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INDUSTRY VIEW: A recipe for disaster? The mental health crisis in commercial kitchens

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Everybody takes blows to their mental health from various sources and it’s no different in the catering industry. The problem, however, is that for a chef, many of these triggers are an unavoidable part of the job, and have been for decades, writes Daniel Ure, sales director at online PPE retailer Vizwear.

Working as a chef in the catering industry can be as thrilling as it is fulfilling.

The problem, however, is that this pursuit of excellence comes at a high cost – one that many can’t afford. Just last year, the world mourned in the aftermath of the suicide of chef, writer and TV host Anthony Bourdain.

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But it’s not just chefs in the world’s most famous kitchens that suffer under the pressure – workers at all levels are in the same boat as, sadly, Bourdain’s situation was far from unique.

In fact, approximately 20,000 chefs are calling it quits every year in the UK (about 10% of the entire hospitality workforce), after suffering through long hours and intense working environments.

And it’s not just the physical demands of the role that are running staff down: the heat of the kitchen is burning chefs out mentally, too.

A London study in 2017 found that two-thirds of chefs believe a culture of long hours is damaging to their mental health, and things seem to have only gotten worse.

A recent report from Nestle Professional discovered that more than 80% of kitchen workers have experienced poor mental health during their careers.

Some of the most common causes of poor mental health in catering are staff shortages, lack of time, limited budget, lack of daylight, workplace bullying, long shifts, unpredictable work patterns and unsociable hours.

What do these problems lead to?

Sick days 

It’s not only the individuals who suffer from the stress of the kitchen, but it can also lead to issues with wider business operations.

The Nestle Professional survey found that 73% of respondents admitted to calling in sick due to stress.

Not only are chefs becoming too stressed to work, but the knock-on effects apply even more pressure to the rest of the workforce.

Stunted creativity

If you spend lazy Sundays watching your favourite TV chefs delicately preparing mouth-watering dishes with precision and care, you’d be forgiven for believing that working in a kitchen gives you the same opportunity to create a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the reality of most kitchens is a team of overworked chefs desperately trying to quickly prepare the same handful of dishes – day in, day out. A staggering 85% of chefs feel as though their creativity is being stifled by other pressures in the kitchen.

Drug and alcohol abuse 

Whether it’s down to the unsociable working hours or the struggle to make it to the end of a long shift, drug and alcohol addiction is a serious issue in catering and hospitality.

Fueled by the infamous party culture in an industry that is dominated by younger workers, illicit drug and alcohol use has become the norm.

Depression

Although rarely spoken about, depression is a common issue for those in the catering industry.

A Unite Union survey found that almost 50% of chefs regularly work between 48 and 60 hours a week, with 69% claiming that long hours had a negative impact on their mental health.

In fact, more than half of those involved in the survey claim to have depression due to their workload.

Injuries

Kitchens are dangerous work environments. With sharp knives, hot plates and an abundance of grills, ovens and hobs, it’s unsurprising that accidents are commonplace.

Combine these hazards with a fast-paced workload and an overworked and sleep-deprived team and it’s a recipe for disaster.

In its survey, Unite Union found that not only have 79% of chefs had an injury or a near miss while working, but they blame it on being over-fatigued in the kitchen.

What can businesses do to help?

Business owners have a duty of care for their employees and their mental wellbeing is as much of a risk as physical harm.

Mental health is getting more of a spotlight than previously, yet it’s still a sore subject for some and is still seen to be surrounded by stigma.

As it can be a difficult thing for many of us to bring up, especially in an industry that doesn’t historically talk about it, it’s up to business owners and managers to take the appropriate steps to create a safe and supportive work environment for their employees.

Hire the right people

Restaurants and kitchens often find themselves in a familiar pitfall – when a senior or skilled chef leaves the company, the gap is filled with inexperienced juniors to stem the tide.

Although an extra pair of hands is always appreciated, this puts unfair pressure on new starters to outperform themselves and leaves the kitchen ill-prepared.

