Inside a busy restaurant.
Unsplash/Adam Nieścioruk

The key to success: self-efficacy, which many restaurants have.

Psychologist: Restaurants Should Trust Experience to Navigate Pandemic 

You just need to ride out the uncertainty.

Business psychologist Dr. Roger Hall, an executive coach to entrepreneurs and leaders, compares the COVID-19 pandemic to a series of experiments involving electric shock.

Results show that if you strap a person to a shock plate and tell them they will receive a shock in 15 minutes, their heart rate will increase. If you tell them they “may” receive a shock, the heart rate will increase even higher.

Why? Hall explains that it’s because uncertainty creates anxiety and fear, and the global pandemic has caused uncertainty unlike anything the world has seen in a long time.

“Certain pain creates anxiety,” Hall says. “Uncertainty about pain makes even more anxiety. What people are looking for is some sort of certainty. Hey, we know it’s going to hurt. The folks in the restaurant business, I feel bad for the quick-service restaurants because they have no more in-store dining, but at least they have drive thru. I feel very bad for the full-service dining establishments. Because from the reports I’ve been getting back, it’s essentially devastating.”

“What owners and operators want to know is, what’s going to happen?” he adds. “And as soon as we can get past a few weeks of data on the virus and get some idea of when things are going to open back up, then they’ll still have the anxiety of the certain pain, but the uncertainty will be over. I want to give them hope that yes, we know it’s going to hurt, but eventually the uncertainty will be over.”

Hall, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Ohio State, wants to remind others that the government-mandated shutdowns are artificial in nature, meaning prior to the pandemic, businesses and the economy were strong and demand was high. Hall also notes that while not every restaurant was experiencing solid sales and traffic prior to the pandemic, many businesses that have been open a long time were in great shape. That should give operators hope for the future.

“And there will be a transition time when people are getting back up to speed, re-hiring their employees, getting the logistics of food production, making sure supply lines are back up and running—all of that needs to get restarted,” Hall says. “So there will be some difficulty there. But if you’ve had good business before, you already know how to run a good business and you can run it again. Now it will be difficult, because you have to start it all up again, but it will be possible.

“After the uncertainty is over, they can rely on their past experience to get through it.”

For those used to meeting and greeting people on a daily basis—like workers in the foodservice industry—self isolation presents an issue. A majority of the U.S. is under stay at home orders, which prevents nonessential travel. Nearly all dining rooms are closed, forcing restaurants to have limited contact with customers via takeout, delivery, and in some cases, curbside and drive thru.

“At least for the restaurant industry, in time, I believe people will want to go back to being around other people. I think that time will come and I believe restaurants and bars will be places where people do that," business psychologist Dr. Roger Hall says.

Hall says there’s evidence that handshaking, hugs, and other forms of physical touch release a hormone called oxytocin, which is the same hormone released when a mother has a baby. Essentially this means physical touch makes people feel connected.

He notes that even though people can’t meet face-to-face, society can be thankful that technology allows most individuals to connect with each other. When social distancing bans are lifted, Hall believes there will be a greater appreciation for relationships and physical touch.

“Once these travel bans and congregation bans are lifted, and people are allowed to get face-to-face with one another, shake hands, hug, people will want to do that,” Hall says. “At least for the restaurant industry, in time, I believe people will want to go back to being around other people. I think that time will come and I believe restaurants and bars will be places where people do that.”

Regarding how employers treat employees, Hall says the only thing operators can do at this point is give their best intention. If they had to lay off workers, they may say “Our best intention is to open as soon as possible and to hire people back as soon as we can.” Some employers have taken that message of support a step further by foregoing their salary, including leaders at Darden, Texas Roadhouse, and Yum! Brands.

Hall also makes the point that high self-esteem isn’t a requirement for success. The primary concept is self-efficacy, which he says successful operators have at a high level. Those with high self-efficacy are able to use their past experiences to solve problems they’re facing now.

“And that’s a very important difference,” Hall says. “… And what I know about the restaurant business, and again I don’t know a lot about it, but it strikes me as being a very difficult business. The margins are low, the food costs are variable, the labor costs are variable and so there’s so many variables to take care of and at the same time providing people hospitality. … These owners and operators have been successful in the past, they have a track record of solving difficult problems in a dynamic environment. They can figure this out once the uncertainty is over.”