A male and female chef in a kitchen plating oysters
Hospitality Operations

How to Prioritize Restaurant Employee Wellness

Once upon a time, I worked at a high-volume shot bar in downtown Boston. The hours were incredibly long, the place had three stories, and the patrons weren’t always very nice. So it could be a tough job.

Male customers and bachelorette parties high on sisterhood often offered to buy us shots behind the bar, which we were allowed to take with manager approval. But there was also usually a little secret vodka mixed in with our sodas, which we sipped throughout the night just to make it to 2:00 AM. 

At this bar, I had a coworker we’ll call Steph. Steph was a lot of the things you’d want in a bartender — pretty, vivacious, and cheerful. 

One Saturday after a grueling shift, Steph sat down on a bar stool to count the cash drawers — and promptly fell to the floor. Steph was so drunk she couldn’t sit properly, let alone count money. 

I counted the drawers. This was not the last time that Steph got drunk at work. There were no repercussions.

Steph is not an isolated case — not by a long shot. The physical and emotional stress of both front of house and back of house service industry work takes a heavy toll. And far too many restaurants and bars are very happy to toss a free drink at their employees, hoping that will keep them content. 

But the issues of restaurant worker health run deeper than drinking on the job. The industry is rampant with uninsured employees who live a wildly unhealthy lifestyle — often by necessity rather than choice. And when their health begins to fail, they have no safety net.

That’s why so many ill or injured restaurant employees rely on crowdfunding campaigns to pay for lifesaving medical expenses.

Why make changes now?

Staff retention is a never-ending problem for restaurants. The turnover rate was an outrageous 75% in 2019. Turnover that high is both disruptive and incredibly expensive.

The industry is in a state of upheaval right now due to the pandemic. Some establishments are tentatively reopening at reduced capacity, but others are holding off. And many haven’t been able to weather the storm, and won’t be reopening at all. 

The current and continuing loss of industry jobs should decrease turnover — at least temporarily. Fewer available positions will keep employees where they are. 

But eventually, the industry will recover. And a restaurant that works hard to care for their employees and keep them healthy will have a stronger, more dedicated staff in a future where health is more important than ever.

Revamp the culture

The restaurant industry has the highest rate of substance abuse of any industry. 12% of employees report “heavy alcohol use” — 5 or more drinks consumed in under two hours for five straight days. And with over 15 million people working in restaurants — at least before the outbreak of COVID-19 —  that’s a huge number of employees with a problem. 

There is only so much a restaurant can do to discourage substance abuse. You can’t follow people home or prevent them from going out after work. 

But you can work to foster a culture outside of drinking. 

To start, it may be time to eliminate the shift drink, if you still provide one. 

(Pause while millions of servers and bartenders curse my name.)

Restaurant worker shift drink
Photo by mnm.all on Unsplash

I don’t think restaurants should ban employees from buying a drink at the end of their shift. But providing a free drink at the end of every shift reinforces the “work’s over, time to drink” mentality. As coworkers finish their shifts, everyone gathers for their on-premise drink, and then they all head off together to the late night bar down the street to continue unwinding. 

By no longer offering shift drinks, you remove one temptation for those who are possibly trying to make a healthier choice. 

A cultural shift has to come from the top. Restaurant owners and managers can’t regularly get tanked at the bar, and then not expect the FOH and BOH employees to do the same. Instead, encourage leaders to set a good example with activities that aren’t associated with drinking. If a manager that the team respects shares anecdotes of their mountain biking hobby or bookclub — instead of their night of overindulging — it will contribute to a culture that is less focused on booze.

Time to dine

With all that dough you could save from cutting shift drinks, it’s time to step up the game on family meal. 

Food workers face higher levels of food insecurity than the rest of the population. One 2014 report showed that 41% of restaurant workers in NYC, for example, were considered food insecure. How can employees be expected to take care of their responsibilities if they’re going hungry?

I’m not saying family meals should be fancy or pricey. But if employees know where they can get at least a few meals per week, it will go a long way. 

Restaurant family meal in silver pots to improve restaurant worker wellness
Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. from Pexels

Family meals should be healthy but filling. Some simple chicken, sauteed veggies, a little rice, and some greens are affordable and will keep employees on their feet through at least the first 4 or 5 hours of their shift. 

But the meals have to be consistent, and there has to be enough for everyone. A good family meal will prevent employees from starting their shift on an empty stomach or sneaking French fries in the walk in when no one is looking.

Let them be sick

Non-restaurant people would be horrified to find out how many people have made or served their food with a fever or even the flu, pre-COVID-19.

Some restaurants do not allow staff to call in sick unless they get their shift covered. If no one is willing to work for them, the sick employee comes in or risks termination. 

Other restaurants require a doctor’s note if you want to miss a shift. So now, a prep cook will lose their wages for the day they’re taking off, and he or she will have to pay for a doctor’s visit to make the absence excused. Easier to just suck it up, chug some DayQuil, and power through.

What about insurance, you ask? Unlikely. Only 31% of restaurants offer health coverage, and most employees can’t afford it. 

A white tea mug and wadded up kleenex
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It’s one of the shames of the industry. And in our post-COVID-19 world, it cannot continue. If an employee calls to say they’re sick and can’t get their shift covered, they still have to stay home. If a server starts to feel ill halfway through dinner service but they have a full section, you have to send them home. Divide up their section among the rest of the staff or take a few tables yourself. 

Forcing sick employees to work risks infecting guests and the rest of the staff. Now instead of one sick employee, you have seven. Not worth it.

Reward healthy behavior

Large companies with massive budgets often start wellness programs to incentivize employees to get gym memberships or regular physicals. 

Restaurants rarely have that kind of cash to work with, so we have to get a little more creative. How about doing a gift card exchange with some other local restaurants and handing out gift cards as rewards for certain healthy behaviors?

You could start a weekly group run for the staff, and for every 10 runs they complete, they get a little something. Or what about a treat for a month without a cigarette? Some of this would have to be on the honor system, but for most people who participated, they would be taking important steps toward a healthier lifestyle.

And about smoking — don’t only allow “smoke breaks.” Nonsmokers have taken up the habit just so they can get a few short breaks throughout the day. Make it a policy that anyone can have a few minutes to themselves with manager approval, as long as their responsibilities are covered.

Prioritize rest

Sleep is important. A well-rested staff is happier, healthier, and less likely to cut themselves when chopping veggies for the soup of the day. 

Closing the restaurant and getting home at 1am only to be back at 9am the next day is rough. So are doubles, working from 10am to midnight with just a short break in between to inhale a meal. Doubles and clopens are painful, exhausting shifts to work. They’re hard on the body, the psyche, and morale. 

I understand that it can’t always be avoided. And some employees who are desperate for cash will want the double. But an overly tired team doesn’t perform well and can do long-term damage to themselves and the restaurant. 

It’s not easy

Not all of these options will be available for all restaurants. Some will require a small financial investment, which many restaurants can’t afford — especially right now.

But as restaurants slowly reopen and adjust to the coming post-COVID landscape, hopefully some of these issues can be taken into account. Restaurant workers are incredibly vulnerable. For too long, these workers have been treated as replaceable cogs in a machine, rather than the hard-working people that they are.

Restaurant employees are hardworking, vital, and vulnerable. That's never been clearer than during the current pandemic. It's time to prioritize the health of our restaurant employees. They deserve it!

Header Photo by Elle Hughes from Pexels

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