The pressure cooker: mental health in the hospitality industry

mental illness in the hospitality industry

Restaurants are high-adrenaline, high-stakes workplaces. Is it taking its toll on the mental wellbeing of those who work there? By Caroline Bellinger

It’s no secret the restaurant game is a brutal one. With grueling, anti-social hours, fierce competition, and the pressure of maintaining impeccable customer service, finding success in this unique world can be an intense baptism of fire.

Add to this male-dominated industry a high incidence of stress-related drug and alcohol abuse, and an underlying conviction that only those who can hack it will make it, and you have a perfect storm of contributors to mental distress.

“The hospitality industry is renowned for its unforgiving nature, adding pressure personally and on our relationships,” admitted Jeremy Strode a few years back. In a bitter irony, the hatted Merivale chef was also an ambassador for suicide prevention charity R U OK before his death on 17 July.

But is the image of a maniacal chef—tearing shreds off kitchen and wait staff, or forcing an apprentice to julienne carrots for hours on end—accurate these days? Not so much, says Melbourne restaurateur David Mackintosh (SPQR, Lee Ho Fook, Rosa’s Canteen), who suggests instead that the frenetic nature of the business can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

“When the chef is depressed, it’s not because they overcooked the fish, it’ll be because there’s other things going on in their life,” he says.

“You learn a lot about yourself in a kitchen, there’s no question. People talk about the connection between military environments and commercial kitchens. There’s a lot of hierarchy and a lot of pressure. It’s very adrenaline-spiking—and that can connect with people whose brain chemistry is a little different.”

Such was the case with the head chef at Watermill Tavern in Launceston, who took his own life in January 2013. Former owner, Karen Burbury, recalls there were no signs he was struggling.

“He was the coolest, calmest chef, but his home life was a different story. There were alcohol bottles everywhere,” she says.

“His mum sent me a card after his funeral and she said he’d always battled some big demons.”

Burbury, now owner of Cataract on Paterson, adds that physical and emotional wellbeing is not top of the agenda for many restaurant workers.

“After a high-adrenaline night, they’ll often get home late and eat junk for dinner, so they are not fuelling their bodies with the nutrients they need. Mental illness then spirals from poor nutrition, poor exercise and poor sleep patterns,” she says.

Perhaps equally responsible, however, is increasingly fussy clientele with unrestrained access to social media.

“Largely to blame are the customers who go online and post negative reviews,” says Matteo Pignatelli, managing director of Matteo’s in Melbourne and former president of Restaurant & Catering Australia.

“The biggest challenge for someone who has mental illness is actually picking up the phone and speaking to someone—acknowledging they’ve got a problem and reaching out.”—Matteo Pignatelli

“Staff take that personally because they are working so hard and they care. Jeremy [Strode] was a classic example of that.”

Burberry agrees. “Social media is a whole new dynamic for restaurant owners and workers because it can just destroy businesses overnight,” she says.

“We give customers every opportunity to provide feedback during and after the meal, but I’ve still had some really nasty experiences online. We might have had an awesome night in the restaurant, but one negative review can deflate the whole team.

“In the beginning I was trying to monitor social media constantly, but it was starting to take over my life. I was completely obsessed with it, so one day I just decided ‘no more’. As an owner, if I wasn’t as strong as I was, the social media side of it would have broken me by now.”

Though devastating, Jeremy Strode’s death has been a catalyst for renewed discussion about mental illness in the hospitality industry. There’s encouraging signs that stigma is being chipped away and employers are working to ensure the mental wellbeing of their staff.

Burbury says she is now committed to creating a mentally healthy workplace, and encourages an open-door policy for anyone experiencing emotional difficulties.

“You’ve just got to get to know your staff,” she explains. “The most valuable thing an owner can do is be invested in the people who are working for them, otherwise you won’t know if something is wrong.

“You also need to make sure you are paying them what they deserve and not working them ridiculous hours. People need a work-life balance.”

Pignatelli believes it’s the conversations outside the service rush that can really make a difference.

“Where I’ve picked up on problems is at the end of the night, when we all sit down together outside the kitchen,” he says. “That’s when people open up and say what they really think.”

In an effort to ensure people in the restaurant business have access to the support they need, when they need it, Pignatelli and Mackintosh are currently developing together a dedicated helpline for employees. An extension of their Tables4aCause initiative, which raised $33,000 for victims of the Nepal earthquakes in 2015, the pair are collaborating with an established counselling service to offer workers a hospitality-specific outreach resource.

“Rather than just replicating resources that are already in place, we wanted to find a way those existing resources can respond with someone who is not just sympathetic, but also empathetic, industry-wise,” says Mackintosh.

Adds Pignatelli: “The biggest challenge for someone who has mental illness is actually picking up the phone and speaking to someone—acknowledging they’ve got a problem and reaching out. We thought we’d make that easy for them and ensure that when they call, at least they know they are going to speak to someone who understands.”

In the meantime, if you, or someone you know, is experiencing mental health issues, you can contact Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 224 636 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.