It’s finally Spring – and while Ontario seems to be taking a while to pull off its heavy winter coat, visions of sunny patios are coming into view. And with patios come servers, cooks, bartenders, and everyone else who makes it possible for the delicious food and drink to get to our tables. So, while I’m dreaming about my plans to slurp chilled oysters and sip hazy craft beers in the sunshine, I’m also thinking about the people – our people – who make this all happen.
At the end of my last column, I posed the following questions about “our strong friends” a.k.a. the resilient people who make up the restaurant industry:
Pandemic notwithstanding, restaurant industry workers have forged through their careers with grit, resilience, and amazing emotional strength. But does it need to be this hard? The meaning of the word restaurant points to restoring one’s health or spirit, but is it really doing its job if it’s depleting the spirits of those who provide the product, service, and experience?
I’m back now to say, no — it doesn’t need to be this hard – and there are people out there working to fix it. One such person thinking and writing about restaurant industry culture and its workers is food reporter and author of three books, including his most recent publication, “The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After”, Corey Mintz.
When I asked Corey what, in his opinion, can or must be done to support the well-being of restaurant industry workers, Corey posited, “part of what restaurants need is HR. Most restaurants operate a very wild west type of ecosystem, where they all make their own rules. They are technically subject to municipal bylaws, provincial labour standards, and federal taxation, but ultimately they kinda do what they do after the sun sets — and they either get away with it, or they don’t, hence all of the problems.”
He continued, “the primary issue is, restaurants, in general, are lean operations — and they don’t have an HR person. Very few restaurants, I’d say up until recently even had an HR handbook. So, this is one of those things, which could cost a lot, it could cost a little, but it’s just it’s generally one of those areas in which the industry has been reticent to modernize to say, you know, we’re an actual business and employees deserve protection from abuse from the owners, from clientele, from each other.”
Mintz isn’t suggesting that restaurants mimic larger corporations with big HR budgets, but he still believes some structure needs to exist. He explained, “I don’t advocate that small restaurants, which can’t really afford to hire a full-time person, replicate this sort of useless bureaucracy of big companies, but I think having rules that are followed is better than having no rules. Because if you set up some rules, then there’s some guideline for the employee who says, I’ve been treated unfairly.”
Establishing rules to help create a workplace environment that can support restaurant industry workers’ well-being seems like a good place to start. Mintz further expanded on this point. “Without any rules, it sends the message that there are no rules, and the company is not accountable to anyone, which is how it’s been – which I think reinforces the sort of outlaw code of the street world that has covered restaurants, at least as long as I was working in restaurants or have been writing about them”, he said. “I think just setting out some workplace rules gives employees something to navigate, even if it’s frustration when they have a problem, and also is a signal to job applicants about what kind of workplace this is, you know, having no rules says we don’t give a shit.”
NOT 9 TO 5
Someone who definitely gives a shit and is passionately working to help the restaurant industry evolve out of this “wild west” ethos is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Not 9 to 5, Hassel Aviles. “We chose Not 9 to 5 as our name to reflect the untraditional hours of our industry and the all-consuming nature of mental health and substance use challenges”, said Aviles. “Neither are confined to the hours of 9 to 5.”
Not 9 to 5, a global non-profit organization based in Toronto provides education, advocacy, and support to empower hospitality and foodservice workers. Hassel likes to say that Not 9 to 5 was “founded in instinct and cemented in data”, with the instinct part stemming from her own personal and professional experiences. Having worked in the hospitality industry and having lived with mental illness, trauma, grief, and substance use challenges, Hassel brings deep lived experience to her work.
She shared, “It’s been a long journey with mental illness – I definitely experienced it before I even had the vocabulary for it. I didn’t actually know what was happening with me until years later. But looking back, I now have a better understanding of what mental illness is.”
Hassel continued, “I think for me, the timing of it aligned with when I entered the industry. At 17, I was already experiencing certain symptoms of depression and anxiety, but I didn’t have the words to describe it, I didn’t have access to the help I needed, and I didn’t have a lot of mental health education around these topics. I didn’t even know what trauma was.”
Aviles started by opening up to family and friends, and that gave her the strength to discuss her own struggles with those outside her immediate circle. “I needed to be open and honest about the fact that I live with depression, I live with anxiety, I have a therapist, and this needs to be accommodated in my workplace”, she said.
As a result of her openness, Hassel was asked to speak on a panel of restaurant industry staff and mental health professionals in late 2017. “That was the night everything changed for me”, she said. “I told my story, I talked about everything, I held back nothing. And the cool part about vulnerability is that it’s contagious. So when you open yourself up, it is very likely that others will, too. And obviously, I wasn’t the only one.”
