As a fast-paced, high-energy industry associated with long and irregular hours, it’s no wonder stress in the restaurant industry is rife, with many suffering from anxiety and burnout. But now some restaurateurs are seeking to change the status quo. Rachel Smith reports
Christine Green will never forget the Fonterra Proud to be a Chef launch she attended in Melbourne last year, shortly after chef Jeremy Strode’s tragic suicide. She listened as many in the industry talked about the difficulties they and others faced, before chef Pierre Khodja picked up the microphone and told the room that his profession was the “loneliest job in the world”.
Green, a former chef and restaurateur, realised he was right. “They’re stuck in this metal box day and night, and they come out an empty shell with nothing left to give,” she says. “They give too much to their work, and it’s so draining. I think men especially think it’s expected that they’ll push on and not complain—and even when the pressure gets to them, they’re less likely to reach out for help.”
As anyone in the industry knows, that pressure comes from long hours, shift work, low pay and a culture where bullying—and what Green calls an ‘army-abuse’ culture—is endemic. The need to also ensure consistently high customer satisfaction, deal with rising costs and handle staffing issues mean restaurateurs at the top struggle to cope, too. The recent tragic deaths of some of the food world’s brightest stars—such as Strode, or The Best in Australia’s Darren Simpson—are a grim reminder that something, somehow, needs to change.
“These issues are huge, and they’re hidden,” says Green. “We don’t see it. The general public and the media don’t see it until it’s too late.”
Paying the price
Growing up ‘in the kitchen’ with a dad who was a chef and an alcoholic, restaurateur Jo Yeeles-Sadones from 169 Darlinghurst Road and Tatler nightclub in Sydney agrees overwhelming pressure is a global problem in hospitality.
“I’ve spent my whole life in the industry and been plagued with anxiety and depression,” he says. “I’ve turned to various forms of escapism over the years—be it drugs, alcohol, relationships or work addiction—while simultaneously maintaining that hospitality smile. And we’ve seen [these issues] in our staff, too.”
Yeeles-Sadones adds that as a restaurateur, there are variables you can’t control. “Staff turnover and burnout is really common. So often staff will be working in other venues and doubling up on their jobs—so while we try to be pretty careful with their shifts and think, ‘well, okay, we’ve given them two days off in a row’ or made sure they don’t have a morning shift following a night shift, they may well be working elsewhere too.”
And that clearly takes its toll, says Sydney-based psychologist Jacqui Manning, who’s counselled a lot of apprentices and chefs on the edge.
“I sometimes see people at the point where they need to be referred to a GP because they’re experiencing anxiety or having issues sleeping, they’ve been bullied or just have no work-life balance.”—Jacqui Manning, psychologist
“I sometimes see people at the point where they need to be referred to a GP because they’re experiencing anxiety or having issues sleeping, they’ve been bullied or just have no work-life balance. Difficulties with long-term relationships can also occur because of the long hours, shift work and nature of the job.”
Yeeles-Sadones tried to offer extra support to his staff, teaming up with The Indigo Project in Sydney’s Surry Hills to develop a specific wellness program for hospitality. He also hired a personal trainer and mental health coach to give staff work-outs in a nearby park and the chance to offload without having to “fork out for therapy”. Sadly, the program was too expensive to maintain, he says.
But instead of giving up, Yeeles-Sadones decided to go bigger. “We’re working with an employee branding agency called Lightbox Communications to see if there’s a possibility for a wellness program funded by food and drink sponsors and with government support, that could be rolled out to hospitality employees across the board,” he explains. “We’re at business plan/proposal stages.”
His vision for the program is that it would offer access to training and therapists and resources that help hospitality employees maintain good mental and physical health. “I’m a firm believer that we all need to do what we’re good at—and we’re good at making pasta and knocking up a decent cocktail,” he says. “We by no means are therapists or mental health coaches—but if a nationwide program like this was available, little fish like ourselves could plug into it.”
Christine Green is also working on a series of courses called Off the Hotplate, which will be available from July. They’ll be offered in a range of formats, including individual sessions, group settings and offline as videos so attendees can dip in and out. The courses will be helmed by experts, counsellors and motivational coaches who’ll offer strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with everything from working out your value as an employee to workplace challenges and bullying.
“I’m working on getting the government involved and in a proactive first, Industrylink—the biggest trainer in Tasmania—will be embedding our courses in apprenticeship training programs,” she explains. “I think we have to help stressed chefs in the workplace currently, but I am also committed to giving the kids going in tools to handle emotional and workplace pressure. You look at the collateral damage of this industry, which is screaming for staff because many of them don’t want to sign up and why would they? What incentives are there? The industry’s kind of broken.”
A healthier workplace
As a restaurateur, keeping customers and staff happy is a constant balancing act and if the culture in your restaurant is leaving staff stressed, miserable and burned out, it’s in your power to do something about it, says Jacqui Manning.
“Restaurateurs may be constantly losing staff and training new staff—and that isn’t easy either, especially when you’re juggling everything else involved in running a high-pressure establishment,” she adds.
“But if you want happier staff who stick around and want to create a healthier working environment for your chefs and staff, it starts at the top. It might mean being better at communicating with your staff when you notice they’re not coping, considering the shifts you put them on, checking in with them regularly, helping them access mental health resources if necessary. These things are all about being a great manager but they’re essential in an industry that’s under more pressure than most.”