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January 2019 Edition
Emotional Well-being at Work: Creating Healthier Workplaces Because We Care
By Julie Kauffman Strong and Maria Campbell, CEC, MBA
People who work in the food industry tend to be a passionate bunch - intense, dedicated to our craft, ready to do what it takes to be the best and to get ahead. Many of us are drawn into the business by our love of food and stay because we feel like we’ve finally found a place where we fit in. Kitchens can quickly feel like families (with the fights and all) and a unique camaraderie is formed by working side by side for hours and then partying together afterward.
Unfortunately, many of the factors that drew us to the food industry in the first place are the same ones that can end up driving us away. The intense pressure of kitchen culture, of serving others, of creating perfection every night are the leading factors that cause people to burn out or meltdown. The trend in our business is to push our employees, and ourselves, to the limit. In an increasingly competitive job market, we feel like we have no choice but to take on more demanding workloads; to work longer hours; to sacrifice days off, vacation time, family time, all for the sake of getting the job done and building our careers. The resulting work environment is unsustainable for most and the cost of success is often our mental and emotional health.
According to an informal survey of people working in the food industry (mostly kitchen staff) conducted by the website Chefs With Issues, as many as 84% of us suffer from depression and 73% suffer from anxiety. Approximately 50% of those who responded to this survey deal with substance abuse issues and as much as 75% of our workforce uses alcohol as a way to cope with the pressure of our work life. Take a minute to let those numbers sink in.
That’s the majority of people in our industry. And yet, few talk about it out in the open. No one wants to admit to being overwhelmed. No one wants to look like they can’t take the heat or handle the pressure. No one wants to appear weak.
But over time, the stress builds up and people start to break down. The result is burn out, health problems, lost productivity and ultimately lost lives … all because of the stigma surrounding honest discussion of mental health and the factors that contribute to it. Unlike other common health problems that we can see or test for, mental health conditions are less visible and not as easy to identify. The first step is to get people talking and to create environments where people feel safe being honest about what they are dealing with. This is where employers come in.
There are so many programs that encourage healthy eating, active lifestyles, and overall fitness. But what about the emotional, spiritual, and social wellbeing? Regardless of employees’ personal relationships outside of work, it is important that they feel comfortable and accepted in the workplace. When a workplace doesn’t foster positive working relationships or healthy working conditions, employees pay the price.
By improving an organization’s commitment to mental health wellness for its employees, there are notable benefits besides increased productivity—including saving lives. Just as organizations recognize they can make an impact on reducing heart disease by encouraging exercise, they can also make an impact on reducing suicide by promoting mental health, through early identification and intervention. They must communicate that they care about each employee as a person and that they are committed to providing the best working environment possible.
For many in our industry, the death of Anthony Bourdain served as a serious wake-up call. Despite his somewhat reluctant celebrity, Bourdain still felt like “one of us.” He had started at the bottom and worked his way up. He didn’t shy away from sharing his struggles with some of the more destructive aspects of “Chef Life” - the drinking, the drugs, the long days and late nights that destroy relationships and make “normal” family life next to impossible.
Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was especially eye-opening because it showed that even someone who had achieved success beyond what most of us could even dream of, could still be susceptible to the powerful forces of declining mental health. It also served as a catalyst to get people talking. As we all strive to follow our hearts and reach the level of success that we are aiming for in this business, what can we do to preserve our own mental health and that of the people we work alongside? Let’s start by having a conversation.
A growing number of locations see clearly the benefits of encouraging exercise and adjusting eating habits in order to reduce the effects of heart disease and other conditions. Do they also realize that they can have a positive effect on their staff - going so far as to reduce suicidal thoughts - by being open to discussing mental health, which is still seen as taboo topic in the workplace. Active lifestyles? Check.. Eating healthy? Check.. But what about the emotional and social wellbeing? Not checked.
You can say the word ‘feelings’. The problem is they are often suppressed, with staff feeling that they don’t want to bring down the team or that their thoughts aren’t worth your time. But, if you've worked to create a positive and safe culture, employees should feel more comfortable speaking up when they're stressed out. Meanwhile, you should acknowledge out loud when things are hard at work. You should also acknowledge that your team has lives at home and that is worthwhile for you to know more about them as individuals. It is powerful to recognize that stress, anxiety, and depression exist. You can start by bringing it up first.
Julie Kauffman Strong and Chef Maria Campbell are part of Cooks Who Care, a community-minded food industry group, founded by Campbell and her husband Scott - a fellow chef who has recently left the industry to create a better work-life balance for himself and his family. Solution-focused, we develop a supportive network of forward-thinking F&B leaders with a goal to improve cultural norms within our industry, foster healthy lifestyles, and provide community resources to build career longevity.
CWC Working Wellness Program is a community-specific network incentive program. Our goal is to develop a healthy habit-building program to encourage employees to develop and maintain healthy habits including regular exercise, improved nutrition, stress management, and strengthen financial health. Our wellness program is designed to change employee behavior both during and outside of work.