Alison Arth

Alison Arth

Chefs, while curmudgeons at times, have to rely on half-full-glass thinking in order to survive the day-to-day mental and physical demands of the job. Unfortunately, that half-full glass analogy can also apply to the high rate of alcoholism among workers in the restaurant industry.

The easy access to alcohol at work extends the dangers of addiction to servers who have to deal with often rude customers, bartenders who taste-test drinks all night, and other staff who may be subject to verbal or emotional abuse from a stressed out kitchen or patron, especially now that hospitality workers are on the front lines when it comes to serving a more demanding general public in the midst of COVID-19.

And feelings of helplessness and fear can trigger depression, anger and other anxieties.

A recent webinar by law firm Aird Berlis on the effect of COVID-19 on mental health in the workplace had more than 3,000 people on the call.

“If you’re not stressed and down right now, there’s probably something wrong with you,” Dr. Thomas Ungar, a psychiatrist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada, said. “These are normal feelings in this environment.”

But that doesn’t mean you may not need to reach out and get help if your feelings start to get out of control.

While some people find it comforting to work at home right now, he went on, others will find the isolation stifling—not to mention a big hit to their finances. And for much of the hospitality industry, they have to show up to do their job.

For employers, the pandemic has increased the need for human resources help, but many smaller independent restaurants don’t have that person on staff.

“When I was a younger lawyer, the sentiment was ‘life is tough, get a helmet,’ but that’s no longer the case,” Lorenzo Lisi, an attorney at Aird Berlis said. “Case law started to change with dealing with substance abuse, etc. in the workplace. If people couldn’t come to work for those reasons, they were terminated.” Now, he continued, you have to make accommodations in the workplace for people with mental illnesses, such as depression.

One way to deal with “problematic substance abuse,” is to take away the stigma. For instance, Ungar said, if an employee goes to the doctor with a backache, the doctor will give him or her instructions on how their work situation needs to be modified to accommodate their condition. Depression, he said, has replaced back pain as the most common disability claim at work, and it’s harder to accommodate than the physical problem where you can advise using back braces, not lifting over a certain weight, etc.

“Getting access to mental health services is tough,” Ungar said. “If we get this echo pandemic, it will only take longer,” as the number of people needing the services increases.

Unique problems of leadership

Alison Arth of Salt & Roe, a hospitality consulting firm, says a lot of people are finding the opportunity in this moment to take the time to reevaluate where they are in life. “For many this is the first time in their lives that they’ve had dinner at home,” and not at the restaurant, she said. “COVID or no COVID, many of us don’t know how to continue to develop our careers within this profession after we've been in it for a while.” And this in the midst of a pandemic is causing people to stop and take stock of where they are and where they want to be.

“When the tech boom happened in the Bay Area, so many of my chef friends gave up creativity and prestige to become the cafeteria chef,” because working 9 to 5, with no weekend hours, was more appealing, she said. “Giving up the passion side of their work, for some it makes sense, for others it doesn’t. I think we need to first get clear about what's most important in our lives before looking for a next step.”

What makes this time stressful for restaurant owners in particular, she said is that there isn’t a playbook for this. “I don’t think there’s anyone who’s figured it out. Leadership is a lonely place, especially if you own the business, there are so many challenges to face.” What helps, she added, is to find a way to engage “a thought partner who can help carry the load and hold you accountable.”

Finding local help

There’s not a lot to be thankful for these days, but Sarah Norton is thankful that she had the foresight to start Serving Those Serving, a nonprofit that provides access to public and private wellness resources to the foodservice industry. “I don’t think it could be done now,” she said.

So far, they’ve been able to hold onto the restaurant companies they signed up for the insurance. (To read the background on the organization, see our story in the April 2020 FSN issue, Sobering Thoughts to Keep a Safe Attitude.)

Norton has tried to reach out to all the restaurants on their list and has talked to a record number of employees dealing with grief, loss and trauma. Some, such as two employees at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis, were understandably stressed after having to evacuate their restaurant when an angry crowd looted it and set it on fire in late August. For others it’s financial, and still others have depression struggles.

Pre-COVID, workers could pick up extra shifts if they were running low on rent money, so they didn’t always have extra money in the bank, she said. Now, not only have those extra shifts disappeared, workers aren't always guaranteed shifts at all. And there’s the constant fear that their place of business may close temporarily or permanently. “And now they’re expected to be COVID-cops as well,” she added. “Everything’s exaggerated. The nice people are nicer and the bad bader.”

To help extend mental health benefits, Serving Those Serving’s board of directors is launching a new resource: In the Weeds Foundation (ITWF). Here’s how they propose it will work:

“ITWF will allow Serving Those Serving to provide immediate mental wellness resources to service industry employees experiencing mental crisis, through public funds and private donations. Just $10 will allow STS to sponsor three months of mental wellness services though our Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This program is a first-step response towards wellness, and is accessible to the grantee, their domestic partners and dependents. Grantees will have access to no-cost, high-quality, bilingual, licensed professionals to forge a path towards wellness goals, including mental illness, alcohol/chemical dependency, work-related stress, immigration and legal resources, among other issues. From there, further resources will be made available—public, private, and affordable in a no-cost or sliding-scale scenario. Those who qualify include service industry workers whose employers do not offer such benefits, those who are displaced from employment, are entering/exiting rehabilitation and/or incarceration. The goal is to provide wellness in order to successfully reintroduce mentally healthy employees back into the workforce.”

Norton emphasized how low the $10 cost is, but also how challenging it may be in the current climate to attract enough donors. The insurance is through Sand Creek Workplace Wellness.

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