Today, I am taking a more serious tone. In recent years, talks about mental health is slowly creeping in at the forefront of the news.
Several known personalities took their own lives after battling with depression and only after knowing the sad incidents was it known that these people have been quietly suffering for some time. Some even years!
Looking at close to home, which is the culinary and hospitality industry, depression is a silent menace that shadows each tired and pressured chef from the rigours of work. We need to be looking out for each other, and we need to be speaking up more about what goes on in our industry to support one another with regards to mental health.
Mental health difficulties like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to substance abuse problems and, conversely, using substances can worsen mental health conditions in some people. For some, it leads to death.
Clearly, solving this problem is an ongoing process. People who are in the depths of anxiety and depression often think that there is no way out. They believe that no amount of help can save them. Which is why this condition should not be left to fester or worsen. Not everyone is trained to properly help a depressed individual no matter how good their intentions are.
There are still ongoing studies that prove several factors contributing to depression, but today, in my own way, I would like to talk about how my industry can help remedy this sad situation in the hopes that maybe, this can be nipped in the bud. I wish it were this easy, but awareness is a start, and I start with me.
Chefs Working Ethos
In most kinds of professions, people have to earn their keep or prove their worth before they can even begin enjoying the nature of their work and all that comes with it – better salary, job promotions and better working hours.
This working culture is something I’ve experienced myself as I worked up the ladder and working alongside much-seasoned chefs, way before I planted my roots here in Perth. There was a feeling of acceptance back then that for me to get somewhere, I needed to experience the hardest parts of the job. Initially, for me, it was to learn as much as I could. Working extra unpaid hours were nothing to me because I desired to soak in as much knowledge and skill as I could take. I worked my arse off!
Later on, the thinking somehow shifted that this is something that every chef goes through like a rite of passage. And then as the years passed, fortified by maturity, I began to see how the nature of our job takes a toll on a chef’s quality of work. I initially saw how it reflected in the outcome of the chef’s performance. Little did I know that it was just the tip of the iceberg! That a decline in the chef’s quality of work, especially a good performing chef and turned for the worse, can mean a lot of things.
Some chefs are able to handle the brutal pressure at work without any clutch. They are sometimes working between 50 and 70 hours per week, often times on weekends, evenings, and for up to 12 hours per day. Because of physical exhaustion, some need to take painkillers to get through a work shift.
Most professions are in the average of 40 hours a week. Sadly, our industry is notorious for enforcing long working hours on chefs. Sometimes I wonder, who decided that it is ok to work the chefs these hours? It is a sad reality that businesses are still enforcing and reinforcing this rather toxic career standard. Even sadder is that it is only until recently that people are asking why. One would think that at this age where professional regulations are in place, chefs and cooks will no longer accept this industry norm. This is the perfect recipe for burnout!
Why are chefs working hours so long in the first place?
Kitchen works are particularly demanding because a lot of time is spent on your feet and moving at a fast pace.
The two sides of the coin
On the establishment side, not all of them can provide support to the chef by providing the right number of staffs. It could be that kitchen conditions are not conducive to a productive workflow. Leadership from management is confusing and weak.
On the Chef side, while there are several personal reasons, it usually boils down to the love of food. But that is the more positive reason! Sometimes chefs choose to work hard because of their mindset which is by working more hours more work is done! If this sounds like you, then you need to find a way not work harder, but instead, smarter!
In a business, an employee and employer relationship should work like links in a chain. They have to work together to ensure success, and when considering themselves like links in a chain to success, it is easier to notice how one is affected by the other.
Burnout (or the beginning of one)
A chef who is tired recovers after rest. A chef who is exhausted both physically and emotionally continues to feel this fatigue, and no amount of rest can remedy it. Many don’t speak of burnout, and this suffering in silence is dangerous. Which is why as a link in a chain, you should be sensitive to signs of exhaustion that any member of your team may be suffering.
Physical symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, illness, loss of appetite. Emotional symptoms include mental health issues, pessimism, loss of enjoyment. Finally, behavioural symptoms include low productivity, irritability, and apathy. Don’t fear that most of these symptoms are medical and that you will be unable to spot them. It can be simple as taking a quick look around you. Do you see someone who refuses to socialise or withdraws from social events? Some people are wired that way, but if you see someone who had a dramatic shift, please pay attention.
How does this affect work?
• A chef’s productivity declines. They can look and sound exhausted all the time, or you hear them complain about a lack of sleep. Do they take a long time to complete basic tasks? This may be only evident to you when you receive a complaint about their quality of service or when their performance starts to affect another staff’s performance as well.
• A chef regularly comes in late or calls in sick more often. I understand that sometimes there is a desire to reprimand this behaviour, but it’s worth considering the reason behind it. An exhausted body leads to a compromised immune system, making it vulnerable to diseases. It could also be due to detachment and no regards for the consequence. It could be a sign of overworked people who feel that they alone will not be able to change a work environment for the better.
• The harmony with coworkers suffers. Burnt out people are usually snappy with others and show signs of irritability. Be on a lookout for employees who have a short fuse or start talking back to you.
We can help address this problem
For my part, one of the reasons why I opened Anytime Chefs is to give a bit more of flexibility to my chefs by giving them the ability to have the choice of when to work and when not to without feeling like they are leaving the venue in the shit. When a chef works in a restaurant, he is almost never allowed to have a weekend off or choose when to take holidays and so on.
