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0 Depression and Death in the Restaurant Industry

  • by Abhi Chauhan
  • 11-12-2021
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63 % of chefs are depressed, and 74% are deprived of sleep, according to a recent study. Several others have been diagnosed with substance abuse disorder or have reported heavy alcohol addiction. Life in the restaurant industry is not just hectic but demanding as well. It is all about non-stop work for four to five hours, leaving no space for the slightest imperfection. This example is from my internship at the Taj Palace, New Delhi. On the first day of my training, my manager, Natalie Beale, told us that working in the hotel industry is similar to being a clown. You have to smile all the time, from the first guest to the last guest, whatever time it is. Just imagine, one kid is having the last party of the day, and the clown gets tired and doesn’t smile nor make jokes with the same energy. It would lead to the end of the GAME. It’s similar for the people working in the restaurant business. Give service to the guest as though it’s the last guest of your life and they are the most important person you are meeting.


The hospitality industry is pretty different from other industries in several ways. Long shifts, late nights, weekend hours, a fast-paced work environment, the availability of free alcohol or at a minimum price, even lack of communication with family and friends and an extremely stressful work life are almost certain in the industry and largely contribute to its uniqueness. 


People who are barely getting by and are often stressed, those who try to integrate into the society or have relocated to a new country form the majority of employees in a restaurant. Whether the employee is an ex-conman or a newly divorced mother, one can find the industry rife with people trying to get a foothold in society. Remember, restaurant staff refers to anyone from chefs to hostesses to managers. The owner, too, is a part of the industry. The constant pressure of online reviews, tight budgets, staffing problems, and financial fallout, among others, may cause depression, illness, hopelessness, finally leading to addiction or suicide. This is what makes the place diverse. Despite its diversity and promise to shelter such people, there is hardly any safety net addressing the mental health condition of these people.


One of the most recent and heart-rending instances was the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. It came as a surprise to the industry folks. But, the truth is, constant pressure and demand for perfection take a toll even on the jolliest souls. This is, however, not a single case, and you may know someone who has been badly affected by the demanding atmosphere or has taken his/her life.


Understanding this condition involves knowing the reason behind the increase in depression among people working in the food service industry. While pointing out a single cause may be difficult, in most cases, it usually is a combination of multiple triggers. 


Causes of Depression in the Restaurant Industry

1.No scope to make mistakes or set a less than perfect standard

Food is a product that gives no opportunity to make any error. Whether it is a pasta dish or a dessert platter, the end result should be superb and so should the preparation process. One tiny mistake and the entire preparation may spell doom for the chef and the restaurant’s future.  

In the hospitality world and restaurants, customers do not request perfection, they demand it. If your performance does not suit them, they will not waste much time before shifting their preference to another restaurant, without any notification. It can be just one bad day at the service; whatever you created, would go down falling.


2. Rife with competition

Food is a universal product, and therefore, it comes with severe competition. Food trends constantly alter and one must adopt the latest practices in order to stay in the race. Not only that, but knowing the most recent change in the competitor’s concoctions is also important. The hardest job in this business is to create loyal guests for your restaurant business but competitors would try everything to lure them in. They can give you half price offers, goodies and many other things.


3. Mental and physical demands

Chefs do not have a normal 9 to 5 job. They are constantly moving and working for hours on end. They hardly have any time to rest and get ready for the next day. Additionally, it is not surprising that while the world makes merry on weekends, holidays, or vacations, the restaurant industry is still striving to serve its guests. So, it can be said that the employees and staff do not have much family time or ‘me time.’ Most of the time you need to be on your toes, which means people do like to attend the restaurant at the last second. Only 5-10 % of guests make restaurant reservations before dining out.


4. Sudden Issues like COVID-19

Some problems in the restaurant industry are sudden and uninvited, for instance, natural calamities, economic downturns, or pandemics. The COVID-19 outbreak of 2020-21 led to the failure of several eateries and restaurants that could not thrive during the emergency lockdown. With most people cooking food at home and not going to work, the demand for restaurant food declined and the establishments found themselves at the receiving end of merciless ignorance. Many restaurants closed down and others lost employees to the pandemic. The ones that were shut had to let their human resources go with little or no severance package. Those employees had no option for interviews at that time and some of them chose to end their lives out of frustration. Depression kept eating its way inside the minds and souls of the industry people and fear of contagion ensured people would stay away from each other. Loneliness and frustration were having a heyday at the cost of human life. The condition became so critical that after the lockdown was lifted in some areas, the restaurants had to make do with local resources as the previous employees had left for their native places during the pandemic and could not travel to work again. 

Here is a list of organizations dedicated to fighting depression and suicides. I am providing here information given by my friend, John Miller, in the USA, Country Club.

1. Chefs with Issues

Chefs with Issues is a creation by Kat Kinsman, who noticed off the record remarks by chefs she interviewed. Many told her about the struggles they and their colleagues were facing with mental issues. The website was started to lend an ear to the pains of these chefs and other employees in the industry. It also offers resources from employees to deal with the challenges of restaurant life. 


2. Ben’s Friends

Ben’s Friends began when two restaurant staff came up with the idea after their colleague, Ben, killed himself because of depression and anxiety. They did not want anyone else to go through the same difficulties, and so, they try to support those encountering addiction and substance abuse. 


3. A Sip of Paradise

Founded by Keyatta Mincey-Parker, A Sip of Paradise provides a safe and healthy space for bartenders to recharge their minds by removing stress and anxiety. They can visit their communal space and grow their own fruits and veggies. Members can work collective and individual plots and meditate.


4. The Burnt Chef Project

The Burnt Chef Project was launched in 2019 to alleviate mental health taboos within the industry. The organization sells branded merchandise and accepts donations to destigmatize issues of mental health. The amount received is used to fund mental health programs and resources useful for the wellbeing of the industry staff. Such resources are in-person and online training, 24/7 text support line, and human resource support accessibility.


Restaurant owners and other staff should take depression and anxiety seriously before they turn to drug abuse and finally suicide. Listening to and paying heed to the problems of the staff is essential in order to bring solace to their minds and souls.  


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