- The high-stress restaurant industry is becoming more aware of its workers’ mental health struggles, prompting efforts to provide support.
- Some employees say they don’t seek treatment because of insufficient health coverage and stigmas associated with admitting their problems.
- The pandemic’s toll prompted the industry to start taking well-being more seriously, taking more steps to make sure workers get the support they need.
Amid growing awareness of mental health struggles faced by workers in the culinary industry, more and more support is being extended to help chefs, servers, bartenders and other high-pressure hospitality jobs learn how to take better care of themselves, both emotionally and physically.
In a fast-paced setting, many employees endure heavy workloads, criticism from customers, long days that last well into the late-night hours and very few breaks, which all contribute to the high-stress environment that is a fact of life for those in foodservice.
One of the largest private sector employers in the U.S., the restaurant industry’s 14.5 million workers represent about 10% of the nation’s workforce, so the staggering rate of burnout, sleep disorders, exhaustion, depression and substance abuse is raising broader questions about restaurant culture and its impact on worker mental health.
In a study looking at substance use within various industries, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ranked hospitality workers at the top for illicit drug use (19%) and third highest for alcohol use (12%), behind miners (18%) and construction workers (17%).
Chefs and foodservice workers are also considered among the top 20 professions with the highest suicide rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, 65% of food, beverage and hospitality workers report using substances to cope at work, according to a survey conducted by Culinary Hospitality Outreach Wellness, a Colorado-based nonprofit focused on wellness within the industry. Additionally, 84% said they feel stressed from their job, 63% are depressed and 54% believe they’ve been pushed to their breaking point, the report found.
Despite publicized links between addiction, mental health struggles and foodservice, there is a range of reasons why workers may not pursue treatment, from lack of sufficient health coverage to the stigmas associated with admitting a problem.
When Michael DeLone was suffering from depression and anxiety a few years ago, the executive chef-owner of Nunzio in Collingswood spent each day simply going through the motions. “Normally, I change specials weekly. Then, it went to three weeks, then to four weeks. I basically turned my back on my business and what I love and I didn’t really care. It didn’t bother me,” he said. “The fact that I’m sitting here saying that makes me cringe now.
“This is where I belong and this is what I should be doing – cooking good food and making people happy,” said DeLone, who purchased the restaurant in 2021 from one of his mentors in culinary school, chef Nunzio Patruno.
Coming up in the industry, DeLone said there generally wasn’t much discussion about mental health awareness. “I honestly don’t think it was ever a thought back then or people were aware of it and if they were aware of it, it was never spoken about,” said DeLone, who got his start busing tables as a teenager at a restaurant outside Philadelphia.
Now, after having battled his own demons, DeLone said, “Awareness and understanding are important. I think if people understand a little bit more of what the feeling is and how to handle yourself, then you can handle the pressures. Otherwise, if things go the wrong way, you don’t know what to do about it, so you run from it.”
The 26-year-industry veteran said, “I was never aware of my problem. I denied it because I thought that was the way I needed to be because I’m a chef and this is what we do. We grind, we drink, we smoke cigarettes and we work 80 hours a week. And if you don’t, you don’t belong.”
A broken backbone
“Mental health awareness for chefs is gaining much needed attention as the industry recognizes the impact of stress, long hours, and high expectations,” said Joey Simons, chief executive officer of Montclair Hospitality Group, the parent company of ramen concept PastaRamen, doughnut spot Mochinut, Asian fusion eatery Ani Ramen House, Thai restaurant Kai Yang and upcoming sandwich shop Fatto Con Amore. “Shows like ‘The Bear’ on FX do an amazing job at pulling back the curtain and highlighting the demanding nature of working in a kitchen.”
Cardie Mortimer, a Verona resident whose culinary career includes working as a guest chef at two of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants in Las Vegas, said, “In my experience, working in restaurants from New Orleans to New Jersey for more than 45 years, I’ve seen the long, irregular hours and physical demands of working in a professional kitchen take their toll both physically and mentally on a chef’s health.
“On top of that, the industry’s fast-paced environment and extremely high-performance standards create intense pressure, that leads to stress and anxiety … additionally, many chefs and their staff are dealing with personal financial pressures, adding another layer of stress,” he said.
Stathis Antonakopoulos, the chief executive officer of Carnegie Hospitality, a group whose portfolio includes Carnegie Diner & Café in Secaucus, believes mental health struggles are partially the reason for the frequent turnover of chefs and line cooks in the industry.
“We need to perform in a speedy and efficient way in the rush of the lunch and dinner time to deliver a correct dish in a timely manner, executed correctly. If you have not worked on the line in a kitchen of a busy restaurant you will never understand. The backbone of the restaurant is the kitchen staff, without them you cannot open for business,” he said.