This is because a lot of chef positions are very delicate and need a professional touch. Chefs perform with delicate hands, which is why it is difficult to replace a chef with another without changing the product result. In this way, a lot of chefs are almost unique and irreplaceable. Sadly, this is the reason why they are limited to work on certain days to keep the venue standards high and live with the off-cut of time left from work.
And on top of that often no extra time is paid as a full-time employee which pretty sucks when you think of the skills. There is both physical and mental part of you that is invested in delivering an optimal and consistent product. When chefs don’t get evaluated, compensated and appreciated for the hard work, that’s when frustration comes in, and this is why Anytime Chefs’ chefs are always motivated and productive. They get paid for each hour worked, and that makes the difference in their productivity and attitude. Our chefs are known to be calm, professional, and competent. They are the face of our business, and we are proud of it.
Here are other ways to contribute to burnout prevention:
Breaks and Rest Periods
For the Management: Make sure breaks are followed. Give people room and time to breathe. Simple things such as 10 or 15 minutes to eat or go for a walk or talk to their friends on social media can be beneficial for their mental health. The key is to plan breaks around your busiest time.
For the Individual: Make sure you grab these breaks. Sometimes just walking away from the workplace for a few minutes can recalibrate your focus while resting your body.
For the management: Be considerate and flexible on shifts. Ideally, you would have hired someone who you know will be an asset to your company. The challenge is how to gauge their performance and capacity so that like a fined tuned orchestra, they will all play together to create a harmonious tune.
In a chef lingo, I guess you can say that your ingredients all have a role to play in your dish. The challenge is how many or how few to add to make the dish taste spectacular. Anything can happen in a shift and compassion can lift morale that may be needed for that moment. Set a time to talk later with individuals if a more pressing issue needs to be addressed. The primary goal is to provide excellent service, and you need focused employees to accomplish that.
Also, a study published in 2016 states that flexible working conditions result in higher levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of burnout and psychological stress. According to Sociologist Phyllis Moen “Our research demonstrates that workers who are allowed to have a voice in the hours and location of their work not only feel better about their jobs but also less conflicted about their work-to-family balance. Crucially, these workers are also more efficient and more productive on the job. In other words, workplace flexibility is beneficial – not detrimental to organisations.”
For the individual: A managers’ hidden fear involves employees who like to nitpick the little things in the name of “speaking up”, and this shouldn’t be the case. Employers value flexible employees, but be honest if your working condition is no longer conducive to a productive job.
Creating realistic work expectations
For the Management: Sometimes, a business already has a good scheduling system in place, and the problem arises due to other factors. Creating a schedule doesn’t end to just having enough manpower for a shift. You have to consider their skills, in that way, you will be able to create a schedule involving people who complement each other skills and capacity. This is also helpful if you are maintaining a budget for manpower in a given shift. But then, listen to your staff if you frequently hear complaints about the schedule. This means that your schedule needs immediate attention.
For the Individual: Be honest, if the times and hours you are getting are not working out for you. Be mindful though that scheduling is not as easy as one might think. Don’t hesitate to speak up about it and work together with management. At the same time, try to honour your given hours knowing that others will be inconvenienced if you frequently absent.
Create a supportive culture
For the Management: The state of your business’ culture begins with you. Let your people know you support them; that you appreciate their contributions and what they bring to the table. Open the communication lines and encourage each team member’s performance. If you conduct pre-shift meetings, this is the best time to do it to help them foster camaraderie. Check in with your chef and staff individually on a regular basis. This helps establish trust so that when they feel overwhelmed, they’ll feel comfortable coming to you early on.
For the Individual: Maintain communication lines with both your employers and other employees. It is always hard to keep things positive, especially when there are disappointments and frustration with the management, but at the end of the day, the focus is for the team to deliver excellent service. If you huddle with coworkers to complain and not do anything about it, you are contributing to the negativity which often does not resolve anything that will end well.
For the Management: Provide timely and supportive training. Say there is a new procedure that you want to establish, conduct training so that every team member knows what to expect to function smoothly as a team. When you receive performance feedback that needs improvement, make sure that your team members receive the appropriate training to reinforce knowledge and skills. Anxiety builds up if a person is not confident in not having the right skills to do their jobs. If you have new members, conduct adequate orientation training, and then continue with ongoing training to demonstrate your concern for their success.
For the Individual: Grab and participate in training sessions to help improve your performance. This will decrease anxiety and tension on your part, enabling you to provide good if not fantastic service overall.
For the Management: Provide opportunities for career growth. Understandably, this is not always possible for small businesses. But it is worth to know that most employees resign because they don’t see a future in the industry. If they know that there is a chance for development, growth, they are more likely to engage and show concern for the business. Create attractive opportunities for them to move to other positions within the company.
For the Individual: If this is an option in the company you work for, know that like any opportunity, this should be taken with the knowledge that the opportunities don’t come often. What usually happens is that most people either aren’t paying attention or they don’t realise the importance of opportunities until it’s too late. An opportunity of ANY sort can be a great chance to progress, even if it isn’t the one you are initially seeking. Nevertheless, consider the change that will result will be beneficial to you in the long run.
Burnout is a familiar presence in our industry due to its fast-paced nature. With proper support of management together with a positive mindset, damaging effects on mental health will be minimised. If, despite efforts from both sides do not work, then consider changing employment as a last resort.
I wish for all my brothers and sisters in the industry to be supportive of one another as signs of mental health illness are not always easy to spot. We must try to uncover this suffering in silence so that appropriate help can be given.
We are united in this business due to our passion for food and cooking. Let’s demonstrate this unity further by supporting each other to improve the working conditions of our industry.
Ciao for now,