Restaurant jobs have always been tough, but mental stress has worsened during the pandemic as restaurants have closed or reduced hours — or become ground zero in the fight against mask-wearing.
“It’s totally nerve-wracking sometimes because not all of my tables that I interact with are wearing a mask,” said Nikki Perri, a waitress at French 75, a restaurant in downtown Denver. “I’m within 6 feet of people without a mask.”
Perri is 23 years old, DJ and music producer. And she doesn’t just care about her own health.
“I’m more nervous about my partner. He is handicapped. He doesn’t have the best immune system,” she said.
After the initial closure, French 75 struggled to find employees when it reopened. The same was true for the other restaurants.
“We released a Survey Monkey and the payday was #3,” said chef and owner Frank Bonanno. “Mental health was #1. Employees wanted safety and sanity, then pay.”
His company, Bonanno Concepts, operates 10 restaurants in Denver, including French 75, Mizuna and Denver Milk Market. The survey was sent to 10 employees. Bonanno said these jobs offer competitive pay and good health insurance, but the mental health benefits aren’t great.
“Most of these psychologists and psychiatrists are dependent on people. And we were looking for a way to make our employees happy,” he said.
According to his wife and co-owner, Jacqueline, that’s when they had an epiphany: Let’s hire a full-time mental health clinician.
“I don’t know of any other restaurants that do this, groups or individual restaurants,” she said. “It’s a pretty big leap of faith.”
It took a bit of time to figure out exactly what employees wanted and what would be most helpful. Focus groups started in the summer of 2021 and they hired in October 2021.
Qiana Torres Flores, a licensed professional counselor, took on the new and unusual role. Her title is “Wellness Director”. She previously worked one-on-one with clients and in community mental health. She said she jumped at the chance to carve out a career in the restaurant business.
“Especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry, that stress bucket is really full most of the time. So I think having someone in that kind of capacity, just approachable and approachable, can be really helpful,” she said.
Traveling among the 10 restaurants, Flores led group sessions and mediated employee disputes. She taught the company’s 400 employees techniques for coping with stress and ran Santa’s mental health workshop to help them deal with holiday-related sadness and grief. She gave individual counseling and referred some employees to more specific types of therapy.
“Not only is there help, but it’s literally 5 feet away from you and it’s free and it’s confidential. And it’s just for you,” Flores said.
Owners say his presence gives them a competitive edge and hope it will help them retain employees.
Restaurant staff members often work difficult hours and can be prone to substance abuse issues – a hustle and bustle mentality is part of the work culture. Many workers do not always ask for help or consider personal care to be important.
“It’s been a really important option and a resource for our team right now,” said Abby Hoffman, General Manager of French 75. “I was just thrilled when I found out this program was starting.”
She gives the effort high marks and said it builds on previous efforts to recognize the psychological toll of restaurant jobs.
“I think the conversation really started around the death of Anthony Bourdain knowing how important mental health and taking care of ourselves was,” Hoffman said.
The death by suicide of the charismatic Bourdain, a celebrity chef who openly struggled with drug addiction and mental illness, has affected many restaurant workers.
Bourdain died in mid-2018. Then, Hoffman said, came the pandemic, which helped reignite difficult conversations about the psychological impacts of their work: “We were, again, able to say, ‘This is so stressful and scary, and we have to to be able to talk about it”. .’”
Expressing these concerns, she speaks on behalf of an entire industry. The Colorado Restaurant Association recently conducted a survey and a spokesperson said more than 80% of its members reported an increase in stress levels among their staff over the past year. A third of restaurants have responded to requests for mental health services or resources from employees in the past year. More than 3 out of 4 restaurants reported an increase in customer aggression towards staff members.
Denise Mickelsen, spokeswoman for the Colorado Restaurant Association, said she was unaware of any other restaurants or groups hiring a full-time employee dedicated to health and wellness.
“It’s fair to call what they do quite unique and/or innovative,” said Vanessa Sink, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association. “It’s something some of the bigger chains have tried but aren’t widespread.”
Other projects in the same spirit are emerging. One is called Fair Kitchens. It describes itself as a “movement fighting for a more resilient and sustainable restaurant and hospitality industry, calling for change by showing that a healthier culture equals a healthier business”. He cited research by UK firm Unilever Food Solutions which found most chefs were “sleep deprived to exhaustion” and “felt depressed”.
Back in Denver, waitress Perri said she’s grateful to her employers for seeing the workers as more than nameless, interchangeable vessels that bring food and drink ‘and actually care about us and see us as humans. . I think that’s great. And I think other places should catch up and follow here.
And if that happens, she said, it could be a positive legacy of an otherwise difficult time.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Colorado Public Radio, NPR and KHN.
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