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Wellness in the Restaurant and Bar Industry

A few years ago, I participated in the opening of a well-known Italian eatery just outside of Washington DC.

During an extremely busy weekend shift, I walked into the kitchen and was struck by the Zen-like calm of numerous people working together to create, plate, and serve delicious meals and libations to hundreds of people that single evening. It was a mindful moment.

For a decade of my life, I worked full-time in the industry as a server, bartender, personnel trainer, and eventually an assistant general manager. The unique aspects of this industry have always stayed with me, and I like to say that it became part of my training as a mental health professional, working in restaurants and bars.

The term wellness broadly refers to a person’s overall mental health and physical well being.  Although the untimely death of Anthony Bourdain, and other celebrities who have passed away in the restaurant and bar industry, receives national attention, it’s likely that those in the industry all know somebody who has been impacted by mental health issues, addiction, or even suicide. In fact, statistics suggest that there are probably twice as many people who remain suffering in silence.

A unique industry
When you work in hospitality, you are on your feet for extended periods. You are carrying heavy plates, You are memorizing orders and ingredients. You have to play psychologist in reading your clients and their needs. You may not be serving people who feel the need to be kind.  You may be up long past midnight. You  are under time constraints and pressure. You are working on holidays, weekends, and evenings when many people are enjoying being with their family and friends. The industry is designed for unconventional people who like to stay on their feet, enjoy working long or late hours, can teamwork, and can’t stand the idea of sitting in a cubicle.

Three important studies regarding mental health
According to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the food service and hospitality industry has the highest rates of substance abuse and third-highest rate of alcohol use of ALL industries.

Second, a 2018 study by the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that service workers who rely on tips are at significantly greater risk for depression, sleep problems, and stress, as compared to those in non-tipped, salaried  positions.

Racism and sexism are prevalent in the restaurant industry. According to a series of studies, summarized by Fortune magazine, in October 2015, the pervasiveness of race and gender bias in the restaurant industry is higher than found in the vast majority of jobs.

Work demands
The restaurant industry is unique in its demands. Very few jobs require a combination of physical, cognitive, and social acumen. A high-pressure job, staffing issues, fluctuations in income, long hours, customer service, and time pressure to serve. Many people in the industry have multiple jobs, in addition to their family and other obligations.

Back of the house workers are often immigrants. There is fearfulness regarding family members being discriminated against or even deported.

Many restaurant workers go out together after work or have shift drinks.  They may feel isolated from others, especially if they work weekends, holidays, and late night hours. Their coworkers often become family.

Other concerns may include social and economic inequities: restaurant workers often do not have easy access to insurance or medical and health care.

Finally, the industry continually habitually  requires workers to think about the other.  The care and feeding of others is the job.  How is your meal, is your drink right, are you happy as a consumer. We, when working, often don’t think about ourselves and our personal needs.  This can carry over into a habitual pattern of lack of self-care.

Promoting wellness
Here are ways to advocate for a healthier restaurant team and, in turn, a healthier restaurant, higher morale, and greater employee retention.  These were some of the ideas discussed at a recent Town-hall I led, in Washington DC.

1. Create a space for open, non-invasive dialogue
I was asked recently how should you open these conversations. I firmly believe they should be built into restaurant orientation, and training, including peer counseling. When a new employee comes aboard, they can be assigned a mentor or what I call a wellness coach or partner.  Having regular check-ins can become a familiar part of the job, rather than waiting for a potential mental health crisis.

2. Discretion is imperative.
Having a private space to speak to a supervisor or colleague, creating a dialogue in a Town-hall or small group setting, and never making personal statements or questions in front of others.  Make it clear that the conversation is not to scare or make assumptions about them. It’s to create the space for an ongoing dialogue around physical and mental health. The initial discussion will show your staff you care about their well-being and how it’s affected by the restaurant environment — and how their health impacts the whole restaurant team.

If you feel comfortable, as a manager or owner, share your own experience with these issues, or that of a friend, to start the conversation.

Teamwork is crucial. Restaurants usually have multiple managers. Different styles and ages require flexible dialogue.

While most restaurant managerial meetings involve menu and bar items, inventory, and financial matters, including personnel concerns, wellness, and mental health aspects in regular  meetings is good business practice.

3. Lean on other restaurateurs in your community 
Issues with wellness, mental health, and addiction are rampant in the restaurant industry, so you shouldn’t feel the need to go it alone. Lean on other restaurateurs in your community for support.

