In recent years, the untimely deaths of several high-profile industry veterans—most prominently the suicide of Anthony Bourdain in 2018—have been clarion calls for greater awareness around and openness about mental health issues in the hospitality and beverage industries.
Now, as the coronavirus crisis forces restaurants to close and puts millions out of work, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are becoming more prevalent than ever.
“The hospitality industry faces overwhelming uncertainty and risks right now,” says Kristin Townsend, a licensed marriage and family therapist with A Better Life Therapy in Philadelphia. “The loss of a job and loss of stability increases a person’s risk to experience mental health issues… and they are at a much higher risk to attempt suicide.”
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Maintaining mental health is both more challenging and more important in these unprecedented times. SevenFifty Daily spoke with experts and industry professionals to learn some critical tools and strategies for coping.
Accept the loss of direction
The hospitality industry’s high-stress work environment puts professionals at higher risk for mental health issues—even in normal times, says Townsend. “It’s expected that [restaurant and beverage professionals] work long, strenuous hours without breaks, and there’s high pressure to perform well,” she says.
“Because of this, many restaurant workers’ lives and identities are completely built around their art and their work, which is now just completely demolished by the state of our communities,” Townsend adds.
This loss of purpose can cause hospitality workers to feel increased levels of anxiety or depression. “Many people in our society over-function as a way to fill the gaps,” says Maryann Sheridan, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Fairfax, Virginia, “but there’s no way to over-function right now.”
Create a routine
“Maintain as much normalcy as possible, which is really hard nowadays,” says Christina Frank, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Fairfax Integrative Therapy in Fairfax, Virginia. “Our minds like consistency and predictability.” Waking up at a consistent hour, eating healthy meals, and going to bed at a set time can all help the mind and body adjust to a new normal.
The industry’s uncertain future can also create or exacerbate anxiety. “People are wired in a way that our brains are uncomfortable with not knowing,” says Sheridan. “Be confident in what you do know.” The act of beginning and completing projects helps satisfy that need, from simple tasks like making the bed and getting dressed, to larger ones like planting a garden or rearranging a room in the house. Colleen Vincent, the New York-based director of community for the James Beard Foundation, suggests writing down a list of things to do for the day—whether it’s five items or one—in order to have a tangible record of things accomplished.
Assess how you’re feeling—and what you’re reading
While industry members may be craving information about when they will be able to get back to work, Frank encourages people to set boundaries when it comes to news media. “Too much media consumption will really increase that feeling of powerlessness,” she says, adding that checking the news shouldn’t be the first or last thing you do in a day.
But there’s no formula for maintaining mental health during this pandemic, and everyone’s experience will be different, so take time to assess how you’re feeling. “People cope with things differently,” says Frank. “Make space for whatever feelings might come. Acknowledge the feeling first, and then choose what to do with that emotion.”
This may be difficult for those who may have relied on the fast-paced work of their hospitality and beverage jobs to bury unpleasant emotions. “When you take away that sense of go-go-go, things like depression become more apparent,” says Vincent; “it can no longer be covered up.” Giving yourself permission to feel those uncomfortable feelings is essential.
“I’ve encouraged my clients to grieve,” says Sheridan. “There is a tremendous sense of loss, and even subtle changes really impact us.”
Battling Isolation and Loneliness
Find your community
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are particularly hard on jobless hospitality workers, who spend much of their time in a socially interactive workplace. “A lot of people drawn to this industry are more extroverted,” says Frank. They crave and thrive in social situations, not only with guests but with coworkers, she adds: “This was so abrupt. One day you’re working, and the next day you’re home by yourself.”
Virtual communication doesn’t fill this void. “You can call friends, video chat, drink, party online, but the connection is just not the same,” says Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist and the founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in Manhattan. In fact, new research shows how draining Zoom can be.
