Healthy Mind

What Does Workplace Wellness Look Like When You Work in the Restaurant Industry?

Emily Laurence

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Photo: Getty Images/andresr

The first time I heard about office nap rooms was seven years ago. A friend was telling me about her new job at the Huffington Post, which made headlines for being among the first companies to normalize napping as a means to boost productivity. It may have been the first time I heard of “workplace wellness” benefits, but it definitely wasn’t the last.

In a traditional office workplace—even at a time when many employees are working virtually—workplace wellness may conjure common themes: team workouts (even if over Zoom); access to health services (including telehealth and therapy); and dedicated communities among employees, like a Slack group for parents trying to juggle working from home and their children’s distance learning. But how do initiatives like these translate to those who are not in those office settings but are in restaurants—especially during a pandemic?

It’s an important question to ask considering the research-backed evidence that offerings of this sort may contribute to making employees healthier, happier, and more productive. And given that mental-health disorders are on the rise globally, according to a new chapter in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health, workplace wellness initiatives—in all workplaces—are imperative because, well, work is often a major reason why people feel stressed, anxious, or depressed. According to the 2020 Stress in America Study conducted by the American Psychological Association, seven in 10 employed adults cite work as a culprit of stress.

Some restauranteurs are taking it upon themselves to come up with creative solutions for workplace wellness in the restaurant industry. Here, they share some of those initiatives and reveal the important impact each stands to make.

Making mental health a priority

According to a survey of more than 2,000 restaurant workers conducted by Chefs with Issues in partnership with the nonprofit Heirloom Foundation, 73 percent reported suffering from multiple mental-health conditions, and only 2 percent reported they felt comfortable speaking up about it at work. Knowing this, it’s crucial that employees feel comfortable asking for accommodations to set themselves up for success, and destigmatizing mental-health struggles in the workplace is a necessary first step.

“In 2018, 12 people who worked in the restaurant industry in Sacramento died by suicide and other mental-health conditions,” says Patrick Mulvaney, head chef at Mulvaney B&L in Sacramento, California. He adds that four of those 12 were employees at his own restaurant. In the aftermath of these deaths—which includes one of his close friends who worked at his restaurant—in May 2018, “we started to talk more as restauranteurs and chefs about what our responsibility was. Did we cause this? What’s the solution?” Mulvaney says.

Within a week of losing his friend and colleague to suicide in May, Mulvaney, a dozen other local restauranteurs, the head of a local hospital, and a friend who ran a crisis-support hotline gathered to discuss what mental-health support could look like in the restaurant space. This conversation led to the launch of I Got Your Back, a peer-support program that includes daily mental-health check-ins.

Here’s how it works at Mulvaney B&L: When workers punch in, they anonymously log their mood, using color-coded cards. This gives Mulvaney and the rest of the staff a way to gauge the mental mood of the team that day. “It’s part of the discussion at the beginning of each shift,” he says. “Here’s what the specials are, here’s the mood of the room right now. Most people are feeling good, but a couple people are feeling angry. Who’s in the weeds that could use some extra help tonight?”

“In 2018, 12 people who worked in the restaurant industry in Sacramento died by suicide. … Did we cause this? What’s the solution?” — chef Patrick Mulvaney

There’s also a peer-to-peer counseling component. Anyone who wants to participate undergoes training in how to look for signs that someone may not be in a good place mentally, and how to then lead conversations surrounding mental health. Those who go through training are given a purple hand emblem to wear as a sign they’re available for support. “The real magic happens when people get to talking while they’re washing dishes or shining silverware,” Mulvaney says. “All of the sudden, people are having real conversations.”

He says implementing the program has helped to break down the stigma of talking about mental-health issues and substance abuse in his restaurants. “Last Christmas, an employee came to me and said he was thinking about committing suicide and we were able to get him the help he needed. That conversation would not have happened if he didn’t feel it was a safe space,” Mulvaney says. In addition to Mulvaney’s restaurant, 11 other restaurants have started using the I Got Your Back model, and there’s also an online platform where restaurant workers anywhere can get help anonymously.

Especially during the pandemic, Mulvaney says workers’ mental health has been a priority of his. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a meeting and figured out a way where everyone on staff would be reached out to by someone at least once a week,” he says. “Even if it’s just a text asking how someone is doing and if they need anything, it’s important everyone feel valued, because they are.”

Providing alcohol and substance abuse recovery support

The restaurant industry definitely has a rep of maintaining a work hard, play hard culture, and chef Philip Speer lived by it—at least for a while. “I came up in the Anthony Bourdain era, when partying was a badge of honor, and the industry was male-dominated and full of egotistical kitchen types,” he says.

While outwardly, he was crushing it at work, inwardly, he felt stressed and generally unhappy. “After two failed marriages and multiple battles with drugs and alcohol that were ongoing for a couple decades, it finally caught up with me,” Speer says. After a fourth DWI charge in 2014, he prioritized rebuilding his life.

