The foodservice industry has a reputation for being a thrilling, high-octane environment, bursting with creativity and excitement. On the flipside, long, unsociable hours working under stressful conditions, can take its toll, and startling figures about the poor mental health of an increasing number of chefs and caterers is forcing the sector to take drastic action.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Despite its vastly improving reputation, the pressures of the working kitchen can sometimes be overwhelming. Here, three members of the Essential Cuisine chef team share their personal experiences of battling with mental health issues whilst working in professional kitchens. They do so anonymously and in the hope that in hearing their stories, it will encourage others to come forward and seek help, safe in the knowledge that they are not alone.
“I make sure that whatever my thoughts, I know it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out whenever I need to.”
Just over a decade ago I was working in a hotel kitchen; we were understaffed and overworked, and I patently wasn’t taking care of myself, not eating or drinking enough. I didn’t realise at the time quite the effect this was having on me until one day I passed out at the wheel of my car and hit a lamppost head on at 60mph. The crash left me with life changing injuries which over a period of years I would come to recover from. The hospital staff – doctors, nurses and physios – did a fantastic job preparing me to overcome the physically injuries. I was less prepared for the mental toll it would take. In the space of 10 seconds I’d gone from a hardworking, independent person who had practically lived in kitchens from the age of 16, to someone who couldn’t get dressed on their own. I also knew I was never going to be fully fit enough to return full time to the job I loved.
In the long months that followed, I was in and out of hospital, spending a vast amount of time on my own. I went from being me to a person I simply didn’t recognise. Over time I became more distant, even giving up on my physio. Worst of all I was hiding how I was really feeling. With no one around to talk to who had been through something similar or had the skills to help me, I wanted to tell my family and friends, but the fear of them not understanding, the fear of me piling more burden onto them, the fear of not being a ‘man’ and being weak, was too overwhelming.
In the end I realised how much I needed help. I went to see my GP, who diagnosed PTSD. Counselling soon followed – a place where I could truly open up and share my experiences. It was one of the best and smartest things I could have done; it made me see everything in a new light, helped me come to terms what had happened and face down the feelings I was having. The coping techniques I learnt from that experience were truly immense. The process changed my way of thinking and changed my life to the extent where I stand today much better equipped to deal with anything life now has to throw at me.
One quote that stands out to me, and something I would like to pass on to anyone who is in a similar position is ‘it’s ok not to be ok’. Because the more we normalise these feelings, the more people will come to share their experiences. Whenever I think about the crash and what
happened after, I always refer back to that saying and make sure that whatever my thoughts, I know it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out whenever I need to.
“Talking to people around you is so vitally important and ensures you never feel alone” I was going through some tough personal times in my younger days and ended up working all the kitchen hours I could take as a coping mechanism. The culture meant I was out most nights of the week drinking heavily. Alcohol became a crutch – I thought it was helping block it all out when, actually, it was the opposite. It was a move to a different job and reaching out of a good chef friend that helped me break that cycle. His advice led me to seek professional help to talk and work through my problems. I kicked the booze for 12 months and it straightened me out.
I have seen many friends go down the same path and it’s still a big issue in the industry as is substance abuse in general. Talking to people around you is so vitally important and ensures you never feel alone. You can bet that at some point they will also have had a similar experience, or know of someone who has and can help you to work things through. No one needs to be alone with their thoughts.
“Sometimes it just needs a whinge and a moan – someone to listen.”
I’ve worked in some tough kitchens. I did it for 20 years and understand better than most the macho mentality that really prevails in these places. In this environment it’s all about who’s worked longer, harder, who’s pulled the most days in a row, who’s got the most blisters and cuts, the wounds of war worn like a badge of honour. Many are willing to excuse these behaviours citing the old “it’s not bullying it’s character building…” but I’ve seen first-hand the impact it can have on chefs. I have lost friends and colleagues to drink, drugs and depression. I was lucky to have friends and family around me who cared. Sometimes it just needs a whinge and a moan – someone to listen. It’s not a weakness to talk about how you are feeling, nor is it ever wrong to ask for help if you feel it’s needed. It’s a team effort. Look after your team.
Employer Case Study
BE GRACE-FUL Grace Regan is the founder of SpiceBox, the UK’s first vegan
“Stress and mental wellbeing are topics I really care about. From a purely commercial perspective, building a great business is about team members performing at the top of their game and no one can perform to the
best of their ability if they are stressed or unhappy. Of course, there’s more to the subject than commercial gain – I want to build a work environment where people are happy and satisfied but also feel they are being challenged and growing. Hospitality is a notoriously stressful industry to work in and it has a lot of improving to do. I really do feel like times are changing and I want SpiceBox to be at the forefront of this change.