Maintaining the camaraderie of a restaurant staff can be a lifeline. “It’s important to have people that clearly understand what you’re facing firsthand, and maintain that support system as time goes on,” says Toni Coleman, a Washington, D.C.-based psychotherapist with many hospitality industry patients. Evan Abrams, the beverage director at Marta in Manhattan, keeps up group text threads with the restaurant’s managers and sommelier team, and other wine directors of Union Square Hospitality Group (the group Marta is part of), which has been critical to his sense of connectedness and community, he reports.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to your social network beyond restaurants as well, says Dr. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and the director of clinical research and quality for the American Psychological Association. “What stops you from reaching out is your own guilt—not wanting to be a burden,” she says. “Asking for help is hard.”
In addition to Zoom, Vincent suggests bringing back to the simple phone call. “We talk to the same circle of people all the time because the people we work with become our friends,” she says. “Now’s the time to talk to more people.”
Support your team
It’s also important for those in charge to spearhead communication efforts in order to combat depression and loneliness. “It’s very important that owners keep in contact with their workers,” says Vincent. “Being part of a community keeps people engaged in this industry.”
Paul Grieco, the owner of Terroir in Manhattan, maintains a sense of community among team members by communicating with them about business updates as regularly as possible. Grieco committed to paying his staff for five weeks after Terroir closed mid-March, and has promised them that the restaurant will reopen and will rehire all employees; assurances that have been essential in bolstering the mental health of his team.
“How you treat your people every single day that you’re with them creates an environment for how they can go on about their lives,” Grieco says. “The decisions I make on a daily basis prioritize them as number one. I think my staff had an impression that I was going to take care of them in some way.”
Make a list of resources
Low wages and lack of health benefits already prevents many from seeking out formal mental health resources, and this may be made worse by coronavirus-related job loss. “The industry as a whole has become more sensitive to [mental health] in the past three to four years,” says Vincent. “But do I think all restaurant workers have ready access to mental health resources? No, I do not. We don’t have a standardized social safety net to give everyone access to formal resources.”
Organizations like I Got Your Back, a California-based mental health peer support group with a crisis support hotline, and Chefs With Issues, a platform for food and beverage workers to share personal stories and resources, work to bridge the gap on a day-to-day basis.
During this crisis, more resources have emerged. In Philadelphia, A Better Life Therapy launched five complimentary virtual health workshops on April 20 for the city’s hospitality community. In partnership with High Street Hospitality Group and Foxglove Communications, the workshops are in memory of an employee at High Street’s Fork restaurant who died of an overdose shortly after the restaurant closed in March.
And Lionrock Recovery, a California-based substance abuse rehab program, has launched free, virtual COVID-19 anxiety support meetings. Restaurant workers looking for professional mental health services can also use a web search or call their local 311 to ask for sliding scale or free services in their area.
Managing Substance Abuse
Double down on sobriety
U.S. alcohol sales have soared during stay-home orders, and restaurant and beverage professionals are diving into personal cellars nightly. Heightened consumption may be especially troubling for those already at risk for abuse.
The hospitality industry has the highest rate of substance abuse among all industries, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; data from 2008 to 2012 shows 16.9% percent of adults working full-time in the accommodations and food services industry have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder.
In recent years, more restaurant and beverage professionals have publicly shared their struggles with alcohol and drug addiction—from the chef-owners of Joe Beef in Montreal to Master of Wine Tim Hanni—and industry-specific support organizations have emerged as well. Ben’s Friends, a food and beverage industry support group for those who struggle with substance abuse, was founded in 2016 in honor of Charleston, South Carolina chef Ben Murray, who took his own life after struggling with alcoholism.
“What Ben’s Friends has created for me is a tighter cohesiveness,” says co-founder Mickey Bakst, who has more than 36 years of sobriety. “Not only do we share the problems of our addiction, but we share the understanding of our passion for the work that we do.”
That understanding may be even more important now. Ben’s Friends is now hosting daily Zoom meetings for those working to maintain their sobriety, and virtual sessions may lessen the stigma many feel about walking into a meeting.
“Regardless of what you’re going through, meetings can help you identify on a human level,” says Jack McGarry, the co-owner of Dead Rabbit, who chronicled his recovery on social media beginning in 2016. “It puts things into perspective. Things could be worse. A lot of us still have our health and a lot to be thankful for. These types of sessions enforce that.”