“The hours with the heat and pressure to perform after the pandemic has impacted the wellbeing of the back of house staff. We lost a lot of good talent when restaurants had to close and after the pandemic was over, we all competed for the same staff,” Antonakopoulos added.
While the declining mental health of restaurant workers may have been a growing concern in recent years, the pandemic’s toll prompted the industry to start taking well-being more seriously, with more offering benefits like health insurance and paid time off.
Still, though, only about 32% working in food services have health insurance benefits through work, according to 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To better connect food industry workers with mental health support, a number of groups have popped up in recent years, such as CHOW, Cooks Who Care, Not 9 to 5 and Burnt Chef Project, providing peer-to-peer mentorship, education, policy advocacy and online resources.
In New Jersey, the hospitality industry is taking steps to make sure the back-of-the-house staff gets the mental health support they need, as well as to create an environment that fosters open conversation around such issues.
Allendale-based restaurant group Doherty Enterprises has introduced several initiatives over the last three years across its 160-restaurant portfolio, which includes Applebee’s Grill & Bar in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Georgia, as well as Panera Bread and Chevys Fresh Mex locations.
Chief People Officer Kathy Coughlin said, “We are in the people business. We take care of guests who come into our establishments to enjoy themselves or have a respite. We take care of the team members who take care of these guests every day. Post-COVID, there was a noticeable spike in negative behavior that our team members experienced with some guest interactions and their own personal struggles.
“While we can’t diagnose exactly why mental health issues are on the rise, we want to do what we do best – take care of both guests and team members,” she said.
According to Coughlin, one of the new initiatives is a mental health support guide for employees that lists resources covered by the company’s insurance plans, as well as what’s available for those without insurance.
“We communicated and leveraged our telehealth services which gave people the flexibility to get the support they need wherever and whenever they need it,” she said. “[T]he People team here also has resources to steer our team members to the right resources if they share they are struggling in any given area. We utilize those, keep the issues private and follow up to ensure the team member is on the right track.”
Doherty also runs monthly wellness challenges, which are simple health & wellness-related tasks that employees can complete to get submitted into a raffle for prizes, as well as an annual wellness challenge, a company-wide campaign that seeks to motivate workers to improve mental, physical and financial wellness.
“This can be a stressful business and rewarding our team members for doing the things to take care of their overall well-being was important to us,” Coughlin said.
The company also has a Culture Club – whose membership spans upper management at headquarters to hourly associates at restaurants – that is in charge of rolling out programs meant to enhance workplace experience and recognition.
Coughlin said, “Celebrating birthdays and work anniversaries, quarterly team challenges to boost morale, foster team building and sense of belonging in the workplace. We try very hard to engage and connect with each and every team member so they have a sense of connectivity and community to us as an organization, to each other in every location and to the guests they serve.”
In addition, Doherty began offering discounted gym memberships for workers and initiated training for managers and team members to diffuse situations involving disrespectful customers.
“While this is an exception, we did see a rise of this type of behavior, we had healthy discussions about it and put practices in place to allow our team members to know we value them and what they do. We will look at each situation and if a team member is being mistreated, we will support and protect them. I think knowing this has had an impact on their mental well-being,” said Coughlin.
“When you are in the service business, people are accustomed to the saying ‘the guest is always right,’ which is what we all strive to do – please and wow our guest. However, when a guest uses that philosophy to abuse our team member, we have an equal responsibility to tell that guests we won’t tolerate that behavior. Our people matter to us and how they are treated matters. I think knowing that has a huge impact on those front-line employees and is an important message to send to your people. We value them, they too matter and we will safeguard them from any abusive behavior,” she explained.
At Montclair Hospitality Group, Simons said the company offers all employees, including chefs and kitchen staff, a range of support programs through various channels, like counseling services, stress management workshops and resources focused on promoting mental well-being.
“Adapting our policies to the ever-changing workplace is key to attracting and maintaining a dynamic workforce,” he said.
Antonakopoulos said Carnegie Hospitality Group is in the process of working with its insurance and human resources departments “to create online videos to address this issue and help our chefs understand that they are not alone in this issue.”
“Empathy and support from ownership is a crucial key factor to build strength and give the foundation to a solution and understanding,” he added.
Mortimer – who is now a culinary instructor and has a popular live touring presentation celebrating the art of cooking and promoting the healing aspects of food and its preparation – praised the moves to begin addressing restaurant culture.
“Today, there’s growing recognition within the industry and our society that mental health is as crucial as physical health,” said Mortimer. “[T]he culinary world is finally acknowledging and addressing the pressures and stresses that chefs face daily.”