From there, she knew she had to keep this powerful conversation going, which led to co-founding Not 9 to 5 in early 2018. Starting small with events and grassroots social media campaigns, the organization grew and eventually incorporated as a non-profit in early 2020. Since December of that year, Hassel has been leading the organization on her own, with the support and work of a small team, a board of directors, and passionate volunteers.
Not 9 to 5 acts as a bridge, connecting hospitality and foodservice workers with the resources they need, including links to mental health counselling, substance use support, and crisis support, among others. Mental health advocacy and education are also key services they provide.
From their federally-funded January 2021 Survey, which was answered by 673 hospitality workers in North America, Not 9 to 5 found that 89.5% of respondents experienced challenges with their mental health and addictions. Top primary concerns included burnout (87%), anxiety (84%), and depression (77%), followed closely by disordered eating (63%), alcohol use disorder (42%), work addiction (32%), and drug use disorder (32%).
Out of this group, only 38% admitted to seeking professional treatment or therapy, with 59% of those who said no citing financial reasons as the main barrier. Out of those who reported not openly speaking about mental health or addiction at work, 56.6% shared their main reason as “don’t want to be judged”, followed closely by “shame and stigma of being seen differently” (51.9%) among other reasons including “fear of being fired” which was shared by 18.5% of respondents.
This survey, “Primary Concerns” led Not 9 to 5 to develop the CNECTed Certification Program, a program providing education, training, and support skills for employees and employers to work and operate in a psychologically safe manner.
Like Mintz, Aviles also feels that the culture of the industry itself plays a major role. “I think your workplace plays a major role in how you feel, mentally and physically. And in particular, if you work in toxic workplaces, or if you work in environments that encourage and influence you to repress and suppress your emotional experiences. I was constantly told to check my shit at the door.” She continued, “Asking people to not bring their humanity to work is so harmful. But I hadn’t put that together for myself yet. Years later, I’ve obviously unpacked a lot and come to realize that causes harm to people. And it’s not a silly little thing to say – it actually has serious consequences to your mental and physical health. Asking people to repress and suppress emotional experiences, does cause physical and mental harm.”
Aviles continued, citing the brigade system used in many kitchens as one example of the workplace culture that needs to change. “The hospitality industry has a very complicated history– some of it is beautiful and incredible and inspiring, and some of it is toxic and oppressive and harmful. The brigade system is a very oppressive system and one that causes people to repress and suppress their humanity. The whole point of the brigade system is to work in the name of efficiency, so that doesn’t leave a lot of room for humanity, emotions, and mental health experiences. And when you’re not allowing people to bring their whole selves to work, then you lose psychological safety in the workplace.”
In her work, Aviles continues to encounter many people who work in this industry who are suffering. “To this day, when I ask, ‘do you live in work with mental health or substance use challenges’ – 90% or more say yes. So it’s not some of us, it’s most of us. And I would argue it’s all of us, that the 10% or so that say no, may not be ready to answer because I believe that if you work in this industry for more than three years, there’s some form of workplace trauma that you’ve experienced or witnessed.”
Three pivotal things have recently changed how Not 9 to 5 functions. Aviles explained, “One was Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide. His death definitely normalized a lot of the things we were talking about already, and it showed that mental health doesn’t discriminate, and it can absolutely impact anyone, anywhere at any time. The second major thing that changed Not 9 to 5 was the pandemic, which, obviously, took us into a totally different playing field. And then the third thing that’s really changed Not 9 to 5 is the funding we’ve received that has allowed us to actually do really cool projects that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford to do.
One such project is CNECTed, a certification program that was launched in March 2022. Funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre, this program, which is a partnership with Laura Green of Healthy Pour, is available through Not 9 to 5’s online platform called “CNECTing”. The acronym CNECT stands for “change needs everyone coming together”, which speaks to the idea that the onus on culture change and support for restaurant industry workers involves everyone. Aviles says CNECTed is her “love letter for the foodservice sector that encourages the investment in inclusive mental health education and equipping workplaces with skills to provide psychological safety.”
Aviles explained, “in the same way you get SmartServe certified or you can get your mental health first aid certification, we’ve developed an industry-specific certification program for workplace mental health.” The certification costs $44.95 and includes 5 modules on understanding mental health, stress and trauma, depression, anxiety, and substance use.