After recognizing the positive effect his focus on healthier living was having—which he says includes not only avoiding trouble with the law but feeling better overall—he began thinking about how he could help others in the restaurant industry. Speer opened a French-American bistro, Bonhomie, in Austin, Texas, in 2017 and built wellness right into the culture. “I made it my mission to use my poor decision-making skills and battles with addiction to be some sort of positive light in the industry,” he says.

Though Bonhomie is now closed, Speer brought many of the wellness initiatives for the mind and body he started there to his new restaurant, Comedor, which opened in Austin last year. “We had mental-health professionals come in and talk to the staff about how to cope with stress in the restaurant and bar life…and talk about the best posture, so working wasn’t so physically hard,” Speer says.

“I made it my mission to use my poor decision-making skills and battles with addiction to be some sort of positive light in the industry.” —chef Philip Speer

Comedor also offers  free weekly yoga classes (which have gone virtual in light of the pandemic) and a running group for workers (which now meets in smaller groups and maintains social distancing guidelines). “Most running groups meet either early in the morning or in the evening, neither of which is convenient to restaurant workers,” Speer says. “Ours meets at 10 a.m., which allows workers to sleep in but is also before they have to be at work.”

Helping restaurant workers struggling with substance-abuse issues is also a priority of Speer’s. He and his business partner, chef Gabe Earles, are the Austin chairs of Ben’s Friends, a national substance-abuse support group for restaurant workers. “It focuses around addiction in the food and beverage industry and our relationships with drugs and alcohol,” Speer says. Twice a week, their chapter meets (currently virtually) to talk about how to go through recovery while working in the industry, because at many restaurants, alcohol abounds. “The hope is that by creating an open dialogue, more people will feel comfortable to speak with us and let us know what’s going on in their lives,” Speer says.

These workplace-wellness initiatives in the restaurant space seem to be good for business, too: While the restaurant industry tends to have a lot of turnover, Speer says Comedor’s retention rate is high, at 80 percent.

Easing stress in workers’ lives—including finding childcare

For New York City-based chef and West~Bourne owner Camilla Marcus, wellness has always been a cornerstone of her restaurant model. (West~Bourne recently closed due to financial strain from COVID-19, but employees still work through its online market annex and offsite catering venture.) Each employee is given a $35 stipend a month to put toward their well-being—which is free for them to spend as they see fit. “That came out of us saying, all right, every place I’ve ever worked had a gym membership—but what if someone doesn’t like going to the gym?” Marcus says. “What if they found enrichment through a meditation class or a pottery class? Anything that allows someone to grow or feel centered, they can use [the stipend] for that.”

Before each shift, Marcus also hosts what she calls Mindful Minutes, which functions as an open forum for employees to share ideas. “It’s a time when we can give someone a shoutout, and also a space where anyone can give new ideas for menu items, design ideas, or new ways to do things,” Marcus says. Following the open feedback time is a short meditation. “That came from wanting to give [employees] tools for self-calming or empowerment, showing them that you really have the ability to control your mind,” Marcus says. “You gain so much by being able to center yourself in the middle of a shift.”

“Every place I’ve ever worked had a gym membership…[But] what if they found enrichment through a meditation class?” —chef Camilla Marcus

Marcus’s latest workplace wellness initiative is providing childcare for her employees during their shifts. Not only are traditional daycare options expensive, but the hours do not accommodate the shifts restaurant employees tend to work. In October 2019, she teamed up with childcare center Vivvi to offer her employees fully subsidized child care from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., with no out-of-pocket costs. Vivvi allows employers to purchase credits in blocks of 100 at a time for $5,000, which is what Marcus has reportedly done, so her employees can book care as needed.

Offering educational and financial resources

All previous restaurant-industry wellness initiatives highlighted have been made by restaurateurs at local levels, but Chipotle is one chain making it a priority on a larger scale. According to Marissa Andrada, Chipotle’s chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer, all employees (and their family members)—regardless of how many hours they work per week—have access to free financial coaching services, mental health check-ins, reimbursement of up to $5,250 for education expenses, and 12 weeks parental leave. (You can see a full rundown of Chipotle’s employee benefits on its site.)

Andrada says these initiatives have had clear, positive changes. “We’ve had thousands of employees, the vast majority of which are part-time, use these benefits that otherwise would have been unavailable to them,” she says.

Whether it’s small changes (like pre-shift meditations or free workouts) or big ones (like drug and alcohol recovery support groups or paid-for childcare), these are all examples of what workplace wellness can look like in the restaurant industry. “In the restaurant industry, we’re really good at taking care of other people, but we’re not so good at taking care of ourselves,” Speer says. “But the change is powerful. And it just starts with a conversation and wanting to make a change.”

Andrada agrees and notes that now, more than ever, these changes and wellness benefits in the restaurant industry are so crucial to offer. “Physical, mental, and emotional stress brought on by the pandemic and everyday life can affect anyone, regardless of their position or industry,” she says. “It’s of critical importance that employers offer relevant benefits to help employees stay healthy and well.”

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