Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in the Restaurant Industry

5-minute read

Restaurant work isn’t as stressful as, say, bomb disposal, being a traffic cop or an emergency-room doc. But it’s not far behind.

A report from one of the largest insurance companies in the U.S. found that mental stress claims skyrocketed in the restaurant business in 2021, fueled, no doubt, by chronic labor shortages and the return to work as the Covid-19 pandemic loosened its grip.

This may not be news to anyone who’s spent time as a server, line cook or in just about any role in a restaurant. The work is fast-paced, and often comes with long shifts without much time for breaks. It also features demanding customers who expect their every whim to be satisfied in exchange for a meager tip.

The pressure-cooker environment in many restaurants also explains the high employee turnover common in the industry. Worst still, those who quit often do so with little, if any, notice.

As a result, restaurant employees are prone to exhaustion, sleep disorders, depression, and substance abuse. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) reports that the restaurant industry is the most at risk for illicit drug use and substance abuse disorders, with 17% of workers diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder.

So, what can restaurant owners and managers do to help reduce the risk of mental health issues among their employees?

Assuming budgets allow, offering health insurance with mental health benefits is the no-brainer. That may not be possible if yours is a smaller establishment, so here are five other ways restaurant owners can help:

1. Provide paid time for emergencies. Knowing they have the breathing room needed to recover from an illness or to care for an ill child can help alleviate a great deal of stress for your employees.

2. Put the focus on mental health education and touch base frequently. Your employees might be feeling burned out or depressed and not understand why or what to do about it. Owners should regularly check in with employees and offer time to listen to any concerns they may have about their job. Beyond better communication, consider making some form of mental health education available. That can include:

  • Training managers to spot employees who may be struggling with their mental health.
  • Providing employee communications that address and help explain mental health issues.
  • Offering seminars or educational sessions that explain signs of mental health issues and what to do about them.

3. Be flexible about time off. With the ongoing labor shortage, it can be hard to accommodate time-off requests, especially around busy periods. Get your people to help you fill out your work schedules. Doing so will help build camaraderie and you might be surprised by how easily the calendar gets filled. Also, some restaurants have decided to close for one or two days a week to help avoid burn-out. Often, this can be accomplished with minimal revenue losses.

4. Help employees pay for therapy. More restaurants today are offering workers reimbursements for therapy sessions. It costs far less to do so than a full-blown healthcare plan while signaling you care about their mental health and that no one has to worry about judgement or losing their job.

5. Make sure everyone knows about the many mental health resources available to restaurant workers. You don’t have to do this alone. Here’s a partial list of organizations that are helping hospitality workers deal with mental health issues:

This is a 911 for mental health emergencies. It was established in 2022, so not everyone is aware of it. It’s free and confidential.

Ben’s Friends
Restaurant professionals of all types join Ben’s Friends for support in sobriety. Founded by industry veterans Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst, Ben’s Friends is a growing community of people helping and learning from one another.

CHOW (Culinary, Hospitality, Outreach, Wellness)
This industry group supports people in the restaurant business through online meetups that are available regardless of location. CHOW also has a free six-hour online course that covers mental health topics through an industry lens.

FairKitchens’ mission is to improve the conditions of restaurant work for everyone so people can do the job they love and take care of themselves at the same time.

Healthy Pour
This group holds an annual symposium focusing on mental health for people working in the food and beverage industries.

The Mahoney Group, based in Mesa, Ariz., is one of the largest independent insurance and employee benefits brokerages in the U.S. An employee-owned organization, we’ve been providing our clients with the confidence to face whatever lies ahead for more than 100 years. For more information, contact us online or call 877-440-3304.

This article is not intended to be exhaustive, nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice.

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