Whether they’re working the front or back of the house, crafting upscale cuisine or slinging bloody marys, food and beverage industry workers’ mental and behavioral health challenges can be profound.
Winter doldrums can devastate Tucson food & beverage employees
During the winter, especially around Gem Show, local bars and restaurants get extra slammed, and so can employees–slammed, that is, with intensified symptoms including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicidal ideation.
This large community of approximately 40,000 people who help run our local economy, often suffers quietly, putting on happy faces for tips and in order to support one another in their shared stressful workplaces. But privately, many are truly struggling.
The nature of the food & beverage beast
By default, restaurant and bar work is dangerously stressful. According to Chinese scholars’ 2015 research, service industry jobs are some of the most likely to trigger anxiety-induced strokes.
Working in a bar or restaurant requires speed, organized thought, consistent perfection, artfulness, training regarding food safety and reactions, and a deep desire to serve. It’s a lot to balance.
Those who enter the food service occupation are generally motivated by a spirit of nurturing, and yet everyday employees experience mistreatment and even abuse at the hands of the customers to whom they cater.
Meanwhile, front-of-the-house employees must feign happiness and look attractive, lest they lose tips — the main source of income for many. Such constant acting can be quite a strain on one’s psyche, especially in less-than-ideal workplace conditions.
Most service industry businesses do not have the means to provide workers with much control of their job experience.
Employees are seldom salaried, so incomes can be sporadic, hours unpredictable, and paid time off a veritable unicorn.
Arizona’s tipped employees earn a separate minimum wage of $8 per hour, on the assumption that they will net the (rising) state minimum of $11 per hour after tips. This assumed wage is not always achievable, owing to slow seasonal business, or customers who don’t tip enough.
Extra expenses and limited access to healthcare add to the downward spiral
Employees usually accrue too few hours to benefit from employer-supported health insurance — especially in non-franchised smaller restaurants and bars which themselves are often struggling as an entity.
Meanwhile, the jobs themselves are physically demanding and sometimes downright dangerous. Employees have neither the time nor the money to go to the doctor for a needed surgery or to the psychologist for a counseling session.
Workers often have to pay for their own uniforms, including aprons. Some facilities don’t even supply their teams with shift meals, so employees either work without sustenance or pay for a burger they probably won’t have a chance to enjoy.
The industry attracts a variety of unconventional individuals
On the other side of the same coin, bar and restaurant work attracts a certain type of individual: one who thrives, at least in theory, on not being stuck in a 9-5 office setting; who enjoys the buzz of conducting fast, accurate physical labor; who likes interacting with both strangers and teammates, pretty much nonstop.
It attracts hyper, gregarious extroverts who like to party. It also attracts moody individuals who crave structure and distraction to help control their depression. It also encourages debauchery. It is easy to get burnt out, and far too easy to crash.
Teams do become like families (perhaps not always in a positive light)
Industry workers share such intense experiences together that teams become like families — utterly bacchanalian families, that is. Peer pressure is escalated to the tenth degree. Drinking, taking drugs, and smoking are all but prescribed mechanisms by which employees bond with one another, and, like the constant smile and sharp-tongued wit, help mask workplace-induced anxiety and exhaustion. Temporarily.
Eventually, the self-abusive behavior worsens the symptoms that triggered it in the first place. Thus the cycle begins: stressor, plus conducive workplace, lead to numbing mechanisms, which lead to intensified stressors.
As a result, some employees unexpectedly end up in the hospital, or like the universally admired Anthony Bourdain, tragically end up in the grave.
An influx of people into the city sends stress levels through the roof
The winter season is a particularly busy time of year for the Tucson food and beverage industry. Students may just be getting back to town, and snowbirds, winter guests, and vacationers are eating and drinking plenty.
There are big grownup parties to cook for, office catering gigs to perfect, and even more separate checks than usual to keep straight. Then comes Gem Show season, which during its two-week tenure increases the town’s population by upward of 50,000 out-of-town shoppers, drinkers, and diners.
