By Brian Hernandez

 

Author’s Note: The Story Behind the Story

In recent years, I’ve shared my personal journey of grappling with alcohol addiction in various articles, but, to briefly recap, my use was copious. A main contributor to my long-term addiction was my high functionality and elephant-like tolerance. I can now proudly say I have been sober since June 19, 2021. Nothing crazy triggered my transition. I just woke up still feeling the effects of the day before, then decided to see how long I could go without another drink. That was it. Fortunately, I was spared any physical withdrawal symptoms. I’m luckier than most, and I didn’t have to find the professional help that most need. I bring this up not to boast, but to illustrate my genuine interest in how others in our industry get the help they need. That’s why this special report is special to me, and I hope it will help draw much-needed attention to an issue that we can all solve together. 

—Brian Hernandez

 

Is the restaurant industry inherently more stressful than others? Not necessarily. Each industry and occupation carries its unique set of stressors. But restaurant work is characterized by relatively easy access to drugs and alcohol, making temptation a constant presence in our daily lives. Which leads to another pressing question: Does the restaurant industry have a personal wellness problem? The consensus is yes. With demanding schedules, high-paced routines and minimal time for recovery between shifts, many in this industry turn to substances to either stay awake, fall asleep or cope with their personal woes, potentially leading to substance overuse and, in extreme cases, overdose.

It’s a problem that does serious harm to the industry, according to Sarah Webster-Norton, founder of Serving Those Serving (STS), a nonprofit that partners with a national network of mental health providers to help hospitality industry employees. “I think it’s overlooked because that’s just the way it’s always been and because pushing through is really rewarded in our industry,” Webster-Norton says. “There’s no time for feelings. You’ve got work to do. The show must go on.”

 

Creating Awareness

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) offer many important solutions for safeguarding restaurant employees’ well-being. EAPs originated in the 1930s to combat occupational alcoholism, which was prevalent in an era when drinking on the job was accepted. This problem began to manifest in reduced quality and productivity. Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935, is often credited with initiating the sobriety movement in the United States by addressing this problem. Nowadays, many employers offer EAPs, either through insurance or as a supplementary benefit. Organizations like STS have emerged to bridge the gaps in existing wellness plans, offering comprehensive support that includes mental health assistance, addiction counseling, legal and financial guidance, housing, and transportation services, all with a focus on eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health education.

So are more restaurant operators addressing the problem than we might think? “Some employers are excited and happy to see these changes and to see people ask for a work-life balance,” Webster-Norton says. “Others, not so much. But it doesn’t matter, because the workforce is demanding it. Operators may not like it, but employees are having more say over the way things are going when it comes to mental health today, especially after COVID-19. It’s interesting to see that flip.”

Still, awareness remains a critical issue. The stresses faced by restaurant workers often go unnoticed by employers and patrons, and typically only the most perceptive—or those with insider knowledge—can discern the underlying challenges of the business. The untimely passing of Anthony Bourdain brought media attention to the darker aspects of an industry that’s otherwise glamorized on television and in movies. But there’s more work to be done. A few films and TV shows, like The Bear, cannot fully capture the depth of these challenges.

So how can we raise awareness effectively? One of the simplest steps operators can take is to create in-house awareness. “It’s an industry with crazy, odd hours that makes us sometimes feel like we’re not a part of society, because we’re working when everybody else is off,” Webster-Norton notes. “But the only thing we can do is just start talking about it, and that’s it. We just have to keep talking about it.”

For starters, employees should be gently reminded of the availability of EAPs during orientation and in subsequent staff meetings. Dedicate a day specifically to discussing the benefits of these programs to ensure that everyone is well-informed.

Knowing that support is readily available can significantly impact an employee’s mental health. Just ask Jimmy Gadd, a member of the U.S. Pizza Team and an area manager overseeing the Cincinnati market for the Goodfellas Pizzeria chain. Before achieving sobriety in November 2014, Gadd worked various back-of-house jobs and was no stranger to the perilous world of drugs and alcohol. “Drinking was rarely ever my issue,” he recalls. “I was big into drugs, particularly downers and uppers. It didn’t matter what it was. But I identify as an alcoholic, because I link it to a problem with consumption.” Even after nine years of sobriety, he says, “I still can’t open a bag of chips without eating the whole thing.”

Fortunately, a chance encounter one night at a detox center introduced Gadd to some Goodfellas employees who shared their stories of sobriety. He was drawn to their joy in living substance-free, and they embraced him, offering him a job at Goodfellas that would change his life.

Gadd’s experience also highlights the pitfalls of high functionality. “Having a job did help me in some ways,” he recalls. “I could provide rides for the people with the drugs, which benefited me, but it also blinded me to the severity of my addiction.”

