Mental Health Hazards of the Restaurant World

Katy McLaughlin and Natalia V. Osipova have published an illuminating multimedia piece in the Wall Street Journal about the serious mental health hazards of working in the pressure-cooker restaurant trade.

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The article features Charles Ford, the general manager of a high-end restaurant in Chicago, who was shaken to action following the suicide last June of industry icon and former chef Anthony Bourdain.

Ford said that restaurant workers with suicidal impulses and other emotional crises often hide their pain, and revealed that he had slashed his wrists on three occasions between late 2015 and spring 2016. “I don’t want to hide it anymore,” Ford, 31, told the Journal. “We need to do everything we can to turn this around, and the first step is saying it out loud.”

The story quotes celebrity chef Cat Cora (“Iron Chef”) saying: “We are dealing with an epidemic of mental illness in our industry.”

A few highlights from the article:

The brutal nature of restaurant-kitchen culture is part of the problem, many in the industry say. Physical and emotional toughness is prized and workplace conventions like 40-hour workweeks, breaks and professional courtesy can be foreign concepts. At the same time, young people raised watching “Top Chef” and Food Network now enter the profession with high expectations—and debt loads—once rare in this largely blue-collar field. …

The food industry often draws non-conformist, Type-A perfectionists attracted to the unusual hours and the camaraderie of a kitchen crew… However, that spirit can lead to an unhealthy partying lifestyle. …

Young cooks’ heightened expectations don’t always take into account low wages or difficult labor… Dreams of fame and fortune have driven growth in culinary schools and programs and encouraged thousands of students to finance this education with debt. …

Restaurant cooks make a median wage of $12.10 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Culinary-school graduates are no exception, even at top-tier restaurants in expensive cities, a number of restaurateurs say. While some top chefs can earn six figures, the median annual wage for chefs and head cooks is $45,950, according to the BLS. …

The industry’s long hours, intense work, high stress and scarcity of employer-subsidized health insurance are all classic contributors to mental and behavioral health problems, says David Ballard, the head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. …

The article notes how trade groups to individual restaurateurs alike have launched efforts to support the mental health of restaurant workers:

—The owner of a Denver bakery co-founded a group called Culinary Hospitality Outreach & Wellness—CHOW, for short—which hosts weekly gatherings for industry members to talk about coping mechanisms and stress management.

—A restaurant owner co-founded Ben’s Friends, a group for restaurant workers to discuss substance abuse, with chapters around the country and named after a chef who died by suicide.

—The National Restaurant Association started a health plan in partnership with UnitedHealthcare that offers medical and mental health coverage.

—The American Culinary Federation started a group health insurance program for members for the first time this year.

—Unilever Food Solutions started FairKitchens, an initiative aimed at changing the culture that includes a code of conduct for restaurants to sign onto.