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Restaurants Are Finally Prioritizing Workers’ Mental Health

From capped working hours to peer-to-peer counseling, restaurant owners and managers are working hard to help their staff feel safe and stable

Twenty years ago, a restaurant owner at highly acclaimed Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant Peninsula Grill gave his manager, Steven Palmer, two options: go to rehab or quit. Palmer — a promising young restaurant professional — was struggling with an all-consuming addiction to cocaine and alcohol. After going out seven days a week until 4 or 5 a.m. for 10 years, Palmer started what he called a difficult journey through Alcoholic Anonymous’s 12-Step program. What he faced when he returned to restaurants was also daunting. “The general stigma at that time was that you absolutely cannot be sober in the hospitality industry,” Palmer says. “The sober life in a kitchen was very lonely back then.”

Palmer started Ben’s Friends, a support group for restaurant industry professionals who struggle with substance abuse, in 2016 to break that stigma. Today, there are chapters in 12 cities; the newest chapters in Louisville, Kentucky; Kansas City; and Washington, D.C. each had over 30 people show up to their first meetings.

“A line cook feels safe walking into a room where there is a bartender, another line cook, and a chef,” Palmer says. “They all know what 8 p.m on a Saturday feels like.”

Ben’s Friends is just one of many organizations that’s sprung up over the past three years in an attempt to save a workforce that is collectively hanging by a thread. According to research conducted by Unilever Food Solutions, the global supplier to the food and beverage industry that has taken an active interest in mental health in the industry, 74 percent of chefs are sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion, 63 percent of chefs feel depressed, and more than half feel pushed to the breaking point. A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (MHA) ranks the restaurant industry highest among 19 industries for illicit drug use and third highest for heavy alcohol consumption. MHA vice president of policy and programs Theresa Nguyen tells the Outline that organization’s unreleased 2019 research shows that the food and beverage industry hasn’t improved since its previous study was published.

“If you look at the hospitality industry in general, it’s looking back to the Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay model of churn and burn,” Tim Etherington-Judge, founder of Healthy Hospo, said in an interview in 2018. His organization comprises industry workers devoted to mental wellness, and was created in response to the prevailing industry mentality to “Just abuse the fuck out of staff until they leave, get some more in, and then abuse the fuck out of them too, then get some more in.”

In this pressure-cooker atmosphere, most kitchen and dining room workers feel like they shouldn’t expect praise or concern for their needs. Instead, they should remain calm and carry on. “Sadly, addiction is still winning,” says Palmer. “Alcoholism is the only disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. Alcoholics and addicts are walking around saying they are fine all day long. The denial is so deep. I always say I got the gift of desperation. I was willing to do anything to get better.”

But now, restaurant owners and managers are seeking out seminars, trainings, and consultants to help their workers feel safe and stable at work. In addition to Ben’s Friends, chef Patrick Mulvaney’s I Got Your Back program out of Sacramento, California, offers employees peer-to-peer counseling; some restaurant groups are experimenting with capped working hours, wellness initiatives, and a more open kitchen culture where talking about mental health is the norm. Although restaurants’ individual policies differ, all of them align on one crucial step: It’s essential to make the effort to talk with every single employee on a regular basis to check in and see how they’re doing. In the restaurant industry, this basic human gesture is a radical act.

Patrick Mulvaney’s I Got Your Back program seems simple: It was designed with the help of the Innovation Learning Network, and participating restaurants designate one person on staff, the “purple hand,” to be trained as a peer counselor. When employees clock into work, everyone is asked to drop a card into a box in the kitchen that anonymously shares how they’re feeling: happy, neutral, angry, or “in the weeds.” During the team’s daily “line up” meeting, either the purple hand or a manager shares how many happy, angry, or troubled folks clocked in. Then the team discusses how they’ll treat each other during the shift, knowing some of their team members might have reported not feeling great. Angry employees can also speak up about what will help them and share how they’ll act next time they’re at work in order to support everyone on the team. Managers keep tallies of each day and post it in a prominent place as a reminder — and so staff can compare days and weeks.

“We’ve seen a stabilization that it’s okay for people to talk about things that aren’t okay,” Mulvaney says. He goes on to recount an incident in which he and the COO of his company “uncharacteristically” sat down with an employee who was mouthing off and acting combative. The behavior was disruptive enough, he says, that the expected response would be for management to discipline or fire the employee on the spot. But after spending three to four days sorting out what a positive outcome would look like, in Mulvaney’s words, they had a breakthrough: The employee’s attitude transformed from “this is bullshit, motherfucker,” to “yes, I want to get better.” Mulvaney says that the employee, who was having personal issues, now knows that leadership is there for guidance, resources, and support.

Mulvaney — who runs Mulvaney B&L restaurant in Sacramento and admits to being “a guy who lost his temper a lot in the past” — says 12 restaurants in Sacramento completed the pilot of the program since it began in April 2019. In its pilot phase, I Got Your Back has been successful enough to get the attention of the James Beard Foundation, along with medical companies like Kaiser and Sutter Health, which will bolster the effort with professional psychotherapists and other experts as Mulvaney makes the program scalable for national adoption this year.

