience, starting the day with a shot of Jameson and a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) may have seemed like just a routine, a way to brace myself for the challenges that awaited in the kitchen, behind the bar, at the front door or in between the tables.

The normalization of such habits raises questions about the industry’s attitude toward mental health. Why has it become acceptable for chefs and restaurant staff to turn to substances as a means of coping with the stress and demands of their work? Are there underlying issues that need to be addressed within the culinary world to cultivate a healthier and more supportive environment?

The reluctance to discuss mental health issues in the industry further exacerbates the problem. The stigma surrounding mental health and substance use prevents individuals from seeking help or opening up about their struggles. In a profession that values resilience and toughness, vulnerability is often perceived as a weakness, creating a culture that discourages open conversations about mental well-being. Having personally faced the challenges of addiction and substance abuse, I found that none of my employers extended assistance, suggested resources, or recommended any job accommodations. I am not here to criticize these employers; my intention is to break the silence and become the supportive voice that I wished to hear when I felt no one was listening. I’ve seen the devastating impact of inaction—friends and colleagues lost to battles they didn’t have to fight alone. It propelled me to leave, to recover, and to return with a mission: to ensure no one in our industry feels as isolated as I did.

Gratefully, as this industry continues to evolve, there is a growing recognition of the need for change.

The normalization of unhealthy coping strategies and the silence surrounding mental health issues are being challenged by chefs, restaurant owners, and industry leaders alike. Initiatives are being undertaken to prioritize the well-being of those working in the industry and to create a more supportive and understanding environment.

RELATED: A look at the mental health of hospitality workers

Mental health awareness campaigns, support networks, and resources for individuals facing challenges have started to emerge within the culinary community. Chefs and industry staff are sharing their personal stories, breaking the silence, and encouraging their colleagues to prioritize their mental well-being. The shift in mindset is gradual, but it signifies a crucial step towards creating a healthier and more sustainable industry. Imagine a restaurant where the support for sobriety and mental health is as abundant as the food on the menu, where non-alcoholic options are not just a token gesture but a testament to a changing culture. This vision is not an unreachable ideal but a necessary evolution.

In this journey towards a more mentally healthy culinary world, the role of leadership is paramount. Restaurant owners, head chefs, and industry leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for a supportive and empathetic workplace culture. Acknowledging the challenges that come with the profession and actively promoting mental health awareness can contribute to breaking down the barriers that perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health.

Implementing policies that prioritize work-life balance, providing mental health resources, and encouraging open communication can create a more positive environment for everyone. Leadership that prioritizes the well-being of its team members not only fosters a healthier work culture but also sets an example for the next generation of culinary professionals.

The silence that has long surrounded mental health, substance abuse, and excessive alcohol use is slowly being shattered. The industry is waking up to the reality that prioritizing mental well-being is not a sign of weakness but a crucial aspect of creating a sustainable and vibrant culinary community.

As conversations around mental health in hospitality become more commonplace, chefs and restaurant staff are finding the support they need to navigate the challenges of their profession. By breaking the silence, fostering understanding, and implementing proactive measures like recovery-friendly workplaces, the culinary world can evolve into a space that not only celebrates its excellence but also prioritizes the mental well-being of those who bring it to life.

 Kimberly Flear, a vibrant soul in the world of recovery and founder of Last Call Coaching, spent two and a half decades in the restaurant industry, defining the path she gratefully walks upon today – being of service to those in service.

Sources: The Disproportionate Risks of Alcoholism in the Hospitality Industry

                                Addiction in the Restaurant Industry – Statistics & Treatment