In 2013, Doug Stephen was working 14-hour shifts at the helm of his first restaurant, Merchant’s Oyster Bar, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
“I would wake up and be looking at social media, e-mails, texting and ordering around 8 to 9 a.m.,” Mr. Stephen recalls. “I’d be into the building by about 10 a.m. and then, towards the latter half of the actual service, I’d start drinking. By the time I was leaving, around midnight or 1 a.m., I was fairly drunk.”
For him, alcohol was a mechanism to combat the stress of working in the food and beverage industry, which is notorious for its long hours, high-pressure environment, low pay and a culture that promotes a “work hard, play hard” attitude.
Hassel Aviles, a food and beverage consultant in Toronto, hopes that culture can shift by increasing awareness around how mental health affects the industry.
“It’s this elephant in the room of every restaurant, bar, hotel, hospitality outlet, and yet no one is really talking about it,” Ms. Aviles says. “That’s from ownership, all the way down to the dishwasher.”
In late 2017, she, along with chef Ariel Coplan, co-founded a Toronto-based organization called Not 9 to 5 to increase awareness about mental-health issues in the food and beverage industry. They run workshops on topics like talking to your boss about mental health and mental-health basics for managers. They also serve as resources to help those in the industry find help and treatment.
Mr. Coplan and Ms. Aviles say most food and beverage industry staff don’t speak openly about their mental-health struggles for fear of being judged and stigmatized, or even losing their jobs.
Ms. Aviles, who sought help for her own depression and anxiety 15 years ago when she was first entering the industry as a server, hopes that increasing awareness can help more people.
“It’s made me feel like I can be in this industry for a long time, longer than I originally anticipated, because I have coping strategies and I have skills,” she says.
Awareness of mental health in the food and beverage industry is growing.
In Vancouver, Mind the Bar offers mental-health resources and a community hub for sharing experiences.
In Montreal, J.C. Rainville and David McMillan of the restaurant Joe Beef, are starting an alcohol use and addictions-focused organization for industry workers.
At the Mahjong Bar, a Chinese snack bar on Toronto’s Dundas West strip, staff are given wellness credits of up to $50 a month to spend on activities such as massage appointments, therapy and yoga classes.
Chef Nick Liu of the modern Chinese restaurant DaiLo has implemented a health-benefits program for his staff. It costs him about $2,000 an employee, which he has helped to offset by raising menu prices. It’s tough for an industry that’s already operating with slim margins. But for Mr. Liu, the benefits outweigh the costs.
“Staff morale is at an all-time high,” he says. “This is the best version of DaiLo that has ever existed. It feels good to come into work every day.”
Mr. Stephen, who sold his oyster restaurant and opened a fried chicken operation in Vancouver called the DownLow Chicken Shack, also offers health benefits to both part- and full-time staff. He also caps shifts at eight hours. For owner-operators concerned about their bottom line, he offers a different perspective.
“You have to acknowledge the fact that there is a dollar value on staff retention,” he says. “Labour shortage leads to burned-out employees, which leads to additional training time. We’re talking about a loss of quality of product where you’re potentially damaging your relationships with the guests who come through your doors.”
Mr. Coplan, who runs the wine bar Grand Cru Deli in Toronto, says there are small ways to make a change without affecting profits. For example, he shifted his kitchen staff to a four-day workweek.
“Pretty immediately, I saw the effects of it,” he recalls. “It was very, very positive. Everyone was more productive. Everyone was coming in happier.”
He also reached out to GoodLife Fitness and negotiated a group membership rate for his staff, which also cost him nothing. For the traditional end-of-shift drinks, Mr. Coplan reframed it as an opportunity for tasting and sharing product knowledge of new wines and beverages.
Addressing the elephant in the room is one of the most effective ways to incite change, those in the industry say. That can be as simple as having staff feel comfortable talking to their managers about mental health.
“We’re very open with all the staff,” Mr. Stephen says. “They can talk about any problems that they might have and we’re always going to listen.”
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