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Restaurants find the secret to a healthier workplace is already on the payroll

Training workers to notice warning signs and be a proactive peer resource is gaining steam post-pandemic. But modeling healthy behavior may be the best place to start.
Illustration by Midjourney

Frank Pace Jr. stayed in San Francisco after graduating from the California Culinary Academy in the mid-1990s, cooking his way up in some of the city’s best restaurants. He was also partying hard.

“I was working in an industry that’s a form of celebration. You’re making people feel good and you want to feel good, too,” said Pace. “Cooks go to bars after work, stay late and you’re celebrating. Then, you wake up one day and you have an addiction.”

Eight years later, Pace knew it was time to stop drinking and using drugs. The then-sous chef left San Francisco in 2002, heading home to Vermont to try to kick the habit on his own. Six years later, he was still struggling with substance abuse when he got a lead on a rehab center in New Hampshire and took the plunge.

A celebratory atmosphere and ready access to alcohol and drugs aren’t all that make restaurants fertile ground for a habit—the stresses of running a kitchen and the long hours add fuel, too. And front-of-house employees aren’t immune, either.

“Addiction doesn’t play favorites,” said Pace. “Managers and servers are just as susceptible.”

It starts with the culture

For many 18- to 25-year-olds, restaurants are the gateway to the world of work. And that gate can be a portal to a host of temptations.

“Young employees quickly learn how easy it is to access alcohol and drugs, especially in full-service restaurants with bars,” said Dr. Joel Bennett, CEO of Organizational Wellness & Learning Systems (OWLS), an enterprise that provides training programs for the hospitality industry. “At that age, there’s a strong tendency to be a risk taker.”

Providing mental health training for managers and building peer-to-peer support are keys to reaching that “emerging adult server population,” Bennett said.

Many restaurant companies are taking this intentional sort of approach, particularly post-pandemic, as mental wellness has become a top priority in the workplace. The Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers (CHART) is one of the leaders when it comes to developing programs and guidelines for managers and human resource departments.

“CHART gives member companies the tools and skills to develop and layer in wellness programs that improve the quality of the work experience,” said Rachel Richal, current president of CHART and VP of training for Buffalo Wild Wings. “Trainers are at the forefront of change.”

Mental health has become more of a focus since the pandemic began, she said, and CHART has expanded its webinars, regional training forums and affinity groups that bring trainers together to share best practices. Several have included substance abuse experts as well as peer discussion on the issue.

“A lightbulb went off that we have to be more proactive than reactive, and at our August conference, we had five breakouts that dealt specifically with mental health,” Richal said. “The pandemic called for a cultural reset.”

Pace has been clean for 14 years now and activated that kind of cultural reset as soon as he started working in restaurants again. He is now chef-partner in three Vermont restaurants: Great Northern, Zero Gravity Beer Hall and August First, all in and around Burlington.

“You can’t come off as preachy when you see staff going down the wrong path,” he said. “It’s about modeling good behavior and creating a philosophy of living a healthy life.”

Pace uses his experience in recovery to do exactly that. It begins with the interview process, when he lays out his wellness philosophy and talks about his journey—balancing work and family, destressing through daily meditation, making time for regular exercise and more. Wellness is also a point of discussion at staff meetings.

Developing the tools

Like Pace, Bennett warns managers to stay off the soapbox and, instead, create a culture that encourages communication. “Because of our belief in the cultural approach, we take the time to both learn the culture and empower and tool-up local managers. They can’t do it over a quick lunch-and-learn or by distributing brochures,” he said. “Mental health and substance abuse awareness should start with orientation and repeat at least once a quarter, if possible.”

Signage is an easy first step. Physical signs in the restaurant and internal digital tools can reinforce care for employees and the value of open communication, as well as share local resources for mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Larger companies are increasingly incorporating mental wellness into their employee assistance programs (EAP). CHART member and VP of People Kelly McCutcheon, who oversees 50-unit Hopdoddy Burger Bar and Grub Burger Bar, developed a resource website through their EAP, including a 24-hour hotline and a texting-based “Talkspace” for employees and their families to access licensed therapists and counselors.

McCutcheon also developed an app for employees that leads them to information and resources. One of the app’s core takeaways is ALGEE—an acronym for recognizing the warning signs of a mental health or substance abuse crisis and taking appropriate action. The “A” stands for assess for risk or harm, “L” for listen non-judgmentally, “G” for give information and encouragement, “E” for encourage professional help and “E” for encourage self-help or other support. 

“Most of the help for substance abuse and mental health problems should be professional-based,” said McCutcheon. “We teach managers to listen non-judgmentally and offer resources and referrals—not advice. We don’t want them to be prescriptive.”

The value of peers

While managers are important role models, restaurants can also engage peer ambassadors as informal mentors, said Bennett.

“When employees struggle, we have found that they can receive helpful but simple advice from same-age ambassadors or those who have just slightly more maturity,” he said. “Young restaurant workers care about each other, and if they have a psychologically safe place to talk, they will open up.”

“Best today, better tomorrow” is Hopdoddy’s mantra, and for a less formal approach, McCutcheon taps employees to lend their skills in creating a more zen workplace and healthier culture.

“You don’t have to be a subject matter expert to provide support,” she said. “One of our accountants does yoga exercises online and our chef put together a workout video.”

Recovery-friendly spaces

Alcohol or drug abusers who go through a rehab and recovery program may feel too vulnerable to go back into the restaurant environment that brought on the addiction in the first place.

When Pace was ready to once again pursue his passion as a chef, he was hired by The Spot in Burlington, Vt., which operates a “sober kitchen” and employs a number of recovered addicts. The group worked together to maintain sobriety, forming tight bonds and reaching out to others in the community who needed a boost. He now volunteers with local sober houses in town and pays it forward by welcoming former addicts to his restaurants.

Neither The Spot nor Pace’s restaurants forbid serving alcohol, but they offer safe spaces and support for those who kicked the addiction.

Any restaurant can become a “designated recovery-friendly environment,” said Bennett. “There’s no stigma to it, and it should be promoted as such to people who come there to dine.”

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