mental health in foodservice

Providing a mental health first aid kit in the foodservice industry

“We need to care about this”: Toronto non-profit Not 9 to 5 is advocating for greater mental health support for foodservice workers.

By Tom Nightingale

Being employed in foodservice certainly has its challenges. Whether its working as bar or wait staff, an executive chef or a line cook, or anything in between, the combination of unsubstantial pay, irregular hours, low job security, and high pressure tends to create a cauldron of anxiety and uncertainty that can do serious psychological damage if not accounted for and treated properly.

And that was the case even before 2020, when a global pandemic brought with it layoffs, closures, health worries, and other devastating impacts. Under that vast shadow of COVID-19, a Toronto-based non-profit, Not 9 to 5, has created a web of mental health resources for foodservice and hospitality workers. Their online platform, CNECTing, which stands for “Change Needs Everyone Coming Together”, launches its first course on November 2. Called Primary Concerns, it aims to educate and train individuals and provide them with mental health and substance use supports and skills to identify, understand, and respond to crisis situations.

But COVID-19 has just been the accelerant, Not 9 to 5’s co-founders Hassel Aviles and Ariel Coplan tell RestoBiz. In reality, the fuse has been burning ominously for some time.

“Prior to COVID-19, the industry was already rated as one of the worst workplaces for mental health,” says Coplan. “So what’s going to happen once you start factor in in the pandemic? It isn’t being talked about enough.”

Archaic problems must be overcome

Aviles adds that a lot of the pressure of working in foodservice, in addition to the core factors mentioned above, comes from a “military-like system” which has traditionally left little room for voicing concerns over mental health. “We have an industry that is heavily influenced by a brigade system, with a very different mindset when it comes to emotional expression and psychological safety in the workplace, of which there’s a huge lack. The whole thinking that vulnerability is a weakness is a really big misconception that causes quite a lot of harm because it can leave people thinking that they almost have to suppress their humanity.”

Aviles and Coplan both have varying long-term experience of working in these industries. Noting a chronic lack of worker support over the years, they founded Not 9 to 5 two years ago with the intention of being able to empower hospitality and food and beverage workers and connect them to resources and start the conversation surrounding wellness and mental health. They’ve run webinars, seminars, and other community-focused outreach in that time with an aim of helping to break down the stigma.

The crux of the issue they are tackling head-on is perhaps best summed up by surveys the pair cite which show that when asked if they live and work with mental health or substance use challenges, around 90% of the foodservice and restaurant community says yes. “It’s really not a small number,” stresses Aviles.

Foodservice’s paradoxical approach to health

What makes the lack of focus on mental health challenges harder to accept, she adds, is that myriad safety standards and laws exist that regulate physical health and food safety. Regional and municipal health authorities visit restaurants to check on those things and will revoke licenses or levy other retribution if those standards aren’t met. But for too long, mental health has been akin to a blind spot.

“It’s something that we say all the time, we feel there’s not equal focus on mental safety as there is on physical safety,” adds Aviles. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of negligence when it comes to mental health and those things. But they’re all interconnected, and it creates the culture and environment that people work in.”

Coplan adds that the pandemic is “exposing the cracks” in the system. How can it be, he asks, that in an industry as vital, ubiquitous, and tightly-regulated as foodservice, mental health has gone overlooked for so long? “Considering how large the workforce is proportionally, it’s surprising there aren’t more regulatory bodies and work around investing in people,” he laments, noting that the conversation is typically a lot quieter in the foodservice industry compared to some others. Strides have been made in general society in recent years that have closed the knowledge gap between physical health and mental health, but the pair say there’s so much more to be done. “You have a first-aid kit but you don’t really have a process for mental health crisis,” says Aviles.

In light of the fully-fledged onset of the pandemic, Aviles and Coplan felt the need to increase the urgency of their support work. COVID-19 and its resultant closures and layoffs have intensified the unique and prevailing challenges faced by foodservice workers. Low pay and conventional working hours and schedules, yes, but also reliance on tips and the financial uncertainty that breeds. The typical lack of healthcare benefits. The easy access to alcohol and, as Aviles points out, relatively high rates of illicit substance use within the industry. Then there’s the fact that foodservice is so intrinsically linked in many ways to the events industry, which has slowed almost to a comparative standstill this year. “You can imagine the impact that has financially and mentally,” says Aviles.

Addressing the “Primary Concerns”

The duo sought funding from a variety of sources and finally secured it in August via a federal grant from Red Cross Canada in partnership with the Canadian government’s Employment and Social Development department. With that help, they launched Primary Concerns on CNECTing, a course that focuses on their survey of the top five primary concerns observed among workers in the industry. They’re pleased with how popular it has proven before even launching, with several hundred sign-ups ranging from workers to culinary students. Mainstream news coverage and word of mouth should for a ripple effect that bolsters that return.

“We were aiming by the end of November to get 1,000 people signed up,” Aviles explains. “I think we’ll definitely hit our internal KPI and what we’ve been aiming for to report to Red Cross Canada, and I think we’ll even surpass it because the demand is so high right now for this kind of material, information, and education, which we’ve been advised on by mental health professionals.” The program will offer bonuses like interviews with industry leaders who are speaking very candidly about their experiences, and Aviles says it’s important to retain that kind of human connection.

Ultimately, their aim is to secure further funding and to be able to offer courses in different languages in 2021 and beyond. For now, Coplan says they’re still fighting an uphill battle. “There’s still a lot of work to do.” One silver lining that has arisen from 2020, though, is that mental health conversations are arguably permeating the mainstream consciousness like never before. “For so long,” Aviles says, “it’s just felt like we’ve been trying to talk about it and a lot of people just aren’t ready or there’s so much stigma. But people are really listening right now, because no-one’s unaffected by the pandemic and our industry is one of the hardest-hit.

Mental health support offers astronomical ROI

With their vast experience in the sector, Coplan and Aviles acknowledge the huge challenges of being a successful restaurateur. Aviles suggests foodservice operators are required to be “some of the most brilliant entrepreneurs you’ll find” because there are so many moving parts. She uses the metaphor of a conductor leading an orchestra every day.

But, while mental health and emotional support may have typically been overlooked in the past, that side of the operation, just as much as the quality of ingredients and the warmth of the service provided, offers huge return on investment. Not 9 to 5’s research and work shows that when the resources are put into mental health supports, it yields higher productivity, reduces employee turnover, boosts innovation and creativity.

The lack of discussion of the issue within the foodservice industry not only damages workers, but it means that to outsiders who have never been privy to the inner workings of, say, a restaurant, it can appear as though those issues do not exist. That’s a highly dangerous assumption to perpetuate.

“It’s really important for us to start getting louder on the consumer side of things, to start a mainstream conversation,” emphasizes Aviles. “There’s so much emphasis on the sustainability and ethical treatment of ingredients that we use; we need to place the same focus on the sustainability and ethical treatment of the people who are producing, serving, and creating everything that we consume.”

For too long, concludes Coplan, the industry has been reactive rather than proactive. It’s time for new systems to be put into place – a mental health first aid kit.

Ultimately, says Aviles, programs like their own can manifest harm reduction in action. “When it’s easier for people to speak up, there’s less stigma; when there’s less stigma, people will seek help in a faster way. When we don’t have a environment like that, people suffer in silence. If we care about the end result, we need to care about this too.”