Kat Kinsman, Senior Editor of Food & Wine, founded the website Chefs with Issues where she invites “people involved in the industry (not just chefs) to share their stories and resources for dealing with the particular pressures of restaurant life, so that other people may feel less alone.” She believes that solving industry-wide issues such as these will only happen when people in the restaurant community share their stories and experiences.

No one can operate in a vacuum. The issues weren’t created by any one restaurant and won’t be solved that way. Talk to other restaurants and bars in your region or city and pool resources. Maybe they have located an affordable therapist, or do group health classes. They might have established a way to bring issues up during family meal, or come up with best practices for identifying and supporting people in crisis. The only way this is going to change is if individual operators are taking a good, hard, honest look at themselves and sharing what they’ve learned rather than focusing on rivalries.

DC is a small restaurant town. Most of your employees have worked for various companies or do so simultaneously. Sharing information and resources is how we all improve.

4. Use outside support systems.
Some members of your staff may trust you and feel comfortable touching upon what issues — if any — they experience with mental or physical health. That will not be the case for all your staff. Some will likely feel more at ease opening up to someone else. Make sure they know thats ok with you, and point them in the direction of external help.

In recent years, a number of national organizations have cropped up to help restaurant workers and openly address issues with mental health, addiction, and wellness in the industry. Here are a few of them:

    • Chefs with Issues: a website founded by Kat Kinsman, of Food and Wine, where she invites “people involved in the industry (not just chefs) to share their stories and resources for dealing with the particular pressures of restaurant life, so that other people may feel less alone.” There is also a social media page with lots of exchanges and support.
    • Restaurant Recovery: an organization that “wants to provide safe and confidential spaces for conversations about recovery, and support without judgment. The aim is to heal restaurant and bar culture, not by sanitizing or vilifying, but by encouraging resilience, community, and hope. We are all in this together.”
    • Mind Body Spirit(s): an organization “dedicated to supporting bar industry professionals in wellness and personal success for a long, healthy, fruitful career.”
    • Bar Harm: an organization founded and run by Brandi Estrada focused on “building stronger, safer communities, by bringing community resources, training, and education into our bars and restaurants.”
    • Mental Health America. This is a community-based nonprofit found in over 40 states. MHA focuses on prevention and intervention mental health treatments.
    • Crisis text line. This is a texting service that provides free, 24 hours per day crisis support with a trained counselor. Text HOME to 741741.
    • National suicide prevention Lifeline. This is a free 24 seven resource offering confidential support and crisis care for those experiencing suicidal thoughts and their family members. Call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
    • Employee assistance programs. Some employers do offer EAP’s, which among other things, provide free, short term, and confidential counseling as well as referrals to other providers and long-term treatment options.
    • In DC, my company, Embolden Psychology, is dedicated to serving the industry at all of our locations. This includes awareness and sensitivity to the hours, financial constraints, and career issues involved.

5. Remind your staff of the importance of self-care
In my seminars, I often refer to the restaurant industry as composed of elite warriors. A good warrior doesn’t go out on the field to get killed. They are primed by self-care: sleep, nutrition, social life, intimacy, exercise.  As anyone who’s worked in a restaurant will tell you, the hours are long, shifts run late, and schedules vary day to day. You spend most of your day standing, walking, lifting, pouring, stocking, cleaning. You’re working with your hands.

Emphasize the importance of rest and sleep. Promote stretching, exercising, and staying active. Remind them to catch some sunlight when they’re off-shift. Have water and fresh juices. Dehydration creates fatigue. Tell them to take time for themselves when they can. Introduce these ideas in the hopes that your staff will begin to create wellness routines for themselves, if they haven’t already.

Self care can include turning off your phone or notifications. Many industry employees and managers I’ve spoken with said there is always something going on. The shift is short staffed, menu items are 86ed, deliveries are late, the dishwasher broke. Being mindfully away from that on your days off can provide a real break.

6. Ask your team what they want out of wellness activities and programs
Before you dive in, go straight to the source. Ask your employees what they want to see out of wellness-based activities and programs. What fuels them. Even if some of the ideas are less achievable than others, it will give you a good place to start and shows you consider their input.

7. Seek resources for your people. Offer discounted access to yoga classes, gym memberships, meditation, or fitness classes 
A restaurant is an integral part of a community and neighborhood. The neighborhood resources cannot be ignored. Talk to other business owners. Offer discounts. Ask for discounts.Working at a restaurant leads to a lot of strain on a person’s feet and back. If an employee’s body hurts or aches, though, it’s going to make it hard for them to want to come in, feel inspired and excited, and do their best work.

