► For years, the unwritten rules of the restaurant industry discouraged open and frank discussions about the perils of the profession. When it came to addiction, depression and sexual harassment, the message was clear: Handle it yourself – on your own time – after your shift is over.
Fortunately, the times may be changing. A series of high-profile developments – the #MeToo movement, accusations against Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain’s suicide – have led to new support organizations, which are improving restaurant culture for workers and creating a more sustainable business model for employers.
“Addiction has been rampant in our industry probably as long as it’s been around,” says Charleston Grill general manager Mickey Bakst, who co-founded the addiction support group Ben’s Friends. “Fortunately, people are now starting to shed light on the problem.”
After sexual assault accusations against Batali surfaced in 2017, Elizabeth Meltz, then a longtime employee at the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group, had seen enough. She joined hospitality veteran Erin Fairbanks and Liz Murray of the Marlow Collective to form Women in Hospitality United.
The group brings together employees to discuss their experiences with sexual harassment and gender inequity. “Convening is a radical act of power,” says Fairbanks, who sees sharing stories as a prerequisite for devising effective solutions.
During a series of “listening tours” in seven U.S. cities in 2018 and 2019, employees detailed stories of abuse and the debilitating effects of inappropriate jokes and aggression. “How do you quantify the detriment of having a kitchen porter holding up a penis-shaped carrot to you twice a day and going, ‘Ha, ha, ha’?” Fairbanks asks.
As a result, Women in Hospitality United will create actionable goals for the hospitality community – including closing the wage gap, creating more transparent promotion paths and devising protocols to report inappropriate sexual behavior. “We want to say, this is what an orderly house might look like, and here are ways to get started,” Fairbanks says.
Tips on dealing with sexual harassment
- Regularly discuss behaviors that won’t be tolerated, and how confidentiality issues are handled
- Include language in job postings that harassment is not allowed
- Role-play what to do when guests cross the line; Staff should say “Don’t touch me – that’s not okay”
- Ensure uniforms affirm employees’ gender identity – and never exploit them
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I Got Your Back
Patrick Mulvaney, chef/owner of B&L in Sacramento, California, recognizes the toll of depression. In 2018, after realizing he knew four Sacramento restaurant workers who’d committed suicide, he attended a meeting of 15 chefs, restaurateurs and mental health leaders. From those conversations – as well as subsequent discussions with healthcare workers – I Got Your Back was formed.
I Got Your Back offers online assistance, including information about hotlines to call or text for help, plus training to help employees become peer counselors. Graduates wear a pin with the organization’s logo – a purple hand – to ensure co-workers know they can turn to them when battling mental health or addiction issues.
Mulvaney’s organization also promotes daily check-ins. At the start of each shift, workers take a card and anonymously draw a face indicating their emotional state: neutral, happy, angry, or in the weeds. Managers discuss the results and offer ways to support each other. “We’re saying, ‘It’s okay not to be okay,’ so people can share and talk to each other,” says Mulvaney, who is developing a national model. “What we do in hospitality is take care of people; let’s also take care of ourselves.”
Tips to combat suicide and addiction
- Gauge a peer’s mental health by asking: “Do you have a plan to commit suicide?” and “Do you have the means?”
- Connect with the local substance abuse and suicide prevention organizations
- Display information about support groups, which can reduce the stigma of seeking help
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Attracting and retaining staff comes at a hefty cost. Operators spend about $2,000 for each new hourly employee – but 79% leave the industry within two years, according to Unilever, a global supplier to the food industry.
Unilever surveyed about 430 chefs around the world via questionnaires and in-person observations in 2018. The results were eye-opening: 53% of chefs felt they were at a breaking point, 63% suffered from depression, and 75% felt exhausted from sleep deprivation.
“It was a clear call to action to improve the well-being of our culture,” says Einav Gefen, Unilever’s executive corporate chef. “We felt we had to do something fast.”
In 2018, Gefen, Unilever staffers and external chefs launched Fair Kitchens to improve the industry’s culture. The online resource provides a code of conduct called TEAMS (Talk openly, Excite passion, Act as one and Make time), a mental health guide, and inspirational videos that demonstrate healthy, successful kitchens.
“These solutions are low-hanging fruit,” Gefen says, “but they help create an environment where the talent wants to stay.”
Tips for fostering better mental health
- Greetings and simple words like “good job” help make people feel appreciated
- Allow staff to take a walk to reset their minds, even if it’s just for a minute, to relieve stress
- Talk openly about depression and anxiety; offer resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Discuss your code of conduct with your team
- Gather staff together for 15 minutes before service and ask how they’re doing
Shouldering the Burden: Restaurant-Focused Support Organizations
A Balanced Glass: A forum supporting the physical and mental health of wine professionals globally.
Chefs with Issues: Industry workers share stories and resources regarding mental health issues.
Healthy Hospo: Provides online education and runs events to promote mental health in hospitality.
Restaurant Recovery: A nonprofit helping restaurant workers find – and pay for – drug and alcohol treatments.
ServSpace Workplace: A National Restaurant Association training program designed to create safe work environments free of sexual harassment.