We need to talk about mental health

A restaurant kitchen is not called a pressure cooker for nothing.

Hot, cramped, crowded, pressurised, it’s a danger zone for accidents and explosions both human and mechanical.

And it’s become a danger zone of a different kind – for mental health problems, stress, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, all of the risk factors for suicide.

Globally, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds, and the restaurant industry is not immune.

We need to talk about it.

Suicides of prominent chefs make headlines, but the problem runs deeper and affects the kitchen at all levels. Chefs who’ve survived depression and attempted suicide, or had to cope with the death of a colleague, have set up organisations from Sydney to London to California in the past few years to encourage the restaurant industry to open up and talk about the impact of increasingly pressured kitchen and hospitality environments on mental health, and to provide counselling and resources for support.

A survey of professional chefs in London in 2017 found that almost half were working up to 60-hour weeks and nearly 80% said they’d had an accident or a near-miss in the kitchen because of fatigue. Half were suffering depression, and more than half taking painkillers or drinking just to get through a shift.

Research in the USA found that people working in service industries, with their reliance on tips, were more vulnerable to stress, depression and sleep problems, and the food service industry had the highest rate of substance abuse.

How did we get here?

A restaurant can be a brutal environment. You’re working long hours with little sleep, under pressure to perform (you’re only ever as good as your last service) and to get ahead in the line but still be a team player, along with financial stresses and struggling to juggle the job with having a “normal” social and family life with people who have day jobs.

There’s the time pressure of service, pressure to deliver perfection on every plate, conscious of fragile egos and short tempers, and navigating the “office” politics.

The chef who owns a restaurant has the added pressure of managing people and front of house, being always “on stage”, paying the overheads and wages, thinking about marketing, fearing negative reviews that go viral in minutes, and keeping the ship afloat on extremely tight margins.

And let’s face it, chefs aren’t always the best managers of businesses or people.

Some thrive on the stress, the pressure, the adrenaline rush – until the natural high isn’t enough any more to keep it all at bay.

The unsociable hours, lack of connection with family and friends outside of the industry, the pressures of the job and staying afloat – it can all be extremely isolating and leave one feeling very alone with problems that (you think) no one understands or can help with.

That’s all before you’ve added in the impact on staff and restaurant owners of shutting up shop as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world and nations go into lockdown and social isolation.

Amongst all this, the topic no one likes to talk about, although all know that it exists. Abuse, bullying, discrimination – macho, boys’ club attitudes, the pressure to prove yourself, fear as an accepted organisational culture where newcomers are expected to take the baptism of fire that their seniors went through before them.

Sure, hierarchy and discipline are vital to running an efficient, and safe, kitchen but all too often it becomes the excuse for abuse. It’s an aspect that’s slowly being eradicated from the culture of our industry, but it still exists.

What to do?

We all know the common sense answer to this question, it’s achieving it that can be a challenge – get enough sleep, get some exercise and fresh air, take short breaks even just to step outside and see the sky for a minute or two. Let off steam before the pressure cooker blows. Make time for family and significant others.

Be aware and hyper-vigilant about the possibilities of addiction, be it booze, drugs, sex or fast cars. No one is immune to the allure. Not even you.

Ask for help. You’ll find you’re not the only one suffering, and there’s no shame in seeking the help you need to protect yourself.

Don’t turn your back – reach out to someone who seems to be struggling. You could be the one helping hand that makes all the difference.

I speak from experience. Many times in my career, I’ve been through times of deep depression and felt completely isolated, I’ve experienced those Monday blues that last all week, and I know that it was seeking medical help, taking medication until I’ve felt able to cope, that has brought me back.

For chefs and restaurant owners, temper the discipline and hierarchy with compassion and empathy. Motivate and encourage, show some understanding for staff having a life outside the kitchen. Rewards don’t always have to be monetary – recognition and allowing some flexibility can reap benefits in loyalty and productivity.

We’re all in this together, and making this industry that we love a kinder place could be the start to a more sustainable future.

Organisations working with chefs and mental health in the restaurant industry:

I Got Your Back (Sacramento)

Chefs with Issues (New York)

Pilot Light Campaign (London)

Food for Thought (Australia)

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