To promote physical wellness, you may offer subsidized gym memberships or access to free monthly yoga and fitness classes.

For restaurants that are not able to afford such options, hold simple, in-restaurant group exercises or stretches with the staff. Another idea is to organize the team to participate in bicycle races or 5K races and runs.

8. Advocate for healthier, balanced food and drink habits
We feed people for a living. Your employees make and serve food and drinks, so it’s ironic that many probably have pretty erratic eating and drinking habits. It makes sense given that their jobs are to make others happy, but their own needs often fall to the wayside. I know some servers who bring their own food to the restaurant so they are not tempted to eat what’s readily available and may not be healthy for their diet plan and nutritional needs.

Many restaurant workers quickly eat a meal before going into work – often fast food – or sneak bites of food in once they get to the restaurant over the course of their shift. Some may be drinking tons of coffee all day and night. Hopefully they’re remembering to drink water. Then, at the end of the shift, they might cap it all off with a drink (or a few) with coworkers. They likely repeat this process the very next day.

To promote better daily food and drink choices for long-term health, ensure your team carves out time during their shifts to eat their own meals and snacks. Consider getting rid of shift drinks. Remind them to be aware of their energy levels and hunger/thirst as they work. A busy shift can cause anyone to completely tune out of their own physical needs.

At the very least, every kitchen worker should have a liter container filled with ice water on their station at all times.

9. Promote apps and online resources for yoga and meditation
Many facets of restaurant life can lead to stress, burnout, and mental exhaustion. Two of the best ways to combat these are through meditation and yoga. Make it clear to your staff that this is NOT a replacement for therapy or medication, but that they can make the day-to-day a little easier for anyone.

There are a growing number of apps dedicated to meditation and mindfulness. My personal favorites are Headspace and Calm.

As people in the U.S. continue to seek out new avenues for wellness, yoga and meditation offer your team healthy ways to de-stress. If yoga doesn’t appeal to your staff, form a running group or do another outdoor group activity.

10. Take a moment. You’re in a high stress environment and you’re always working. Anxiety can build up and be too much. Remind your people to take a mental break. A kind gesture, human connection, and encouragement can make a world of difference for anyone, even in the middle of a very busy shift.

11. Bottom line: Healthier Employees Make for Better Business 
Introducing programs and activities that promote staff wellness in your restaurant can only help in combating industry-wide struggles with mental health, medical problems, and addiction.

Outside of that larger mission, the benefits from shining a light on staff health can lead to fewer sick days, improved customer service, higher employee retention, and a more positive atmosphere overall.

Below is a screening measure for depression that is quick and easy. These questions can just be asked as part of a dialogue.

Meet and Greet with North Spring Behavioral Healthcare

We strongly believe in teaming up with community resources and finding the best fit. In keeping with this believe, we recently hosted a meet and greet with North Spring Behavioral Healthcare. North Spring provides multi-faceted services for children and adolescents in Northern Virginia, right outside of DC.  The treatment team includes psychiatrists, registered nurses, therapists, social workers, and mental health workers.

From acute or inpatient care to outpatient follow up, facilitated by community liaisons, North Spring works with families and young people to coordinate care in the mental health community in the DC area.  They are endorsed by NAMI as providing a high level of psycho education and mental health care.

Like Embolden, they also utilize mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and meditation strategies to work with young patients.

Thank you to everyone who attended and especially to North Spring’s Community Outreach Liaison and Admissions Director, Christy Evans,

 

Minority Mental Health: Everyday Traumas and Microaggressions

Just a few words about the presentation that I’ll be giving to the Association of Practicing Psychologists (APP.org), Montgomery & Prince George’s Counties on November 17th.  The topic is Minority Mental Health: Everyday Traumas and Microaggressions and its being offered as part of their Continuing Education series.

APP is a professional organization for practicing psychiatrists, and as such they are approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. This workshop is for licensed psychologists who want to better describe, discuss and assess the psychological stressors that clients may struggle with in the context of everyday micro-aggressions or racism.

I’ve been told by the organizers that my workshop is almost sold out already. I’m gratified to know that so many of my colleagues are committed to cultural diversity and minority mental health. And I look forward to giving similar workshops, with/for APP and other organizations in the future.

