How Restaurateurs Can Advocate for Employee Health and Wellness

By: Tyler Cumella

9 Minute Read

Jun 25, 2019

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Employee Wellness

Shift drinks and staff meals are benefits your restaurant team has come to expect, but it may be time to start thinking about healthier ways to keep employees happy long-term.

We’re fortunate to live in a time where the national dialogue around wellness — which broadly refers to a person’s overall mental health and physical well-being — is becoming more open and candid. When it comes to promoting wellness in the workplace, there’s no better place to start than the food service and hospitality industry.

According to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the food service and hospitality industry has the highest rates of substance abuse and third-highest rate of alcohol use of all industries. Meanwhile, a 2018 study by the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that service workers who rely on tips are at greater risk for depression, sleep problems, and stress as compared to those in non-tipped, salaried industries. Unfortunately, most restaurants are unable to afford health insurance for their workers, which further exacerbates the problem.

To help in the ongoing fight against this industry-wide struggle, introduce programs and activities that promote a healthier lifestyle for your restaurant staff. New benefits and perks such as these can help with your employees' mental health and physical well-being. They also happen to help with employee retention, which means better business for you.

Here are eight ways to advocate for a healthier restaurant team and, in turn, a healthier restaurant.

1. Create a space for open, non-invasive dialogue

Your team is likely already aware of some of the struggles the restaurant industry faces in terms of wellness, mental health, and addiction. If they haven’t experienced problems with addiction or mental health, it’s extremely likely that someone close to them has. Even so, it’s important to start the dialogue yourself and communicate the facts.

Meet with your team. Discuss some of the struggles endemic to the industry. Ask them what health and wellness mean to them. Keep the conversation going.

Make it clear that the conversation is not to scare or make assumptions about them. It’s to create the space for an ongoing dialogue around physical and mental health. The initial discussion will show your staff you care about their well-being and how it’s affected by the restaurant environment — and how their health impacts the whole restaurant team. 

If you feel comfortable, share your own experience with these issues, or that of a friend, to start the conversation.

2. Lean on other restaurateurs in your community 

Issues with wellness, mental health, and addiction are rampant in the restaurant industry, so you shouldn’t feel the need to go it alone. Lean on other restaurateurs in your community for support.

Kat Kinsman, Senior Editor of Food & Wine, founded the website Chefs with Issues where she invites “people involved in the industry (not just chefs) to share their stories and resources for dealing with the particular pressures of restaurant life, so that other people may feel less alone.” She believes that solving industry-wide issues such as these will only happen when people in the restaurant community share their stories and experiences.

No one can operate in a vacuum. The issues weren't created by any one restaurant and won't be solved that way. Talk to other restaurants and bars in your region or city and pool resources. Maybe they have located an affordable therapist, or do group health classes. They might have established a way to bring issues up during family meal, or come up with best practices for identifying and supporting people in crisis. The only way this is going to change is if individual operators are taking a good, hard, honest look at themselves and sharing what they've learned.

Kat Kinsman

Sr. Editor of Food & Wine, Founder of Chefs with Issues

3. Point your team in the direction of outside support systems

Some members of your staff may trust you and feel comfortable touching upon what issues — if any — they experience with mental or physical health. That will not be the case for all your staff. Some will likely feel more at ease opening up to someone else. Make sure they know that’s ok with you, and point them in the direction of external help.

In recent years, a number of national organizations have cropped up to help restaurant workers and openly address issues with mental health, addiction, and wellness in the industry. Here are a few of them:

  • Chefs with Issues: a website founded by Kat Kinsman where she invites “people involved in the industry (not just chefs) to share their stories and resources for dealing with the particular pressures of restaurant life, so that other people may feel less alone.” 
  • Restaurant Recovery: an organization that “wants to provide safe and confidential spaces for conversations about recovery, and support without judgment. The aim is to heal restaurant and bar culture, not by sanitizing or vilifying, but by encouraging resilience, community, and hope. We are all in this together.”
  • Mind Body Spirit(s): an organization “dedicated to supporting bar industry professionals in wellness and personal success for a long, healthy, fruitful career.”
  • Bar Harm: an organization founded and run by Brandi Estrada focused on “building stronger, safer communities, by bringing community resources, training, and education into our bars and restaurants.”

Make your staff aware of organizations and NGOs such as these. In turn, they will feel a greater sense of community and support both inside your restaurant and out.

