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SPECIAL REPORT: Putting mental health on the table

Chef mental health 1

Eight out of 10 hospitality professionals report having experienced at least one mental health issue during their career. It is an alarming statistic — and one that underscores the scale of the challenge facing the industry. In this special feature, we speak to two individuals that have a personal understanding of the subject and hear firsthand the steps that employers can take to make a difference.

There is a paragraph on The Burnt Chef Project’s website that reads: “Long antisocial hours, tough environmental conditions and pressures to perform are just some of the issues that hospitality professionals are fighting against on a daily basis. Margins are slim and with increased focus on saving money, both employers and employees feel the effect of this on their mental health.”

It is a scenario that many hospitality professionals, especially those working in commercial kitchens, will be able to relate to and the precise reason why Kris Hall (below) — founder of the initiative — decided to take action in the first place.

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Having worked in the industry for 10 years from a wholesale supply perspective, he has witnessed the struggles of mental health issues within the trade close up.

So at the end of 2019, he set up The Burnt Chef Project as a non-profit social enterprise to raise awareness for mental health issues within hospitality. It achieves this through the sale of branded merchandise and donations of individuals, with the profits reinvested back into mental health training and useful resources for the sector.

The venture is gaining rapid momentum and counts more than 90 chefs as “ambassadors”. But Hall is the first to acknowledge that there is a long road ahead. “It’s still very early days in the conversation of mental health within hospitality,” he says. “There’s a lot of stigma still that we need to squash.”

One of the latest developments for the organisation has been the launch of a free text-based service for anybody in the hospitality industry that needs mental health support.

Working with mental health charity Shout 85258, The Burnt Chef Project has set up a service allowing anybody from the industry to text BURNTCHEF to 85258 and they will receive a response within five minutes from a trained volunteer, overseen by clinical psychologists.

“The work that we have been doing in terms of raising awareness for mental health and encouraging others to talk about it is good, but what it uncovered is that a lot of people out there need someone they can turn to, night or day, to talk about their mental health issues and to talk openly without fear of being judged.

“As we all know, sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone that you don’t know and it’s certainly a lot easier when you’re not having to make eye to eye contact. The service is here, it’s a listening ear and it’s free of charge. I think the timing is right and it’s a service that hopefully will be utilised long into the future,” says Hall, who revealed that in the first few days of it going live he received messages from people who had used it and found it a massive help.

Pandemic pressures

The pressures created by the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to make demand for such services and support even greater in the days and months ahead.

That is certainly the conclusion drawn by Russell Stilwell, business ambassador at mental health charity Mates in Mind. He believes all businesses will need to think even more carefully about how they are supporting staff as society reopens.

“I think there’s no doubt that the pandemic has sent us all into a state of anxiety, whether it be higher levels or very, very low levels. I think we’ve all experienced that and when people are going back into the workplace if they’ve got heightened anxiety they’re likely to have a larger enhancement of their survival instincts — and that can be either fight or flight generally.

“At a time like this, when hospitality will open back up again, enabling people that are coming back into the workplace after what we’re potentially going to call this ‘reset’ to have a text-based service like the one from The Burnt Chef Project and have that ability to confidentially go somewhere, get a response and have a place to express themselves is an excellent thing.”

Not every business will have a plan in place to manage mental health in the workplace, particularly at the SME end of the market. In fact, many simply wouldn’t know where to start or might be put off by the misplaced perception that it is expensive.

But Stilwell says some of the simplest things are the most effective. “Number one, it doesn’t cost any money to encourage people to talk. It doesn’t cost any money to promote a culture of openness, whereby if somebody is having a bad day, the door is open. And it doesn’t cost anything to look out for someone who might be behaving out of character. So those are some things that cost nothing, they are absolutely cost-free.”

Mates in Mind arranges mental health first aid courses, but it also provides a full suite of tools and support materials for businesses that are beginning to start the conversation. This includes factsheets, counselling information, case studies and action plans.

Stilwell says you can’t force people to open up, but suggests that if you’ve noticed a change in behaviour of a colleague or worker then you can certainly let them know that if a time comes when they do feel they want to talk then you are there to listen.

“In a kitchen when the restaurant’s open, it’s constantly going, there’s a consistent pressure, so sometimes being able to break that and get away from that is almost impossible. So from an SME perspective, it is about being able to look at someone, to strategise it if you can see something wrong and say, ‘look, you’ve always got this number that you can text, why don’t you give it a shot?’ Or ‘if you fancy it, give me a shout in your break’. But it is also just about keeping an eye on that person and making sure they’re okay.

“The next level on from that, in a larger kitchen, a head chef with 10 or 12 sous chefs in different areas, or hotel-style kitchen, it might be a good idea to train one or two of those to become a Mental Health England first aider. That’s the kind of scale.

“You’ve got the free stuff that costs nothing but it’s a policy that everyone buys into, you’ve got that little bit of training from Mates in Mind that kind of starts the conversation, manages the conversation and directs the conversation. And there’s a number of different packages that exist there. And the next stage on from that is the mental health first aid training and that goes to half day, one day and then two days for the full mental health first aid course.”

Over at The Burnt Chef Project, the launch of the text-based service will shortly be followed by the introduction of a free training app providing users with access to free mental health, stress reduction and personal resilience training. Once the industry is fully up and running again, Hall is also hopeful that partners will be willing to donate a proportion of their menu to the project.

