The Service Industry Gets Serious About Mental Health

Different from any other job, hospitality workers are embroiled in a fast-paced environment with easy access to alcohol and regular abuse from customers, co-workers, and managers. Then there’s the standing and bending throughout an entire shift, battling an ever-changing work schedule, and the lack of adequate breaks. All of this can rock one’s foundation and contribute to mental and emotional imbalance. Sometimes this also leads to self-medication through drugs and alcohol. How is it possible to eat healthy, keep up with doctors’ appointments, and sleep when there’s little to no access to medical care and the low hourly wage necessitates a certain number of tips?

“Since the pandemic, this topic has been moved to the front of the line,” says Hassel Aviles, executive director of Not 9 to 5, whose resources include a five-module certification program called CNECTed designed to provide tools about how to recognize and respond to crisis situations. “We really can’t ignore this conversation anymore. In the past, there was silence and shame. In the past five years, there’s been awareness. The Great Resignation has given employees more leverage than they’ve ever had.” She also points to the suicide of Anthony Bourdain in 2018 as a wake-up call that service workers need help. “Here’s this industry legend who has so many resources at his fingertips and still wasn’t able to overcome it,” says Aviles.

It also can’t be denied that parts of the hospitality industry have not caught up to other industries. “This is one of the only regulated industries that does not factor in breaks that are necessary to give nutrition and replenish rest,”  says Amie Ward, a 25-year veteran of the hospitality industry and executive director of Safe Bars. "[It also has] irregular schedules that work in opposition of our circadian systems and biological body.”

Safe Bars hosts virtual peer-to-peer support groups for the industry on Monday evenings, a day when restaurants and bars are often closed.

Another industry stressor is the low barrier to entry, resulting in employees not mentally or emotionally fit to work in a team environment. Common issues in a bar or restaurant are power dynamics, anger issues, and boundary crossing, says Kiri Lester-Hodges, an art therapist and former hospitality worker who is the outreach coordinator and support group facilitator for Restaurant After Hours.

People like Erin Boyle, CEO of CHOW, which stands for Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness, feel called to do work on mental and physical wellness based on personal experience. “I’ve worked 100-hour weeks with debilitating illness, and it was a bragging right,” says Boyle, while struggling with ADHD, PTSD, and depression. “I used alcohol as a coping mechanism. There’s a lot of adrenaline at the end of the night. A coping strategy is to use substances.”

According to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, the restaurant industry is the most at risk for substance-use disorders and the third industry most at risk for heavy alcohol use. Drugs and alcohol are often a social reward among co-workers, says Aviles. 

In a survey of 600 service workers in North America, Aviles says 84% said they experienced anxiety, 77% suffer from depression, and 63 percent resort to disordered eating (not eating for, say, 10 hours then binging, as opposed to eating a meal every few hours).

CHOW was founded in 2018 by food writer Alexandra Palmerton and Denver pie maker John Hinman after Hinman completed a 12-step program and marveled that there wasn’t one in the food and beverage industry. Many employees struggle with undiagnosed and untreated mental health challenges. Seeking treatment when you work nights and the hours are always changing can be difficult in a 9-to-5 society.

“We need a place to go where somebody doesn’t say, ‘You need to quit the job,’” says Boyle. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, ‘I can’t get out of bed for a few weeks.’ Depression is isolating. The opposite of depression is community.”

Five years ago, CHOW launched eight group discussion meetings each week, where participants attend virtually on Zoom at no cost. The discussions strive to create a community functioning as a support group, with a trained person who has walked the path of recovery leading. One is in Spanish and another is just for women.

“We try to make it as easy as possible with no barriers,” says Boyle. “You can show up with your camera off [and] with a fake name. Sometimes we talk about grief or what it’s like to work through injury or illness.”

A workbook ($10) allows for self-guided work in creating life balance. “I’ve used this tool at least every six months and it changes every few months,” says Boyle. “You can pick different areas to focus on. We just want people to have a balanced life.”

CHOW also launched Mental Health Amuse' Course: Four hours of training for industry workers throughout 2023. The $15 fee is returned upon completion.

mental health service industry
Aggression can happen in any direction—patron to guest, guest to patron, or among staff. (Photo: fizkes, iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Service workers in Atlanta have access to mindful activities hosted at a garden called A Sip of Paradise Garden. This community-minded space was created by Executive Director Keyatta Mincey Parker in 2020 and is two-fold: One can simply recharge by relaxing in the space, or plant or harvest vegetables in plots. “Mindful Mondays” yoga-meditation classes are held on Mondays and workshops include topics like plant pollinators.

Fundraising has led to donations, including $25,000 from Hennessy Cognac, says Director of Gardening and Development Rori Robinson, a former bartender furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic who later launched Bloom Bar Garnish Company, a line of hand-crafted syrups, herbal teas, and spice blends for cocktails. A Sip of Paradise wants to add a second garden in Atlanta plus one in another city.

“This topic goes way beyond what an individual can do and self-care,” says Aviles. “A lot of what we’ve seen and I’ve experienced myself is a byproduct of a toxic environment. This is a systemic problem and requires systemic solutions.”

Training programs developed by these groups are designed to empower employees to detect improper treatment towards them or their co-workers. “Getting them to trust their gut when something does not seem right [is the goal],” says Ward. “We teach them that aggression can happen in any direction—patron to guest, guest to patron, or among staff.”

“The more silent we are about it,” says Aviles, “the worse it will get. The next generation is becoming better equipped.”

Another stressor for service workers is compassion fatigue. Particularly for front of the house, where working in isolation or independently as one might at a desk job is not an option. This is an industry attracting employees with people skills. “When our guests treat us like their own therapist, it’s secondary trauma,” says Ward. “It’s not this thing that directly happens to us, but the indirect impact of hearing other people’s stories on a daily basis. It’s a really subtle thing that happens to your brain.”

Ward is also helping her colleagues by offering up pre- and post-shift stretches through her website, The Healthtender. “When you have physical pain in your body, that takes a toll on your mental health, and if you’re doing your job well, you’re doing damage to your body,” she says.


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