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According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 52.9 million people in the U.S. experienced some form of mental illness in 2020.

In the Wake of COVID, Restaurants Take Closer Look at Mental Health

The pandemic, coupled with events like the death of Anthony Bourdain, has brought mental health to the forefront—and restaurants are joining the conversation.

Working in the service industry is no cakewalk. Jobs in the hospitality space are taxing and can be both physically and mentally demanding. Long shifts spent on your feet, irregular hours, and dealing with customers are challenging, even for the most seasoned industry veterans. The pressures surrounding these jobs can and do weigh heavily on the mental health and well-being of restaurant workers.

It’s a slippery slope Mickey Bakst knows all too well.

Bakst, who retired from the restaurant world in fall 2020, worked as a general manager and maître d’ at the Charleston Grill in South Carolina for more than 15 years, earning him the title of “unofficial mayor of Charleston” along the way. But back in the early days of his career, he wrestled with substance abuse and even suffered from an overdose in the early 1980s.

Ben’s Friends

Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst

Although Bakst has maintained his sobriety for four decades, he’s watched others wrestle with those same demons. Along the way, one friend, a Charleston chef named Ben Murray, lost the battle, taking his own life in 2016 after years of struggling with addiction and depression. The loss prompted Bakst and restaurateur Steve Palmer, who has also grappled with substance abuse and addiction, to take action.

“In our careers, we have watched so many people destroy their lives due to drugs and alcohol,” Bakst says. So the pair started Ben’s Friends, an organization that offers support and community

to restaurant workers on the path to sobriety, as well as those who have already achieved it.

Drug addiction is the mental health issue most often associated with the restaurant world, but that’s not to imply it’s the only illness to afflict the industry—far from it. Bakst says more recent conversations surrounding mental health struggles, like depression, weren’t openly discussed on a large scale until the death of Anthony Bourdain in 2018. He believes Bourdain’s suicide has been a turning point for the industry.

“That’s where I believe the seed of this new dialogue has come from,” he says.

Acknowledging mental health

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 52.9 million people in the U.S. experienced some form of mental illness in 2020. That translates to one in five struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.

Statistics related to the foodservice world are even more telling. A survey conducted by the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America found that food and beverage was among the unhealthiest industries in the country across various criteria, such as burnout, lack of supervisor support, financial instability, and negative mental health outcomes. Other consistently unhealthy industries included manufacturing, retail, and automotive

Per the same survey, half of all F&B workers felt the stress from their jobs “always or often” affected relationships outside of work.

Problems that start small can snowball, particularly in an industry whose innately celebratory nature can easily spill over into employees’ personal lives. Forty-three percent of workers reported relying on unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking, as a means of coping with stressors from the workplace, according to Mental Health America.

Qiana Torres Flores

“Some of the most common things I see are stress, burnout, and addiction issues because it’s a pressure cooker of an environment,” Qiana Torres Flores says. Flores is a full-time mental health clinician working as the wellness director for Bonanno Concepts, a hospitality group based in Denver.

A position like in-house counselor is rare in just about any industry, but especially the restaurant world, where profit margins are tight. Nevertheless, Flores’ appointment could signal a shift, if not a sea change, in how restaurants address mental health.

Frank Bonanno, chef-owner of Bonanno Concepts, says the group is able to employ a full-time clinician in part because it’s a private business with no responsibilities to shareholders. This gives Bonanno a great deal of latitude with respect to the bottom line, and he’d rather prioritize staff well-being.

Having worked in the service industry herself, Flores is keenly aware of how intense it can be. She says these stresses were only exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly in the service and hospitality space, which suffered more than almost any other industry.

The constant worry over layoffs and furloughs, as well as the potential consequences cast a dark shadow over an already stressed demographic.

“Work in hospitality or restaurants typically means meeting people’s every need on a regular basis,” Flores says. “That requires putting your own needs on the backburner in order to meet someone else’s.”

She adds that very little attention is paid to taking care of the people who take care of guests when they venture out for a night on the town. For those working in the service industries, questions aimed at accommodating the guests are fired off frequently. “How are we doing today, folks?” “What can I get for you?” “Do you have everything you need?”

Even behind the scenes, questions like these are rarely directed to the staff who wait on customers, prepare their meals, and anticipate their every desire. Bonanno and his wife and business partner, Jaqueline, recognized this dynamic for what it was: a deficit that needed to be addressed.

“Mental health is an issue throughout the United States,” Bonanno says. “We knew other industries and companies had mental wellness counselors or mental therapy available for their people, and we wanted to change our industry. We want our industry to be thought of in that same way.”

Lee Wilson, Bonanno Hospitality

COVID opens the door

Others are coming to the same realization. Due in part to the pandemic, efforts to prioritize the mental health and general well-being of staff can be seen throughout the country in what Flores describes as a paradigm shift.

Like many hospitality businesses, Bonanno Concepts was forced to temporarily halt operations in the early days of the pandemic. Before reopening, the owners decided to poll staff across their 10 restaurants about their wants and needs. Bonanno says the results were a bit surprising.

“Money was No. 3,” he says. “Paying people more doesn’t necessarily make them happier. You want your people to be happy.”

Instead, the most important factor was mental health.

“We have a lot of friends who are psychologists, and we bounced some ideas off them,” Bonanno says. “I’ve spent enough time on a couch, but I don’t know what a [mental health] program looks like.”

Joe Bonanno

Joe Bonanno

With that in mind, the Bonannos set out to find a mental health professional who could develop a program that would cater to the needs and schedules of staff members. The search for the right candidate began last summer, and by October, Flores was providing free mental wellness sessions.

