For years, many businesses in the food service industry promoted a “churn and burn” mentality of working employees hard and dealing with high turnover. This mindset has not necessarily gone away, as indicated by the 80% of restaurant workers that leave the industry after only two years. However, companies are beginning to realize the negative consequences this has on both employee wellness and business success.

Those working in the restaurant and hospitality industries face a number of obstacles when it comes to mental health. Many encounter mistreatment from customers on a daily basis; in particular, service workers that rely on tips must deal with the stress of their earnings being contingent on meeting customer demands. According to one study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration that looked at 19 different industries, the restaurant industry ranks highest in illicit drug use and the third highest for alcohol consumption. Research on chefs’ experiences by Unilever Food Solutions reported that 74% feel sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion, 63% feel depressed, and over half feel pushed to the breaking point. Additionally, more sexual harassment claims are filed by restaurant employees than those in any other industry.

Past month illicit drug use among adults aged 18 to 64 employed full time

Compounding these problems even further is the fact that many of these workers are part-time and, thus, not offered benefits such as health insurance. Like salaried employees, work productivity and performance suffers when employee health deteriorates. However, with less health resources at their disposal the issue may be more severe for these industries that rely heavily on part-time staff. 


Creating A Culture Of Compassion And Encouragement

As the stigma around mental health fades, restaurant professionals are acknowledging the gaps in support in their own industry and taking action. In South Carolina, restaurant manager Steven Palmer established a support group, Ben’s Friends, for restaurant employees struggling with substance abuse. Palmer previously struggled for ten years with cocaine addiction and alcoholism; now, he’s in recovery and his program has expanded with chapters in a dozen cities.

In California, restaurant owner Patrick Mulvaney created the “I Got Your Back” program, designed to engage restaurants in peer-to-peer counseling support. It encourages employees to anonymously report their feeling and concerns, while training a designated person on staff to be available to employees’ mental and emotional health issues.

Olympia Provisions in Portland, Oregon started a program that allows workers to trade in their shift drink for a token. Accumulated tokens can be redeemed for spa treatments or physical activities that provide an outlet from work; over half of their employees currently participate.

Even without official programs in place, managers across the country are taking steps to change the work environment in their restaurant businesses. By encouraging their employees to speak up when they have a concern, be open and honest, call out disrespectful behaviors, and praise staff achievements, these managers are creating zero-cost solutions that promote retention and improve work performance.


Tips To Support Mental Health In Any Industry

The mental health crisis in the food service industry sheds light on the real value of promoting wellness for hourly workers, but it’s important to acknowledge that issues of substance abuse, exhaustion, work conflicts, and stress affect many industries. First responders cope with emotional trauma; construction workers deal with substance abuse and physical stress; and investment bankers, lawyers, and nurses tackle exhaustion from long hours. Identifying where employers will encounter specific issues that may affect their mental health is the first step to providing an effective solution to improving wellness.

Many of the steps that these restaurant professionals took in eliminating mental health concerns are easily replicable for businesses with less resources to devote to wellness benefits (including small companies or businesses that rely on part-time staff). Some easy and productive changes to create a positive work environment include:

  • Capping hours per week for those who work part-time
  • Encouraging employee feedback by accepting anonymous notes or holding open meetings to discuss concerns as a group
  • Having managers praise an individual’s positive work performance on social media, at meetings, or in public where they can be congratulated and encouraged
  • Establishing longer lunch breaks as well as other opportunities for employees to walk, rest, or take a mental break from work tasks throughout the day (especially for those with long shifts)
  • Allowing more flexible time off for workers that do not have traditional sick-day or vacation benefits

A company doesn’t need to wait for a crisis; allocating resources to mental health can clearly increase business earnings through a reduction of absenteeism, poor performance, and employee turnover.  

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