I asked Hassel, ‘if we’re going to talk about changing this industry, is the onus on the owners? Is the onus on the worker? Is the onus on the government? Is it on everyone?’ She responded emphatically, “Absolutely everyone.”
She cited the CNECTed certification program as an example of where people can begin. “If you own the restaurant, if you manage the restaurant, if you just started yesterday, if you have been there for 10 years, it’s for everyone. And the reason for that is because all of us are on different levels of understanding when it comes to mental health and substance use challenges, all of us are using different words, different vocabulary.”
She continued, “For me, the certification program is a way to keep us all on the same page. Let’s all get aligned on the fact that we all have mental health, understand what is the difference between a mental illness and mental health, and understand that we have to take an intersectional approach to this because everyone’s experience that they bring to the workplace is different.”
Aviles stressed the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. “What is psychological safety and how do you foster psychological safety? Something that kept coming up in my research of different industries is that it requires everyone – it requires buy-in, involvement, and input from everyone.” She also explained that what might feel psychologically safe for one person, may not for someone else. “Everyone’s definition of safety is different, right. And if you’ve never experienced racial microaggressions or sexism, those issues wouldn’t even come into your radar of making a workplace safe or not.”
Hassel continued, “I think for so long, especially during the pandemic, we’ve been talking so much about physical safety, physical distancing, and PPE. And there hasn’t been the same level of conversation around psychological safety in the workplace, and the impact that obviously, the pandemic has had on all of us, has made this conversation more relevant than ever before.”
“I think we need training and education like this. Because it’s not if you’re going to be exposed or experience a mental health crisis or substance use challenge in the workplace – it’s inevitable. So equipping everyone with understanding, education, language, training, and knowing how to respond is essential. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have, it also helps save lives, right? Because at the end of the day, if you are able to decrease shame in the workplace, destigmatize these conversations, normalize workplace mental health initiatives, you have the ability to increase the chances that someone’s going to seek and accept help. And if you’re going to be able to seek and accept help and get connected to the help that you need, that could save your life. And I can tell you from personal experience, it has saved mine. When I was able to seek and accept the help that I needed, it’s the only reason I’m still here.”
THE BURNT CHEF PROJECT
Another global leader in mental health advocacy and support in the hospitality industry is The Burnt Chef Project. Founded and based in the U.K., it is a registered non-profit organization that functions as a social enterprise. Any profits made from selling branded merchandise such as chef coats, aprons, journals, kitchen tools, and apparel are reinvested back into the organization in order to provide support services to chefs and other hospitality workers.
Like Aviles, founder Kris Hall was inspired to create The Burnt Chef Project from his own personal experiences. Kris shared, “When I was in my late 20s, I was the captain of a rugby team, I was married, and I had two children – yet things just didn’t feel right. For years I’d been looking at other people and wondering why my life was bad – I guess it was a form of depression. One day I went home and asked my wife out of the blue for a divorce. She asked where it was coming from and was of course taken aback, and that prompted me to get some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to try and figure out why I was feeling this way.”
In the process of getting help, Hall realized that others also struggled, but that often people didn’t talk about their mental health publicly. This prompted him to raise awareness for mental health issues, focusing on an industry he knew – hospitality. While working in a sales job, he started doing more advocacy work, which started with a talk he hosted with the local Mind charity. Funds and awareness were raised, and when Covid hit in March 2020, it inspired him to build The Burnt Chef Project, which he now runs full-time with a small team.
Hall shared, “I realized other people were experiencing those feelings but we weren’t talking about it in society. So, I wanted to help others by raising awareness for mental health issues and focused on hospitality, as for a long time I had seen friends (in that industry) who had experienced difficulties but were unable to talk about it. I took it upon myself to hassle a few of my hospitality friends to have their photos taken to raise awareness and people started contacting me and asking how they could help.”
The Burnt Chef Project now has a successful podcast, a free 24/7 text-based support service, a training academy app, in-person training for students and corporations, and a host of other educational resources. They place a large emphasis on education and training, having reported in their 2021 annual review that they delivered training to almost 9,000 individuals, provided one-to-one mental health support to 1544 hospitality professionals, and grew their digital community to over 40,000 members.
“We are committed to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of every person connected to the hospitality industry whilst also building the capability of owners, line managers, and employees, through training and enhancing awareness”, said Hall.
The Burnt Chef Project also has a range of international ambassadors who help them with their mission. “One of the reasons we provide our ambassadors mental health and communications training is that we’re aiming to create the largest international peer support network through our global team of ambassadors, each one supporting the next and building a space of psychological safety whereby people can thrive in a network where mental health stigma is non-existent.”