We give every team member a monthly wellbeing allowance that they can spend on an activity that brings them calm and happiness outside of work, be it yoga, a massage or even a gong bath! We have put management through a mental health first aid course and are really trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up about feeling stressed, depressed or anxious. Finally, I am a huge advocate of meditation. I meditate for 30 minutes twice a day and all the team are aware that I take time out to do this. I hope that this sets a tone and that I lead by example on this. If I can take time out to take care of my mental health then the team know they are also welcome to do so.”
WHAT CAN BUSINESSES DO TO HELP?
“Business owners have a duty of care for their employees,” says Daniel Ure, of online PPE retailer Vizwear, “and their mental wellbeing is as much of a risk as physical harm.
“Mental health is getting more of a spotlight than previously, yet it’s still a sore subject for some and is still seen to be surrounded by stigma. As it can be a difficult thing for many of us to bring up, especially in an industry that doesn’t historically talk about it, it’s up to business owners and managers to take the appropriate steps to create a safe and supportive work environment for their employees.”
Daniel recommends businesses:
- Hire the right people
Ensure employees are appropriately experienced for the role they are being asked to fulfil. Don’t cut corners and budgets to your detriment.
- Create an in-depth training manual (and stick to it!)
Training manuals are an employee’s first glimpse as to what is expected of them in the workplace and what they will receive in return. This is a great opportunity to outline a clear code of conduct for staff to adhere to, creating a positive work environment for everyone.
- Develop a supportive work environment It’s vital that your staff are working as a team to support each other. This can be as simple as showing gratitude for a job well done, something that is often overlooked in the catering industry, but can go a long way.
- Switch up the menu regularly When a chef has made a career out of their passion and worked hard to climb up the ladder, the last thing they want is to create the same handful of dishes on repeat.
- Evaluate your kitchen layout One of the easiest ways to make your staff more comfortable at work is to optimise your space. Kitchens are often dark and are always hot environments, adding to the pressure of the workday. Re-evaluate the layout of your kitchen and think about whether you’re making the most of the available space. Updating your equipment can also help with conditions in the kitchen.
- Stamp out bullying Bullying is an outdated trait which has been passed down from an older generation of chefs. Ban swearing in your kitchen and perhaps adopt an open kitchen design to be more customer-facing.
So Lets Talk
After 10 years working in the hospitality sector in the North West and experiencing mental health issues in the process, Patrick Howley has created a new platform for like-minded hospitality professionals to talk about mental health and addiction within the industry.
‘So Let’s Talk’ launched in February of this year and will be organising free
wellbeing activities and events, training packages, along with an app, cookbooks and podcasts. Patrick says: “I earned my stripes in the industry and while doing so, fell into a destructive cycle of long hours, no sleep, poor nutrition, high alcohol consumption and recreational drug use. The trade that made me damn near broke me.”
WHAT SUPPORT IS AVAILABLE?
• Pilot Light (www.pilotlightcampaign.co.uk) – Pilot Light is a campaign
focused on changing the way people think and act about mental health through addressing the industryspecific contexts and environments found in professional kitchens and the broader hospitality sector.
• Hospitality Action (www.hospitalityaction.org.uk) Hospitality
Action was established in 1837 and has since offered vital assistance to all who work, or have worked within hospitality in the UK. If you work in catering or hospitality and need urgent help or support in regards to your mental health, there are also a number of confidential services and advice lines available:
• Mind 0300 123 393 – Provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem
• Samaritans 116 123 – Confidential 24-hour support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts
START A MENTAL HEALTH CONVERSATION
Hospitality Action’s new mental health campaign aims to get people talking and its website (https://www.hospitalityaction.org.uk/get-help/mental-health-campaign/) is full of resources, including a downloadable helpsheet with tips to help you spot the signs in yourself and others. Hospitality Action also runs a suicide awareness course to help prepare managers to respond to calls for help from colleagues
HAPPINESS WITH EVERY BITE
In its new campaign, pladis, parent company of McVitie’s and Jacob’s, is calling for the industry to create change and start more conversations around mental health. The company is going on tour with its Happiness Couch over the next 18 months visiting customers, wholesalers and trade shows, inviting the industry to sit down and have a chat over a cuppa and a biscuit to learn more about where they can receive support or help employees. Lisa Warner, out of home foodservice controller, pladis, says: “Our aim is to promote the help available by telling the story and signposting the industry to where this support can be found.”
One in three people working in hospitality stay in their jobs longer because of friendships at work, according to a new study. Independent research from employee engagement technology firm Eko(www.ekoapp.com), has revealed that people working in hospitality are four times more likely to stay put for friendships than a pay rise. When asked to choose the top three factors that would make them stay in their job for longer, the survey found:
• 33% OF HOSPITALITY WORKERS want greater flexibility to work remotely
• 30% OF PEOPLE WORKING IN THE HOSPITALITY SECTOR, including restaurants, bars, hotels and catering, placed friendships at work at th very top of their list
• 30% said they would be more likely to stick with an employer if they invested more in wellbeing, personal health and inclusion
• JUST 7% specifically cited a pay rise as something that would make them stay with their employer for longer