Bonanno points out that hospitality workers have traditionally faced a number of barriers in seeking mental health services. Not only can therapy be expensive, but scheduling during non-working hours can also be difficult. A dedicated, full-time counselor eliminates both challenges.

With many restaurant employees working nontraditional hours, having a professional like Flores readily available is one way to ensure staff members at least have the option to participate in the program if they like.

Plus, as Bonanno points out, offering free mental health services differentiates it from competitors, making it a more desirable place to work. The company also pays 75 percent of healthcare costs for its employees.

All these benefits “legitimize the restaurant business and make it seem like it’s really a career,” Bonanno says.

Employees can access Flores’ services through several channels. Seminars, group therapy sessions, and daily check-ins are all part of her responsibilities as wellness director. She also meets individually with workers and, if needed, will steer staff in the direction of a more permanent therapist who can better attend to their specific needs.

Flores says one of the initial challenges when she was brought onboard was dealing with the stigma that’s attached to the topic of mental health. She says clarifying some misconcep   tions surrounding mental well-being was a necessary first step.

“There’s still this idea that therapists are going to sit there and analyze everything you say … and we’re going to figure it all out,” she says. “But ultimately the process is about finding balance.”

Bonanno Concepts’ head sommelier and wine director Lee Wilson is one employee who has already taken advantage of the new mental wellness services.

Wilson has worked in the restaurant business for more than two decades and says stress and restaurant work go hand-in-hand. He moved from Boston to Denver six months before the pandemic began. The timing of the move coupled with anxiety brought on by COVID led to Wilson feeling rundown.

Having attended therapy prior to moving, Wilson says he was thrilled when the Bonannos brought Flores onboard. Realizing he was struggling with anxiety and feelings of isolation, even after returning to work, he quickly signed up for a session.

“Frank and Jaqueline really helped me get to where I needed to be,” Wilson says. “It felt like it was a personal move just for me, even though I know it wasn’t. It felt so great because it was a move that showed they really did care about their employees.”

Wilson adds that one of the main things he and Flores work on is achieving a healthy work-life balance. It isn’t an easy process, but he says having someone he can turn to has made a noticeable difference. He says his mental health has absolutely improved.

“Becoming more aware of what it takes to have and maintain balance is really, I think, the most crucial aspect,” he says.

Wilson is far from the only employee who has taken advantage of the free mental health sessions. He’s definitely noticed a broader shift at work.

“To see the overall temperament and mental health and attitudes of everybody in the restaurant being happier … it makes life easier,” he says. “And that’s really what it’s all about. We just want to be happy.”

The Social Order

Ending the stigma

Bonanno Concepts joins a small but growing legion of brands, including one behemoth fast casual, that are placing a premium on mental health. Just last year, Chipotle partnered with Aduro, an expert-led employee well-being platform and launched the virtual mental wellness program Strive, which offers coaching and support to help employees set and achieve well-being goals.

Other brands are taking slightly different approaches with the same end goal of improving the mental health of workers. Oklahoma City–based hospitality group, The Social Order Dining Collective, recently beefed up its benefits package across its multiple concepts, which include fast casuals Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and Spark, as well as full-service restaurants Seven4. Although the group doesn’t have a dedicated therapist on call, it offers employees healthcare benefits, two weeks paid time off, and mental health assistance.

Courtney Mankin, president of The Social Order, thinks the broader emphasis on employee well-being stems from the pandemic, which heightened levels of anxiety and depression. She also says that something as nuanced as mental health can’t rest solely on the individual.

“That responsibility falls on us as the employer because employees often cite their jobs as the reason for their mental health issues,” she says.

Like Flores, Mankin says part of what makes it difficult addressing this topic within the industry is the stigma that comes with it. She believes these conversations could be made easier by granting restaurant employees the same benefits office workers enjoy—and that starts with treating them a certain way.

“I think the first step is a level of respect,” she says. “We have to offer restaurant workers the same kind of respect and perks that we offer traditional workers. As a company, we have tried to ingrain in our people that this is a real job and that it can be a career. We’ve tried to be better at listening to their problems and treating them like they’re real problems. I think that’s huge.”

Still, even restaurant operators with the best intentions may not have the resources to implement programs as Bonanno Concepts and The Social Order have. That’s where volunteer efforts and organizations like Ben’s Friends can step in to fill the void.

In creating Ben’s Friends, Bakst and Palmer looked to their own personal experiences as both veterans of the restaurant industry and recovering addicts to help others within a safe environment. Since the first chapter of Ben’s Friends opened in Charleston six years ago, the group has spread to 15 cities across the U.S. It also offers a virtual Zoom option. The meeting times, often mid-morning, are conducive with restaurant schedules, which typically run from afternoon to late night.

Whether an internal or external resource, Bakst says such initiatives go beyond basic altruism. Taking care of employees’ mental wellness has become nearly a necessity in the current job market, where staffing shortages continue to hinder businesses’ ability to operate at 100 percent.

“It is not news to anybody that our industry is being racked,” he says. “There is such a radical shortage of people that any great operator is going to know, they have to figure out ways to take care of their employees. That’s whether they care to or not. That’s a business decision.”

Regardless of motives, the movement of taking care of your workers is picking up steam. Bakst says several of his friends who are still working in the industry have started running clubs in various cities in an effort to promote healthy living and a healthy alternative to destructive behaviors.

Ultimately, Bakst believes it’s imperative for restaurants to start prioritizing employees’ mental well-being after overlooking it for so many years.

“We haven’t taken the same care of our own people as we took of the strangers who walked into our dining rooms,” he says. “That is really a tragedy.”