He adds, “It’s a common issue where people judge those with addiction problems, like alcoholics reaching for their third six-pack in the morning. It’s easy to say those guys have issues, but it’s often more complex than that. I used to have blinders on, thinking I was highly functional when, in fact, it was a problem.”

While Gadd was still on the fence about entering a formal recovery program, support from a friend, Brian Zai, who had been sober for 30 years, proved instrumental. Zai has since passed away, but his compassion and reassurance played a crucial role in Gadd’s journey toward sobriety, demonstrating the powerful impact a supportive network can have.

Jimmy Gadd

 

Ask, Listen and Offer

Recognizing when someone needs help is a significant challenge. There are three simple actions anyone can take to support coworkers or employees: ask, listen and offer. If you notice a co-worker struggling at work, start by casually asking them if they’re okay. They might respond with a yes, but they might say no. In such cases, listen to what they have to say without pressuring them to disclose anything they are not comfortable talking about. If the situation allows, offer your assistance, whether it be recommending a crisis or addiction hotline or simply offering to be there as someone to talk to. Sometimes, knowing that someone cares and is willing to listen can make all the difference to someone who might be feeling isolated in their struggles.

Encouraging a healthy work-life balance for your employees is also crucial—something more service-industry employers have begun to recognize. But not all of them, unfortunately.

Sarah Webster-Norton

“I think it depends on the establishment,” Webster-Norton says. “But, yes, I have seen a trend toward that becoming much more accepted. It used to be like, if you don’t devote your entire life to this restaurant, then you don’t get to work here. I’m not seeing that as much anymore. I think that the younger crop of people coming through, people in their early 20s, are savvy to mental health needs, more so than any generation I’ve ever seen….And they demand understanding from their employers in that area. So I think a lot of the employees are schooling the employers.”

On the other hand, she adds, “There are some old-school restaurant owners who are really kind of disgusted by this new crop of people who are pointing to their mental health needs. But I think we need to listen to our youth. They oftentimes know more than we do.”

Restaurant operators shouldn’t overlook their own needs, either. Owners and managers often have the most demanding schedules and challenging responsibilities. They can also benefit significantly from EAPs, especially when the pursuit of work-life balance is more elusive due to time constraints.

And remember, it’s OK to be vulnerable. “Being a man,” Gadd says, “I don’t like to ask somebody for help, let alone another man. I don’t want to put all my problems on the table. I think the lack of willingness to put yourself out there and talk about it is really what stops people [from seeking help].”

 

Mental Wellness Resources:

Serving Those Serving: ServingThoseServing.org

Restaurant After Hours: RestaurantAfterHours.org

Ben’s Friends: BensFriendsHope.org

CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach Wellness): ChowCo.org

The National Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 800-273-8255 or 988

Second Chances

With the minimum wage increasing across the U.S., the industry needs to prepare for another stressor, both for employers who can’t afford to pay a higher wage and for employees who can’t find work because of it. During these challenging times, it’s particularly crucial to support one another, especially those who drive your business.

Implementing a robust EAP can result in improved employee performance and higher retention rates. After all, investing in your workforce, the cornerstone of any operation, just makes sense. At the very least, be receptive to your employees’ needs and concerns. Discover your own personal outlets for stress relief, whether it’s cooking, art or throwing axes (in a dedicated facility, that is), allowing you to release tension without harming yourself or your relationships.

Finally, consider rethinking your strategy for managing team members who have an obvious substance abuse problem. “Looking at it as a [need for] disciplinary action as opposed to a healthcare problem…and threatening to fire people or reprimand them for their actions” isn’t the route to take, Gadd says. “I try to support my team as much as possible, even if that means picking up a shift so they don’t have to. Getting out of your comfort zone and from behind the desk…and really providing that shoulder to lean on is one thing. Don’t be a clipboard leader. Secondly, we [at Goodfellas] make sure that we are providing different outlets. We have several programs that we’re trying to link up with. One of them is a 24-hour hotline that has virtual meetings every hour that people with mental issues or mental wellness problems or other issues can reach out to.”

Gadd benefited from a second chance in life and believes your employees deserve the same. “I promise, if they put in the energy and you provide that same kind of energy and guidance, these guys will work to the death for you, and they’ll love every minute of it.”

Webster-Norton agrees. “If owners and operators can retain one employee by using EAP services, you’ve overpaid 10 times for the service for your entire staff,” she says. “The return on investment is really easy to explain to anybody. So, yes, this is morally the right thing to do, but it’s also the right thing to do financially, because your employees are your most valuable and most expensive resource.”   

Brian Hernandez is PMQ’s associate editor and coordinator of the U.S. Pizza Team.

 

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