He went on to suggest several creative ways that restaurants can support the health and well-being of their workers.
“One simple solution is to create a peer support group where chefs and kitchen staff can share their frustrations and support each other. This can be over a plate of food around a big family table or over Zoom,” Mortimer explained.
Today, there’s growing recognition within the industry and our society that mental health is as crucial as physical health. [T]he culinary world is finally acknowledging and addressing the pressures and stresses that chefs face daily.
– Cardie Mortimer, culinary instructor
“Employment programs that encourage reasonable work hours, regular breaks, and time off can really help prevent burnout and promote a healthier work-life balance. My own Culinary Therapy presentation is appropriate for any audience, but I’ve had former kitchen staff and chef thank me for reinvigorating their attitudes and their careers,” he said.
Now, DeLone is open about the challenges he faced, often posting on social media about the importance of seeking help.
“I don’t think I’m trying to start a movement. My message to people is just to talk to someone and figure out the dark places,” he said. “If you bottle it up, it just manifests and gets worse and worse and worse … I’m by no means an expert, but I understand it and I can help people through these small hills to get over to try to see the brighter side of things because I didn’t know how to do that. And really, I had no friends that could help me. My family couldn’t help me because I felt like no one understood where I was coming from.”
He also reminds people that they may never truly know what’s going on with someone – no matter how happy and successful they seem. “You don’t always see behind the wall. It was a difficult thing, but it makes me proud now that I’m able to acknowledge and be open about it because I held it in,” DeLone said.
DeLone ultimately traces his mental struggles back to several stressors, including the launch of a new restaurant and a stepfather who was undergoing major heart surgery.
During his lowest point, DeLone considered cutting his losses and selling the business. “I lost the love for cooking. My creativity was gone. I was up all night, crashing in the morning, couldn’t get up for work and wanting to harm myself,” he said. “It felt like a boulder on top of me, 24/7 and not having any answers for it and not being able to get the help.”
“I was going through this feeling of being down and it was affecting my home life with my wife. I was just drinking uncontrollably every night and I felt like that was helping me – it was the crutch,” he said. “I was not a nice person, difficult to work with, difficult to live with, and these are all things that I can now see and say that I was wrong and I need to get better. I’ll never be better, but I can keep working at it. And that’s kind of where I leave it.”
After connecting with a therapist, getting onto medication and working through some of his issues, DeLone became reacquainted with his favorite aspect of the restaurant business: change.
“That’s what keeps me going. I love change. I love to see new things and trends. I’m not a big trend follower, but I like reading about it. I like seeing what other people are offering and where it compares to what we’re doing. We do a different style of Italian, so I kind of bring in a different look, different flavors to our dishes.”
“We do all our homemade pasta, all the bread and all the desserts are done here. So, I think that’s what keeps me going is that we create everything from ground up and there’s always something new to do. And as long as you keep your nose in a book, you’ll always have that edge. You’ll always have the creativity and you’ll always have the drive to keep creating,” he said.
When it comes down to functioning in a high-pressure, stressful environment like a busy kitchen, DeLone said it is about taking charge of the “controlled chaos.”
“If you’re a chef or chef-owner, as I am now, I take the ownership name out of my title because I work every single day on the line with my guys. I’m a working chef,” he said. “Keeping control, communication and having everything in its place for me makes you successful on a busy night in a chaotic environment.”
“I have some young talent that I’m training – they’re about 16, 17 years old. And one thing that I do stress to them is to take care of yourself and that this business can get to you. If there’s an issue, speak out and talk about it.
“I think with my older staff, some of them are understanding and they get it. They know the stress that goes into it and they’ve been around it, but they take it on easier. It kind of rolls off their shoulders. And it’s good for me because the way that I am and the way that they are, it kind of calms me a little bit. And I try to let my younger guys work with every different cook that I have in the kitchen to kind of get a vibe, get a feel, see how other people handle themselves, carry themselves and things like that. And I think that that’s the best way is firsthand to see it, but also know that you can talk about it at any time,” he said.
With his staff of eight, DeLone now strives to make sure they feel encouraged, supported and valued by keeping an open-door policy when it comes to whatever troubles they’re facing. He also prioritizes a healthy work-life balance at Nunzio.
“I’m closed Monday and Tuesday, and I believe in that. I will never open more than five days. I think that’s a big key part in keeping people. When you go into a week of work and you know that you have your two days off, you see that the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
“I worked at places that were open seven days a week, lunch and dinner … we had to do that without any sort of rest, which I believe you need. You need time with your family and to live your life. Everyone gets vacation and I’m open to working around what anyone has to do. And, I think the simple things help the most, offering what I can,” he said.