Is Stress Killing Your Staff?

Karoshi. It’s the Japanese word for working oneself to death. Whether you realize it or not, some of your bartenders may be committing karoshi on a nightly basis.

A nine-year study recently published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine cited bartenders as having a higher risk of heart attack caused by job-related stress than the 243 other occupations reviewed. California Occupational Mortality, a report compiled at the University of California at Davis, found that the heaviest drinkers by occupation were male bartenders and female waitresses.

Stress is generated when challenge exceeds abilities — a regular occurrence behind the bar. Bartending is a job replete with stress. Bartenders work in a highly visible, pressure-packed environment. They must simultaneously meet management’s expectations and satisfy customers’ demands. When the operation gets busy, your bartenders are routinely hard pressed, given far more work than time to complete it.

The net effect of stress on your bartenders and the business is costly. It is a leading cause of burnout, absenteeism, substance abuse and internal theft. Stressed employees are less productive and increasingly more dissatisfied with their job and quality of performance. Stress can torque even the calmest of personality types into an edgy, ragged mass of nerves. Worse, stress increases heart rate, makes muscles tense and causes the physiology to work harder. Generally stress increases fatigue and emotional exhaustion.

There are a number of things you can do to help alleviate the stress affecting your bartending staff:

Communicate — Are you an effective communicator, clarifying what you expect of your staff? Likewise, are you an effective listener? Work to be flexible in your demands and deadlines, rather than creating “my way or the highway” relationships. Catch your employees doing things right and acknowledge their efforts.
Feedback — Creating a positive working environment requires soliciting the bartenders’ input on decisions affecting the beverage operation and then acting upon what was decided. One of the largest sources of stress is the sense of lack of control. In a recent USA Today poll, dignity rather than financial compensation was rated by employees as a more significant motivator for job satisfaction and performance. Self-dignity is the result of respect, accountability and empowerment.
Scheduling — Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, don’t let bartenders work double shifts or too many consecutive shifts without time off. Whether they appreciate it or not, the cumulative effect of working long stints behind the bar can be debilitating. Stress builds like steam in a pressure-cooker until something gives. Usually at that point the result is harmful to their health, job stability or both.
Challenge the Staff — Stimulating your bartenders’ drive and motivation is an effective way to sharpen their focus and instill feelings of purpose and self-worth. For example, implement an incentive program or sales contest for the servers. Is advancement a viable source of motivation for your employees? Or have you created jobs with no opportunity for growth?
Outside Factors — It stands to reason that a stable, emotionally secure individual is less apt to be adversely impacted by the debilitating effects of stress than someone in a more precarious situation or frame of mind. People who stay in good physical condition are less prone to be negatively affected by stress. They have better stamina and usually have a healthier and more positive self-image. Likewise, a sound diet, good eating habits and reduced caffeine intake are important stress-inhibiters.
No “I” in Team — Cliché or not, a positive working environment with a cohesive bunch of folks is more conducive than one fractured and riddled with dissent. Competitiveness creates internal stress. Back-stabbing, bickering and gossip undermines the prevailing belief that everyone on the staff is looking to accomplish the same objective and do what it takes to get the job done right. Look to quickly defuse conflict. Common sources of friction are work schedules, division of tips and who’s responsible for specific opening or closing procedures.
Training — Being knowledgeable and competent on the job increases confidence and reduces stress. Make sure your staff is operating from the same page of the playbook and are secure in their abilities. Is everyone making drinks the same way and charging the same prices? Along with reducing the collective level of stress, beverage sales and degree of service should also improve.
Leadership — Do your bartenders feel that they have your support? The last thing employees need to be concerned about are the actions or behavior of their managers. Trust and respect are essential to being an effective manager and creating a healthy working environment. Avoid any appearance of impropriety or moral ambiguity.
No Favorites — Avoid the “teacher’s pet” syndrome. Managers who treat some employees preferentially heap loads of unnecessary stress on others. Likewise, preferential treatment invariably hits the others on staff in their pocketbooks. Inequity is a quick way to fracture staff morale.
Dollar Sense — As most bartenders will attest, managing a cash income is challenging, which in and of itself is a major source of stress. Unfortunately, management can’t take an active role in helping employees with the personal finances to live within their means. What is permissible is advising your employees to declare all of their tips to the Internal Revenue Service. Not only will they be fulfilling their legal obligations — thereby alleviating a source of stress — but declaring higher gross incomes will help them with real-world issues like qualifying for auto or home loans.
Barbacks — Avoid under-scheduling and leaving bartenders short-handed behind the bar. Sure, your staff may appear to be keeping up with demand, but at what cost? Look to schedule a barback on busy shifts to allow bartenders to focus on productive use of their time. The slight increase in payroll should be more than offset by increased sales.
Lighten Up — Help your bartenders keep hold of their sense of humor. The ability to laugh and not take things too seriously are proven stress-busters. Make light of the anxiety-producing aspects of the job, and your bartenders will begin to follow suit. Make it mandatory for all employees to read Dave Barry or Gary Larson before each shift. It’s unlikely they’ll explode from stress if they’re too amused to be bothered.