Industry barrier

One massive challenge around mental health in the industry is the stigma associated with speaking about it. A survey of 1,273 hospitality professionals by The Burnt Chef Project — thought to be the largest of its kind within the industry — revealed that 46% would not feel comfortable talking about their health concerns with colleagues.

“Hospitality has never been known for being a fluffy industry in terms of how it’s run,” says Hall. “It’s a tough industry, let’s not make any bones about that — it’s often long hours and it’s quite a stoic environment that’s usually quite macho, irrespective of if you’re male or female, and as a result I think that company cultures and attitudes towards mental health have always been quite tough to address with regards to that.

“I think if we did the study again, and we did it after a year of The Burnt Chef Project being in the market, that number would hopefully start to change. But realistically what we are looking at here is a lot of business owners out there don’t know how to engage with the subject and that’s nothing against them as individuals or as business owners. It’s a complex subject and it can be quite intimidating.

“But sometimes it just takes asking the right questions and being prepared to actively listen, even if you don’t understand. One of our ambassadors, Adam Simmonds, says it’s like turning a cruise liner, not a dinghy, so these small steps do make an impact long term. It’s just a case of education, education, education. The more people know, the more comfortable they feel about engaging with it and we’ll hopefully start to see those stats drop.”

Initially, The Burnt Chef Project set out with a 10-year plan to educate the market and assist with slowly integrating conversations about mental health into the workplace.

At the time of the launch, the variables it had to deal with in a commercial kitchen environment were very clear — long hours, hot conditions, limited work-life balance, poor nutrition — but they certainly weren’t insurmountable. Suddenly, however, Covid-19 came along and moved the goalposts entirely, says Hall.

“People who have gone 100 miles an hour for the last 20 years of their working career were thrust into a complete halt, into environments that, to be honest with you, were quite unfamiliar, spending time with the family. Being at home outside of your usual work environment — which is your comfortable environment, although highly stressed — proved to be a completely different issue in terms of people’s mental health.

“Suddenly your brain isn’t working at the speed it usually works, it’s not dealing with all those outside stimulus that you would usually get within the kitchen or a front-of-house environment and now you’ve got to deal with all of those additional thoughts and that lack of motivation and everything else that kicks in, and that shared grief and anxiety that we’re experiencing as a nation.

“I don’t like using the term because it’s over-used, but we had to pivot and provide more immediate solutions to people, such as mindfulness techniques and regular conversations with industry leaders so that we could start to utilise the voice that we had.

“I wouldn’t have wished Covid at any particular point, and we would have ended up getting to the stage where we are, but as a nation and a culture we are now starting to realise the true detrimental impact that the lack of awareness around mental health has, not to mention the impact that it is going to have on industries long term.

“It has been a steep learning curve and I think that when employers and employees head back into the workplace when this is finished, they’ll be at least slightly more aware of the subject matter and I think it will make starting conversations a lot easier moving forward.”

Driving change

As businesses do start returning to the workplace, Mates in Mind’s Stilwell’s says it’s important that employers try to be as proactive as possible with their wellbeing programmes. He also warns that it’s very easy for mental health to become a box-ticking exercise, which generally ends up breeding a culture of people not bothering to check in with one another anymore.

“The best kind of interaction that we can all get as human beings is the one where we’re talking to each other, listening to each other and hearing each other’s points of view,” he says.

One of the most important concepts that Stilwell refers to whenever he visits a business is ‘window on the world’ — a frame of reference theory which demonstrates that we all see situations in a different way.

“If everyone was looking out the same window and I said ‘what’s the first thing you see?’, I guarantee each person would come back with a different answer, so as a manager it’s being able to recognise that someone’s problem is theirs, it belongs to them, it’s their lens. The language you hear is, ‘well, it could be worse, you could be working in a hospital’ or ‘at least you’ve got your health’.

“Well, yeah, that’s great but that person is at that particular point, it’s their struggle, and that can create isolation. The word loneliness isn’t just somebody who might live alone or doesn’t have many friends. We’re lonely in our thoughts and in the way that we’re thinking and what we’ve got going on right here, right now.

So opening up, collaborating, managing processes inside an organisation proactively that cultivates wellbeing is something that I have seen work in organisations and it turns a manager or the person that may be managing people from a manager into a leader, and that’s an another important aspect of it — leadership.

“There could be a tendency for people to feel, ‘well, I’m not going to have any conversations because I know there’s an app in place, I know that we’ve got a mental health first aider, I know that box has been ticked. That’s not the attitude. We need leadership, somebody to take the bull by the horns, take wellbeing seriously, be a champion of it and drive it as a culture through those kitchens, through those restaurants and through the hospitality industry.”

About The Burnt Chef Project

Launched two years ago, The Burnt Chef Project was set up with the sole intention of eradicating mental health stigma within the hospitality sector. For more information visit www.theburntchefproject.com

About Mates in Mind

Mates in Mind is a charity that aims to provide clear information to employers on available support and guidance on mental health, mental illness and mental wellbeing. For more information visit www.matesinmind.org

Kris Hall and Russell Stilwell were speaking during a recent episode of Market Talk, which you can view in its entirety below:

MARKET TALK: The Burnt Chef Project, mental health and looking out for colleagues

Tags : Mates in Mindmental healthThe Burnt Chef Project
Andrew Seymour

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