But the experience of maintaining sobriety amidst the coronavirus crisis is different for everyone. Bakst notes that some Ben’s Friends members are struggling not to pick up a drink, and he reminds: “You can’t forget the hell you were in before you got sober.”
Establishing a new routine is important for those in recovery, which is why McGarry commits to a schedule. “For a substantial proportion of people with anxiety, addiction or mild to heavy depression, these diseases manifest dramatically if you don’t have distractions,” says McGarry. Bakst has also long preached about the importance of routine, but during stay-home orders, he’s become even stricter, setting specific times for things like working out or getting outside.
Avoid slipping into addiction
For others without a history of substance abuse, the risk of slipping from normal to unhealthy alcohol consumption is a real concern during these stressful circumstances. “In isolation, what was once blowing off steam becomes a maladaptive coping skill,” Vincent said in a March 31 James Beard Foundation webinar.
“Alcohol is a slippery slope for many of us,” says Rebecca Hopkins, the founder of A Balanced Glass, a forum that supports the health and wellness for wine professionals. “Discipline is hard, especially when boredom, lethargy, and isolation are realities.” The social boundaries that might be imposed when drinking at a restaurant or at a party aren’t present when drinking at home, especially if you live alone.
Hopkins has written about living and drinking alone for A Balanced Glass in the past; to keep an eye on consumption while isolating, Hopkins suggests setting a daily limit and sticking to it, drinking a glass of water for every glass of wine, and taking at least one day off from drinking per week.
Frank also emphasizes the importance of assessing when you’re choosing to consume alcohol, the frequency (and quantity) at which you’re consuming alcohol, and why you’re consuming alcohol. “Are you drinking to avoid or suppress, or because it’s a group happy hour?” she asks. “Those are two very different things.”
Focus on physical health
Filling a new abundance of free time can be essential to one’s mental health. “The physical pace, exertion, and physicality of wine and hospitality has an impact on our nervous and adrenal systems,” says Hopkins, “and slowing down can leave people agitated, antsy, and exhausted.”
She suggests channeling that hustle into healthy habits like at-home workouts or online classes. “[Exercise can boost mental health] because it creates endorphins, and that’s the feel-good hormone,” says Sheridan. Exercise can also be a good opportunity to connect, whether via a Zoom yoga class or through a socially-distanced walk.
“You spend your life serving others,” says McGarry. “Now is the time to serve yourself, to invest in yourself. This is an opportunity to incorporate new routines moving forward, like meditation or working out.” Being forced out of a routine can help people get some distance from less healthy restaurant habits, like cigarette breaks, shift drinks, and high-calorie family meals.
In an industry that often takes a toll on the body, this may be a good time to catch up on sleep as well. “Being a night owl and awake when others are asleep can exacerbate feelings of being alone,” says Hopkins, “so in these difficult times make space to spend as much time in daylight hours as possible.”
Find new purpose
Some hospitality workers have thrown themselves into activism or new professional opportunities, such as Overproof’s Company Toast, a re-employment initiative paying bartenders to lead virtual tasting events for corporate groups, which is slated to launch in early April, or Hospy, a platform training bar professionals to monetize their skills in other industries.
Others have developed professional skills in a more relaxed way. “One of my great pleasures of working in the restaurant industry is the spontaneity, problem-solving, and the constant revolving door of personalities encountered,” says Abrams. “When that was stripped, I tried to fulfill that stimulation through other outlets.” Initially, he devoted most of his time to studying wine, which also helped him feel attached to his normal lifestyle, and he’s also been exercising, writing, and cooking.
While there’s no guaranteed end date to the coronavirus crisis, Abrams, for one, hopes that people will emerge with a newfound understanding of how hospitality establishments factor into the mental health of workers—and their customers, too. “Restaurants are platforms for building interpersonal relationships; they provide so much more than just nourishment,” Abrams says. “I hope everyone can appreciate how essential they are, not only to the economy but to our communities’ overall health.”