Taking the time to find a suitable replacement may seem like a luxury you can’t afford, but finding skilled workers will keep a restaurant afloat whereas chefs without experience will inevitably go down with the ship.

Create an in-depth training manual (and stick to it!)

Training manuals are an employee’s first glimpse at what is expected of them in the workplace and what they will receive in return.

This is a great opportunity to outline a clear code of conduct for staff to adhere to, creating a positive work environment for everyone.

Chefs are also introduced to the restaurant’s mission statement, helping them understand what the team stands for, what they’re working towards and how they play their part in making that happen.

Without a proper training manual in place, it’s easy for employees to feel disillusioned with their role, questioning their place in the business and the value of their work.

Develop a supportive work environment

The workload and speed of service is not something that is going to change in a kitchen any time soon. However, creating a positive environment for your chefs is something you can implement right away.

Unlike in other professions, everyone feels the same amount of pressure in a professional kitchen – it doesn’t matter if you’re the head chef or a commis chef.

As such, it’s vital that your staff are working as a team to support each other. This can be as simple as showing gratitude for a job well done, something that is often overlooked in the catering industry, but can go a long way.

Switch up the menu regularly

When a chef has made a career out of their passion and worked hard to climb up the ladder, the last thing they want is to create the same handful of dishes on repeat.

Cooking is not just a skill, it takes flair and finesse – something that many in the industry are denied due to lacklustre menus.

Mixing up your a la carte not only gives your customers the opportunity to try something new, but it gives your back-of-house team the chance to flex their creative muscles and cut through the tedium of a bland menu.

Evaluate your kitchen layout

One of the easiest ways to make your staff more comfortable at work is to optimise your space.

Kitchens are often dark and are always hot environments, adding to the pressure of the workday – especially when chefs are trying to squeeze their way past each other.

Re-evaluate the layout of your kitchen and think about whether you’re making the most of the available space.

Updating your equipment can also help with conditions in the kitchen. Jeremy King, owner of multiple London restaurants, made strides to improve the conditions for his chefs by replacing the gas stoves with induction, greatly reducing the heat and noise output.

Stamp out bullying 

As Gordon Ramsay’s popularity rose, more people were exposed to clips of the celebrity chef screaming and berating chefs for things as trivial as forget to garnish a dish.

In fact, Channel 4 came under fire for tweeting a montage of Ramsay’s biggest meltdowns. The clip was slammed for glamorising unacceptable bullying in the catering industry.

Unfortunately, however, the blame extends further than the rise of TV chefs.

From world-famous kitchens to local chains, bullying has been passed down from an older generation of chefs who founded many restaurants and whose bad habits have rubbed off.

There are those who are fighting to change outdated chef culture, like American chef Dominique Ansel, who has banned swearing in his kitchen to help reduce aggressive behaviour.

Many modern restaurants are also adopting an open kitchen design, meaning chefs are as much a face of the business as front-of-house staff.

What support is available? 

When it comes to protecting your employees’ mental health, there are a number of resources available for extra support.

Pilot Light: A campaign focused on changing the way people think and act about mental health through addressing the industry-specific contexts and environments found in professional kitchens and the broader hospitality sector.

Founded by chefs Andrew Clarke and Doug Sanham, the campaign is unapologetically bold in its approach to combating mental health stigma and hopes to act as a beacon of support to those affected by commonplace issues such as depression and addiction.

Hospitality Action: Established in 1837. Hospitality Action has since offered vital assistance to all who work, or have worked within hospitality in the UK.

Whatever challenge people face – from physical or mental health issues to financial difficulty and addiction – Hospitality Action is determined to get them back on their feet again.

And when it’s no longer possible to work, they can help individuals prepare for the next phase of their life.

There are also a number of confidential services and advice lines available for those that work in catering or hospitality and need urgent help or support in regards to mental health.

Mind: Provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem (0300 123 393).

Samaritans: Confidential 24-hour support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts (116 123).

EXPERT’S VIEW: How kitchens can be designed to support the mental health of chefs

Tags : chefsmental healthopinionVizWearwellbeing
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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