Earlier this summer, Anthony Bourdain's suicide sent shockwaves through the industry and put a spotlight on a very important issue that often goes undiscussed: mental health in restaurants. Due to the very nature of the profession as it exists now, more and more chefs and restaurant workers are speaking out about the strain put on their health by the industry. Bourdain himself was someone who in his 2000 memoir 'Kitchen Confidential' unmasked the kinds of lifestyles chefs were exposed to behind the scenes, which customers were often entirely unaware of. Recent studies have shown how often those who work in restaurants are susceptible to having unhealthy working conditions; Code's Hospitality Industry Report stated that mental health was still one of the number one key issues for people working in the restaurant industry. People are frequently reporting being unhappy with the environment they're working in or witnessing around them: while this does not speak to all professional kitchens, it does suggest that there are some fundamental steps restaurants need to take to ensure a positive work environment for their employees.
Often in restaurants, there is the unspoken understanding that the meal and service come first. Everything else, your personal life, health or sense of balance, can be sacrificed to make that happen. Restaurant kitchens are a notoriously intense place: Chef Daniel Paterson remarked earlier this year that "the restaurant kitchen resembles a war zone more than a professional work environment." Unite Report found that almost half of chefs in the UK work between 48–60 hours a week, while even more startlingly around the same number said they had suffered from some form of depression and that their hours had negatively impacted upon their health. Long, unsociable hours in close confinement, where perfection is valued above everything else, do not typically make for a healthy atmosphere. As a result, chefs feel isolated and unable to speak up about the obstacles and issues they're facing.
Recent events have shifted the language around work culture in the industry from being an 'occupational hazard' to something that can be tackled and fixed. More and more chefs are speaking out: some on a personal level on their Instagrams, others by creating larger non-profits and movements which focus on the issue. Not 9 to 5 is a community-driven organization which has started by holding panels between restaurants and local business leaders to normalize discussions around mental health: Chefs with issues is an online community designed for chefs to share their mental health stories with one another. All of these platforms are helping to foster important awareness of how professional kitchens are being impacted, and will also hopefully lead to customers holding greater value and appreciation for the work chefs do. Being a chef will always be a high pressure job which attracts driven and passionate people, however, restaurants and customers can both do the best they can to ensure those very same qualities don't lead to early burn-out.
So what steps can restaurants implement to start tackling this important issue? We've rounded up a few ideas and lines of thinking that all restaurants, no matter their size, can use to forge a better culture and management system all around.
For a restaurant, it all starts with the hiring process and how you create your team. One of the key elements of this is having a well laid out restaurant training manual which your team can use to understand their place and purpose. They can also then continually refer back to this manual to make sure that these expectations remain the same.
An important aspect of this is also including a clear code of conduct, which all members of the team feel comfortable with. Having that level of transparency and understanding will lead to both more productive management and more constructive discussions in the future. That training manual would hopefully be designed to outline clearly what's expected of a good employee and also a good leader, such as their responsibilities and goals; that way everyone is on the same page. Explaining what you expect from leadership continues to have a ripple effect well into your restaurant's future, as your current employees go onto train and lead other new team members. Devoting time to building those blocks is highly valuable. Your employees feel you're investing time in fostering their skills and career path, and not just treating it as disposable labor.
Another smart element to have in your training manual is your restaurant's mission and core values. If you want to lead a great restaurant, it doesn't just include creating a unique brand message your customers can get behind, but also a core vision that your staff understands too. It will help them understand why they're there and what they're contributing; providing that motivation can help staff members function better as a team with a common purpose.
In an ideal world, the advice to improve chef working conditions would be to offer better pay and more regular hours. However ultimately, for an industry with such tight margins, that is not always feasible, particularly for smaller restaurants. If you have the breathing space in your budget, you can consider shorter shifts, weekends off etc. Those certainly create a healthier work/life balance for your employees.
Nonetheless, what is possible for all restaurants is creating and cultivating a positive work environment where all members feel valued and supported. When managing a restaurant, your job consists of not only ensuring your customers are having a positive experience, but that your team is feeling the benefits too.
To create that experience, make it known that your employees are always able to ask for help or assistance if needed. You want to be in a position where your staff understands that their opinions and perspectives are valued. Above all make sure that everyone is treated with respect: create an environment where disrespect or abuse will not be tolerated. If someone in your team is struggling, maintaining a culture of silence is extremely detrimental to your restaurant's overall atmosphere. You may not be able to alter the number of hours your chefs are working at this point but you can at least provide them with a supportive, healthy environment that makes them want to be there.
In the long term, in an industry where understaffing and high turnover is another big issue, this will help create and retain a happy group of staff. It's amazing how far just showing respect and understanding can take you.
Your workers are there, presumably, because they have a passion for food and hospitality: find out the best way for them to demonstrate that! In our interview with Chef George Ennis, he emphasized the importance of variety: keeping things interesting for chefs by rotating their duties or dishes. Start by introducing more seasonal changes to your menu, so there's a consistent stream of variety.
It's been pointed out that the stresses of professional kitchens are often compounded by a cramped layout and intense heat from the cooking. Take a look at whether your professional kitchen is making maximum use of its space and also consider the kitchen equipment you're using: one restaurant found that by switching from gas to induction stoves, noise and heat stress almost immediately reduced by half, which helped create a happier environment for all working there.
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