THE BIG CHILL

6 Stress-busting Tactics to Reduce the Strain of Restaurant Life

“I’m never stressed out,” said no restaurant worker ­– ever. Job related stress in restaurant kitchen culture is a fact of life in the foodservice industry, and it’s unrealistic to expect it to vanish with a little vinyasa. If not properly addressed, stress can manifest and lead to professional and personal self-destruction. Often it’s a domino effect – being snippy can erode morale and impact culture and innovation, which can produce sales dips and even more stress, which can then seep into personal relationships. Or most troubling, it can lead to depression and substance abuse. The foodservice industry has been ranked highest among professions for substance abuse disorders, according a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. The HHS estimates that nearly one in five restaurant workers abuses illicit drugs or alcohol. “Chefs are constantly in the public eye, heavily scrutinized by online reviewers and food writers, often at the expense of a business that they most likely took a huge financial risk to open,” says Sarah Ory, co-founder and executive director of The Heirloom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that strives to improve quality of life for hospitality workers. What can be done to reduce stress besides taking deep breaths and trying to be more Zen? Some owners, chefs and experts offer stress relief techniques that may seem obvious but are solid.

1. ORGANIZATION REDUCES RESTAURANT STAFF STRESS

Well-managed schedules, smart ordering, neat mise en place and organized storage all amount to a manageable rush instead of a living hell. Scheduling that accounts for historically busy times, a system that synchronizes with inventory and organized work stations make a huge difference. This allows staff to focus on execution and the most important element of service: hospitality.

2. TREAT YOURSELF LIKE YOUR DINERS

Instead of relying on unhealthy post-shift meals, eat better. Keep almonds, apples, string cheese, hard-boiled eggs and carrots available and keep replenishing. Also try recalibrating family meals so they provide sustainable energy instead of lethargy by leaning on grain- or greens-based bowls, brothy bean soups and veggie-centric mains.

3. FIND A HOBBY

Ride a bike. Play paintball or anything that reduces stress with something rewarding for the mind and body. “To alleviate stress, I had to find healthy hobbies and a community outside of the restaurant,” says Chris Deitz, care director at Big Table, a nonprofit for restaurant professionals based in Washington state.

4. SAY NO TO AFTER HOURS INDUSTRY NIGHT

Post-shift drinks might momentarily reduce stress, but they add it back in spades when you’re fuzzy and cranky hours later. “I know a hard night out after a hard shift will not fix my current stresses and will wreck me when I try to hop on the bike,” Deitz says. Instead managers can plan informal, low-pressure activities, such as a monthly book club for staff, film screenings, group fitness classes or trivia nights. “We introduce icebreakers and fun, open questions that allow teammates to get to know each other better,” says Thomas Nguyen, CEO of Peli Peli Restaurant Group. Elective bonding opportunities lead to stronger bonds, reduced turnover and smoother operations.

5. CUT OUT THE CAFFEINE

Coffee and other drinks, such as soda and energy drinks, can create additional anxiety and therefore, extra stress,” says Janine Booth, chef-partner of Root & Bone in New York City and Stiltsville Fish Bar in Miami. For those predisposed to anxiety disorders, caffeine can trigger symptoms – sweaty palms, pounding heart, ringing ears – that can lead to panic attacks. Caffeine can also pose dehydration risks, so consider offering staff homemade Gatorade, which is an inexpensive way to show you care.

6. SET THE TONE

A dose of encouragement can help offset the stress of long hours. “I was working on the line at a bistro as a young gun with a chef who spoke positively to everyone,” Deitz says. “We would get heavy in the weeds, and you thought that printer would never stop, but chef always spoke with positivity, and it gave the team the encouragement to get through. In other cases, simply showing concern is enough. “It could be as simple as taking five minutes to talk to your staff before a shift,” says Nguyen. “Ask how they are doing or what’s going on in their lives. The goal, says Nguyen, is to “be the positivity that your team needs to feel inspired and feel comfortable that someone will lead them through all of the stresses.”

RESTURANT INDUSTRY STRESS MANAGEMENT RESOURCES

Big Table

Big Table hosts free shared meals for food workers around a “big table.” Top chefs and donors often sit in. Workers exchange ideas. And guests are encouraged to share the names of peers who might need help. Visit big-table.com for more information.

The Heirloom Foundation

The Heirloom Foundation fosters holistic lifestyle options for hospitality workers in need or those living with mental health issues. Help comes in the form of public outreach, wellness partnerships (such as free yoga), speaking engagements, events and professional development. Visit Theheirloomfoundation.org for more information.

Restaurant Recovery

Restaurant recovery helps restaurant workers who are current or recovering addicts find and pay for drug and alcohol treatment, while assisting loved ones with counseling or family programs. Visit Restaurantrecovery.org for more information.

Chefs with Issues

Chefs with Issues provides food workers an online community forum to voice their experiences with work and work-related health issues, such as depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders, in addition to resources to address them. Visit Chefswithissues.com for more information.