Data very much informs the work they do, with a recent survey showing that 62% of the 1,273 hospitality professionals who answered admitted that they “do not believe the hospitality sector takes care of its employees”. This survey also found that 8 out of 10 (84%) of respondents had experienced mental health issues within their career and 46% would not feel comfortable talking about their health concerns with their colleagues.
The Burnt Chef Project also provides HR advice to businesses, in collaboration with a corporate HR partner, Croner, who provides hospitality businesses with free consultations as well as discounted services. From their website, “It can often be cost-prohibitive for business owners to have in-house HR teams which can be invaluable within the hospitality industry. Through our partnership with Croner, we can connect business owners to valuable support to help improve the health of both teams and operations.”
WHERE TO BEGIN
So, as patios open up and workers continue to give their all to this beloved industry, what is important to focus on as we move into the future? I asked all three of the people I spoke to for this column.
First, from Mintz, “Actually having some workplace rules with some measure of accountability or getting schedules two weeks in advance – the kind of intangible things that people have been asking for for years – it’s kind of on owners to deliver or they won’t have workforces. I do see, on the average, a real potential for restaurant workplaces becoming better places to work otherwise, with the competition for labour, why would they hold on to employees, when workers know they can go across the street? Hospitality workers have a level of negotiating power that they’ve never had before, so there’s a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on that if they can work collaboratively.”
He added, “Good Lord — if you’re going to stick with the restaurant industry over the last few years, it has to be because you love it and because you’re working towards something better. I mean, it was such an inequitable deal for so many leading up to the pandemic, and it’s just gotten so much more difficult – all the work closures, all the stop and go with government assistance, all the new problems of dealing with like an even more hostile public – not all, but a minority of the public. That minority can be just a danger. The anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers, the people leaving a one-star review because they wouldn’t seat them – it’s so much. The only reason to stick this out is because you like the work, you like the world, and you and your employer are making an effort to change the workplace.”
On track to help those changes happen are the folks at The Burnt Chef Project who are working on expanding their mission even more globally. Said Hall, “Our particular focus in 2022 will continue to be on developing unique and innovative ways in which we can support hospitality individuals with their mental health through collaboration and services. We will be focusing on building The Burnt Chef Ambassador Peer-Support Network so that we continue to support the wider hospitality community irrespective of cultural or language differences. We also have plans to create a recognized accreditation system allowing the general public to actively choose where and how they engage with hospitality businesses by focusing on the wellbeing of their server.”
Not 9 to 5 also has plans for the future and is not giving up the fight to bring the mental health of hospitality workers to the forefront of the conversation. “There’s so much emphasis on the sustainability and ethical treatment of the ingredients that we use in our menus. And I’m trying to push us to have the same focus on the sustainability and ethical treatment of the people producing, growing, serving, creating, and cooking everything we consume”, said Aviles. For me, that’s what this work is really about. It’s about the ethical treatment of people. And it’s about the sustainability of the humans that make up this industry.” She continued, “We are a people-oriented business and the humans in the business are the biggest asset. For too long we’ve neglected workplace mental health and depleted the people in the industry. And as a result, you have the great resignation that we’re seeing right now – all of this is interconnected.”
For those who doubt this mission or wonder about the cost, Aviles has a message: “There’s a massive return on investment for workplace mental health. And the more time, effort, and money you spend on implementing workplace mental health initiatives on investing in training for your people, the more you spend on that, and the longer you do it, the bigger the return. It actually helps with employee retention, increasing your profits, return customers, and making sure that you have a sustainable, profitable business.”
Regarding CNECTed, she says, “I want to make this training government-mandated. I want policy change – if you work in this industry, you need to be better equipped to work in this industry. And if we’re doing this for cannabis, and we’re doing this for alcohol, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t do this for human beings. You know, we’re working with people every day. The amount of emotional labour that you need to work in hospitality is mind-blowing. And it isn’t really often spoken about or compensated adequately.”
The good news is, Not 9 to 5 and The Burnt Chef Project are not the only organizations helmed by passionate advocates who are doing this work, and Corey Mintz isn’t the only author writing about it. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find others who are passionately working to support, advocate for, and educate hospitality workers. With that said, as we head out to the patios this spring and summer, I hope we will all have a greater understanding of the various kinds of labour that go into providing us with the gastronomic experiences we are privileged to enjoy, and the fact that there are people and organizations out there who are indeed checking on our strong friends.
Title illustration by Wendy Heagney-Bakewell