 

                                                              

You Can’t Pour From An Empty Cup

You Can't Pour From an Empty Cup: Self-Care and Practical Sobriety

I was honored to be asked to participate on a panel at Tales of the Cocktail. The theme of the presentation was self-care and sobriety in the bar industry, a subject that lines up well and builds on my recent presentation for ROC-DC on Mental Health and Wellness in the Restaurant Industry.

The name of our TOTC panel was You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup: Self-Care and Practical Sobriety. My notes and comments, from the psychology perspective were integrated with the contributions of two leading bar industry leaders, and moderated by Brenna McHugh, who is both an industry leader and a mental health counselor.

You Can't Pour From an Empty Cup: Self-Care and Practical Sobriety

Some highlights:

  1. “Family Dynamics”  –  The restaurant business is a family: functional versus dysfunctional families; social psychology, and the industry.
  2. The importance of carving out routines and following through. Because your schedule can change arbitrarily, long hours, and other unforeseen events, making your own routine and following it for sleep, meals (shift food is not mindful), self-care, fiscal practices (paying yourself every two years, rather than tips being being seen as more random income), and consistent exercise is important.
  3. Realizing that the industry is your job. It’s good to have great colleagues, but having friends, family, and loved ones outside of the profession is healthy and necessary.
  4. Discovering medical resources: community mental health centers, and low fee or reduced fee mental health.
  5. Awareness of drinking culture and avoiding substance-abuse in a conscious manner, such as being sober curious, letting colleagues know that you may not want to drink excessively. More risk for younger members of the industry.
  6. Embracing the unique aspects of the industry: teamwork, dealing with a wide range of clients, high-pressure shifts, variable hours and shifts, the ups and downs of being a tipped employee. Alcohol temporarily reduces anxiety. BUT: Alcohol in excess increases anxiety and depression long-term because of dopamine and serotonin receptor depletion.
  7. Buddhist perspective  – Unlearning desire. In Buddhism, this kind of desire is called Tanha, which literally means thirst. How to allow a desire without acting on it, is the premise of both Buddhism and positive psychology.  Question: What is the desire?  Answer: Blowing off steam, decreasing stress after work, Pattern/routine, Being with work family.
  8. Strategies for how to stop or reduce drinking:
    1. Meditation and mindfulness. 10 to 15 minutes a day of sitting with yourself and connecting with yourself with love and acceptance. Make this a daily practice in your schedule.
    2. Plan and prepare: every single morning think about situations that might crop up throughout the day were you would ordinarily drink. Make a note of them. Being prepared and knowing what you’re going to do in advance gives you control and confidence, you can even practice what you might say to someone who might be expecting you to drink or even put pressure on you.
    3. Visual imagery and rehearsal. Athletes, coaches, business people do this all the time. They imagine being successful in a specific situation or challenge, with extreme detail.
    4. Stay home if you have to. Keep a list of things to nurture and indulge yourself. With my clients, I call this the relaxation box. You pull it out, and it might have your favorite soft throat, candle, music, bath salts, journal, favorite book, and personal notes from loved ones, or, from you to you.
    5. Go easy on yourself. You’re learning a new skill, and it takes time and practice.
    6. Focus on the gains. I always tell clients, add something to your life. Don’t think about or talk about deprivation. Success comes from adding positivity.
    7. Get some support. If you feel your friends, family, colleagues cannot provide that, get online and find a support group, community, forum, or referral to a therapist you feel comfortable and safe. Checking in regularly helps you stay accountable and feel not alone.
    8. Increased access to mental health services (my program for independent restaurant workers in DC, launching this summer). Changing our thoughts and feelings about drinking is what leads to sustainable change. Lack of info, stigma, and worries about being diagnosed with substance abuse keep many tipped workers without coverage. Embolden provides free screening, diagnosis, and recommendations/referrals, as well as low fee treatment where needed.
    9. Safety concerns: How will you get home after post shift drinking? In DC, Metro ends at 11 or 12. Uber is expensive. MANY drive home drunk. Employers can be held responsible (liability) if something bad happens.
    10. Mindful drinking: Planning all of your drinking 24 hours ahead of time. Having a friend as a sponsor.
    11. My approach as a therapist: you CANNOT take things away abruptly. You ADD things. Someone just asked at a DC restaurant and bar wellness panel; “I am stressed, drinking more after shifts; working six days a week. Cut back on one drink per week.
    12. Have a personal post work routine: Music, Candle or aromatherapy, podcasts, self-pleasure, take a bath, journal.

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

Thank you for contacting us.