Whether or not there’s an official mental health program in place or a staff member who is trained to deal with crisis, allowing staff members to voice their problems seems to be a crucial step in improving the industry. At Lighthouse restaurant in Brooklyn, owner Naama Tamir encourages a culture where employees can speak up and say how they’re doing any time of day.

“If you’re having a rough day and woke up anxious, I tell my staff to express the fact that you are having a rough day instead of lashing out,” says Tamir. “But first of all, we lead by example. So I will share my challenges, or if I am not feeling great physically or mentally. My staff knows that if something is happening at home, they can share. I’m always saying it takes a lot of strength to admit your weaknesses.”

Michael Gulotta, chef-owner of several highly regarded restaurants in New Orleans, including Maypop, says a more respectful work environment is increasingly necessary. “We can’t match the payment at hotels, so we have to make our environment better. We tell people not to stand for anything less than total respect. I’ve had to pull multiple cooks aside and tell them you can’t talk about the girl you took home.”

Gulotta says he grew up in traditional kitchens characterized by “line dogging” — or trying to beat other chefs for the top station in the kitchen — and bosses that were on a hair trigger. Today he insists on running his restaurants with “please and thank you kitchens.” Gulotta also consistently shows appreciation for his staff on social media, insists on work weeks that are capped at 50 hours, and clearly defines expectations along the lines of requiring staff to arrive for work well-rested and fully present mentally, physically, and emotionally.

In Portland, Oregon, the nationally known Olympia Provisions restaurant group and charcuterie maker also adopted a check-in and review process that’s very much like those at nearby Nike and Intel. Chef Eric Joppie explains that they’ve always had “nice managers and set schedules.” But in July of 2018, Olympia Provisions managers joined several other Portland chefs for a meetup with outspoken chef advocate Kat Kinsman to determine what more they could do. Today, in addition to regular conversations and goal-setting with a manager, Olympia Provisions also started a program that allows workers to trade in their shift drink for a token that can be used toward yoga, rock climbing, spin classes, and other physical activities that provide an outlet from work. Employees can even trade in 20 tokens for a spa treatment.

“Traditionally you get out of work and you go get wasted with staff to blow off steam,” says Joppie. “We want to give a direct avenue to promote healthier options. It’s not about policing.”

Today, over half of Olympia Provisions’ staff participates in the program, opting to not have a shift drink once or twice a week in exchange for a token. This means that each month, employees are redeeming gift certificates for a range of activities.

Ultimately, it comes down to caring for your staff in the way you would treat your family or friends. “New York can be cold and lonely,” Tamir says, noting the instinct should be to “do something that makes us feel warm.” For her, this has translated into helping workers move into apartments and providing extra financial help to immigrant workers. She credits this approach for her high staff retention, and for a better industry as a whole. “We have three people that have been with us for eight years,” she says. “We have two that have gone back to Mexico and they came back. We gladly reaccepted them. That’s the testament. People leave and come back.”

The industry is at a reckoning point. As rising rents put additional pressure on operators, close to 80 percent of employees leave the industry after two years. Tipped servers are at greater risk for sleep problems, stress, and depression, and are “more than twice as likely to live in poverty relative to untipped workers,” according to Sarah Andrea, M.P.H., a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. An overwhelming majority of restaurant workers don’t receive the health insurance they need to deal with these issues. Anxiety and a lack of a sense of fulfillment are hallmarks of the industry. Its prevalence of sexual harassment has been likened to an epidemic. The next generation demands more.

Last January, Unilever Food Solutions, a global supplier for the food and beverage industry, stepped up to address this by beginning ongoing work with a consultancy group of over 400 chefs across the world. Its program FairKitchens aims to codify fair treatment of restaurant industry employees — providing parameters around what a fair amount of work, pay, recognition, and more should look like — and offering the trainings and resources necessary to achieve the standards.

FairKitchens currently has 75 partner organizations across the U.S. and Canada. Interested hospitality organizations can “pledge” to join the FairKitchens movement and opt into webinars, in-person training events, and organizational support. Programs encompass English language learning geared toward kitchen workers via ESL Works, and a partnership with professional coaching program Hundred Life Design that helps managers implement the FairKitchens code of ethics. They’ve also recently joined with Sysco, the American Culinary Federation, and the National Restaurant Association to help expand their reach.

In a similar vein, Etherington-Judge’s Healthy Hospo works with nutritionists, sleep experts, and even elite athletic trainers to come up with bespoke programs — including seminars, trainings, and health and creativity retreats — to support restaurant and bar businesses. “We try to help outlets change systems and operations to positively influence their staff,” says Etherington-Judge. “Last year, we worked with Martini to get bartenders on a trip, cycling across Italy for a week. It was amazing. We never served any alcohol and the employees were more engaged with the brand than ever before.”

Etherington-Judge says Healthy Hospo will launch a digital training platform later this year, which he hopes will increase its reach and touch the industry more broadly.

Overwhelmed, stressed restaurant owners or managers may feel that adopting new policies seems too cost- and time-prohibitive. For them, Tamir has a reminder that it’s more about attitude than anything else.

“If it’s a little thing here or there, we can just forgive. That should be the attitude: Let’s think about what needs to happen to fix a situation instead of placing blame,” Tamir says. “I remind everyone that we’re human and we all had a starting point. I’m a facilitator for patience and kindness, and it pays off.”

Maria Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Canadian illustrator.


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