As restaurants reopen, mental health concerns need attention, too

COVID-19 has elevated stress and anxiety levels among owners, employees and customers. Here’s how operators are coping.
Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries and Shakes
Photo courtesy of K&N Management

A popular ice cream spot on Cape Cod had hoped to open quietly on the Friday before Mother’s Day. Mark Lawrence, owner of Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour in Mashpee, Mass., posted online that orders had to be placed one hour in advance, but overeager customers didn’t listen and came directly to the store. When staff couldn’t fill orders quickly, several customers took their anger out on the employees. The profane language directed at one 17-year-old caused her to quit at the end of her shift, Lawrence told Boston 25 News.

The risks and isolation associated with COVID-19 have elevated everyone’s anxiety level, but restaurant employees are among the most vulnerable. Many have been furloughed or have had to work in close quarters prepping and delivering meals following new, more stringent safety protocols. And once restaurants reopen for dine-in, everything from wearing a mask during table service to fears about contamination and short-tempered customers can heighten stress. Though not the case at Polar Cave Ice Cream, cash-strapped owners and operators are often too worried about the survival of their businesses to pay close attention to workers’ emotional states. There are strong feelings of isolation and anger at the top, as evidenced by comments to a post about mental health support on Restaurant Business’Coronavirus in the Food and Beverage Industry Facebook page.

But taking care of one another now can pay off in the long run. “We’ve all lost something during this health crisis,” says Katherine Thyne, a psychotherapist based in Atlanta. “Managers and owners need to acknowledge that collective grief as well as individual grief, as do employees. But it’s up to leadership to share a reassuring message that everyone is on the same mission.”

Take a look at how some operators are providing mental health support during COVID-19—often without a huge investment of time or money.

Rules of engagement

From the onset of the crisis, the management team at Mojo’s in north central Florida contacted each of its 300 employees weekly to check up on them, says Rondo Fernandez, the restaurant and music venue’s owner. “I personally checked comments on the social media feeds of foundational employees to see if they were posting about depression, sadness or financial concerns,” he says. “I gave back some of my PPP money as bonuses to my long-term staff and a $75 gift card to every employee to build morale,” he says. “Plus, we created a community fund that they could tap into if needed.”

Fernandez also initiated a unique program that yielded big dividends during the crisis—a chaplain is on hand at each of Mojo’s four locations. “In exchange for free meals, the pastor comes into the restaurants twice a week and builds relationships with the employees,” he says. “They know that someone is there for them to listen and counsel them.” Fernandez also gives each pastor’s church an annual budget of $1,500 that can be used for Mojo’s catering services. Plus, the clergymen have a small fund that is going toward a lunchtime bible study group for those who want to participate.

“In everything we do, we put out the message that our employees don’t work for you, they work with you,” says Fernandez.

Communication is key

Immediately formulating a communication strategy was key to employee support at Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q and Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries and Shakes, concepts operated by K&N Management out of Austin, Texas. As Gini Quiroz, director of team member engagement for the company points out, “The uncertainty early on created lots of questions and fear—especially as guidelines began to change rapidly. We created a communication strategy right away that provided a consistent pace in which we would send out information,” she says. “We never wanted it to be a mystery or have our teams wondering when they were going to hear from leadership.”

Rudys employees

Quiroz sent daily messages through email, Slack, mass texts and postings, providing the most up-to-date information, what might occur that week and any changes in processes. K&N also employs two individuals in its team members care (TMC) roles. “The moment the pandemic hit, we increased their hours, including nights and weekends, and ensured our teams were reminded that they could reach out 24/7 for anything,” says Quiroz. “They are experts on our benefits and have resources to refer employees to affordable counselling, legal support, you name it.” Team members also can access an “Ask Here” function on their mobile payroll app to ask questions or provide suggestions to leadership.

Tech as a touchpoint

Gabby Kreul, HR director for Lindy’s Landing and Slyce Coal Fired Pizza, owned by the same Wauconda, Ill.-based restaurant group, maximized the company’s online scheduling tool to engage employees during the health crisis. “Schedulefly was the best way to communicate with all of the staff,” she says. “It has a platform similar to Facebook, and I could put up encouraging posts as well as privatize messages to individuals,” she says.

Kreul launched “Mental Health Mondays” through Schedulefly, and each week, she posted messages that communicated “it is OK to not be OK,” linking to mental health programs and resources employees could access, hotlines to call, online yoga and meditation classes, and more. “I even found some information about the mental health effects of wearing a face mask … how it can make you feel even more isolated and anxious,” she says. For servers who interact with guests, the face mask makes it difficult to extend hospitality. “So much of communication isn’t verbal, and the mask takes away smiles and body language,” she adds.

Brinker International, parent company of Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy, has a much larger pool of employees—65,000 in total—but a scheduling app also served as a valuable tool for reaching the workforce during the pandemic. “As soon as the virus hit, we encouraged employees to reengage in Hot Schedules’ texting platform with questions and concerns,” says Rick Badgley, EVP and chief people and administrative officer for the brands. Also in place was a hotline handled by Team Member Relations that workers can call or text 24/7. 

Chilis Mental Health

Additionally, Brinker overcommunicated that the company’s Magellan Employee Assistance Program (EAP) was open not only to all employees, but also their family members in need of mental health resources and support. Consultations and counseling sessions are free, unlimited and confidential. The EAP also provides self-care apps to improve wellness habits and online programs to help with depression and anxiety. 

“The average age of our restaurant workers is 22,” says Badgley. Ordinarily, this age group suffers disproportionately from mental health issues, and COVID-19 is emphasizing them. “They’re experiencing it live,” he says.

As employees return to the dining room floors and kitchens at Chili’s and Maggiano’s, their managers are being trained on “the softer side of things” along with the essential safety and sanitation protocols. “We created videos for managers on how to interact with employees and handle unique circumstances and stresses,” says Badgley.

Kreul is also engaging in additional training. At the Slyce locations that have been operating takeout all along, she talked frequently with floor managers to identify some of the major stresses resulting from the coronavirus spread. That sparked the idea for an orientation session geared to reopening. “We are helping managers develop scripts for dealing with different scenarios that can arise as employees come back to work, and are using role-playing to make them real,” she says.

Coping in a crisis

By its very nature, the restaurant industry is fertile ground for alcohol and drug use. Late nights and easy accessibility encourage abuse, and this unprecedented health and economic crisis has the potential to exacerbate the problem.

Managers and owners cannot prevent employees from drinking, says Laura Green, a licensed professional counselor and spirts educator who previously worked behind the bar. Instead, “have open conversations about how stressful a time this is, but it’s not the time to rely on alcohol and other substances to cope,” she suggests.

Acknowledge that alcohol is part of the job, but as the structure of restaurants and bars is in a state of flux right now, this may be a good time to change the tradition of post-shift drinking. “Create a new way to decompress after work in your own space,” Green says. “It’s OK to pour a glass of beer or wine for employees, then sit around and look at how the day went. Talk about what went right and what can be changed.”

Getting people back to work, and safely, will vastly improve their self-esteem, wellness and awareness, said James Galdikas, an experienced GM, in a Facebook comment. “Managers need to be keenly aware of the dynamics of return to keep the focus positive.”

In response to some of the anger and negativity posted by other folks on the Facebook group, an unemployed server commented, “There has never been more of a need for us to come together and support the health and well-being of everyone who works in this industry. When we are healthy we can take better care of our guests and our communities.”


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