4. Remind your staff of the importance of self-care

As anyone who’s worked in a restaurant will tell you, the hours are long, shifts run late, and schedules vary day to day. You spend most of your day standing on your feet. You’re working with your hands. You may be pounding coffee to stay awake for late-night shifts.

Before introducing wellness-focused activities or programs, remind your team of some simple ways to care for themselves outside of the restaurant.

Emphasize the importance of rest and sleep. Promote stretching, exercising, and staying active. Remind them to catch some sunlight when they’re off-shift. Tell them to take time for themselves when they can. Introduce these ideas in the hopes that your staff will begin to create wellness routines for themselves, if they haven’t already.

Alright, so you’ve created a safe space for dialogue, learned from others in your community, and promoted the importance of self-care outside the restaurant. Now it’s time to see what activities or programs you can introduce to promote the team’s wellness.

5. Ask your team what they want out of wellness activities and programs

Before you dive in, go straight to the source. Ask your employees what they want to see out of wellness-based activities and programs. Even if some of the ideas are less achievable than others, it will give you a good place to start and shows you consider their input.

6. Offer discounted access to yoga classes, gym memberships, or fitness classes 

Working at a restaurant leads to a lot of strain on a person’s feet and back. If an employee’s body hurts or aches, though, it’s going to make it hard for them to want to come in, feel inspired and excited, and do their best work.

To promote physical wellness, offer subsidized gym memberships or access to free monthly yoga and fitness classes.

For restaurants that are not able to afford such options, hold simple, in-restaurant group exercises or stretches with the staff. Another idea is to organize the team to participate in bicycle races or 5K races and runs.

Brandi Estrada, who runs the NGO Bar Harm, believes that one of the best ways to promote employee wellness is through innovative employee experiences such as these.

Today, there are limitless ways to build team leadership that also promote physical and mental wellness: yoga, ‘family' dinners with staff, having community experts come in to speak with staff, boxing classes, bike rides, you name it.

Brandi Estrada

Founder of Bar Harm

7. Advocate for healthier, balanced food and drink habits

Your employees make and serve food and drinks, so it’s ironic that many probably have pretty erratic eating and drinking habits. It makes sense given that their jobs are to make others happy, but their own needs often fall to the wayside.

Many restaurant workers quickly eat a meal before going into work – often fast food – or sneak bites of food in once they get to the restaurant over the course of their shift. Some may be drinking tons of coffee all day and night. Hopefully they’re remembering to drink water. Then, at the end of the shift, they might cap it all off with a drink (or a few) with coworkers. They likely repeat this process the very next day.

To promote better daily food and drink choices for long-term health, ensure your team carves out time during their shifts to eat their own meals and snacks. Consider getting rid of shift drinks. Remind them to be aware of their energy levels and hunger/thirst as they work. A busy shift can cause anyone to completely tune out of their own physical needs.

At the very least, every kitchen worker should have a liter container filled with ice water on their station at all times.

8. Promote apps and online resources for yoga and meditation

The many facets of restaurant life often lead to stress, burnout, and mental exhaustion. Two of the best ways to combat these are through meditation and yoga. Make it clear to your staff that this is not a replacement for therapy or medication, but that they can make the day-to-day a little easier for anyone.

There are many free yoga YouTube channels to choose from. There are also a growing number of apps dedicated to meditation and mindfulness. The two big ones are Headspace and Calm.

As people in the U.S. continue to seek out new avenues for wellness, yoga and meditation offer your team healthy ways to de-stress. If yoga doesn’t appeal to your staff, form a running group or do another outdoor group activity.

Healthier Employees Make for Better Business 

Introducing programs and activities that promote staff wellness in your restaurant can only help in combating industry-wide struggles with mental health and addiction.

Outside of that larger mission, the benefits from shining a light on staff health can lead to fewer sick days, improved customer service, higher employee retention, and a more positive atmosphere overall.

In the end, these are all benefits that will lead to a happier, healthier, and more successful business. Kat Kinsman summarizes this for us perfectly: “Workers will stay at a restaurant that they know supports and values them beyond just being a set of hands in the kitchen, or a face in the dining room. Take care of your people, and they'll stick around and be the best possible ambassadors for your establishment.”

Workers will stay at a restaurant that they know supports and values them beyond just being a set of hands in the kitchen, or a face in the dining room. Take care of your people, and they'll stick around and be the best possible ambassadors for your establishment.

Kat Kinsman

Sr. Editor of Food & Wine, Founder of Chefs with Issues

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