Combine post-holiday blues, the winter doldrums, and the inherent stress and depression, and it’s no wonder that working in the food and beverage culture can prove toxic — and even deadly — for individuals already struggling with mental health and behavioral issues.
True Tucson experiences
The following five accounts from local food and beverage employees illustrate the diversity of struggles that Tucson’s industry professionals face.
Some have chosen to be kept anonymous for various reasons; others elucidate their personal challenges using their names and positions in the community.
Female bartender with 9 years’ experience pouring downtown
How do you see the relationship between restaurant work and mental health?
“I don’t think the restaurant industry causes people to have mental health struggles, but it can make them worse.
There is a service industry culture of using alcohol and drugs to mask things like depression and anxiety. This culture is insidious and seductive. Combine that culture with the fact that most restaurant employees have inadequate or nonexistent healthcare benefits, and it’s a perfect storm.”
How do you see mental health in Tucson’s restaurant industry?
“I would guess that mental health issues within Tucson’s restaurant industry are about the same as in other cities. Addiction issues may be slightly worse since it’s so ridiculously cheap to drink here. I think Tucson’s Downtown scene, in particular, is pretty bad.
There’s this huge camaraderie among industry workers on Fourth Avenue and Downtown. You can get sucked into making your whole life working at the bar, getting off and spending your cash at the bar, maybe doing some coke to level yourself out, and repeating that cycle day in and day out. It’s a vicious cycle that’s fun at first until it isn’t.”
Was there a singular event that led you to understand or see the relationship between mental health and the restaurant industry?
“Getting sober. It was strange and challenging to get sober while working in a restaurant because the entire service industry culture reinforces unhealthy coping mechanisms like binge drinking or drug abuse.
How was I supposed to unwind with my coworkers after a long shift if I wasn’t doing shots with them?”
“I would explain, ‘I don’t drink anymore. I’m an alcoholic,’ and they’d be like, ‘Well duh. Who isn’t?’ Humor can be an effective mask, too.”
Does the restaurant industry attract people who are in distress and exacerbate their symptoms? Or is the restaurant industry actually causal? Or both?
“I don’t think the restaurant industry causes problems that wouldn’t have eventually shown up anyway, but it does create an environment where they can flourish. Like, in my case, I think I would have become an alcoholic anyway, but maybe I wouldn’t have laughed it off for as long as I did if I’d worked in a different environment.”
Should there be a local support group for restaurant industry employees? The Wall Street Journal article from November 12, 2018, reports that John Hinman, owner of Denver’s Hinman’s Bakery, has started a group called Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness. Does Tucson have or need a group like CHOW to help industry employees learn about stress management and wellness techniques?
“As far as I know, there are no restaurant industry-specific local support groups.
I don’t know that there needs to be since there are plenty of local support groups open to the general public. However, I do think this is an important conversation that needs to start. It’s part of a much bigger conversation about healthcare.
At the local level, I just hope people working in Tucson bars and restaurants know that the struggle is real, they’re not alone, and there is hope.”
Tommy Begay III – chef at Sushi on Oracle
How do you see mental health in Tucson’s restaurant industry?
“I think mental health is an issue all over the country. I don’t think it could be any better or any worse than anywhere else.
There is a strong community in Tucson between chefs. We all know and respect each other enough not to judge one another. This leads to more open conversations about things we are going through — from where are we getting the best product, to asking for help with mental health issues.
In other cities it might not get talked about enough and people might not think it’s an issue in that city.”
Was there a singular event that led you to understand/see the relationship between mental health and the restaurant industry?
“Personally, I always knew [that] it takes a certain kind of person to make it in this industry. You have to be able to take criticism, verbal abuse, long hours, hard work, and you have to be able to do it day in and day out and be ready to do it the next day again. We are ‘modern mercenary knives for hire.’ I don’t know if that certain “thing” includes mental health issues.
I remember when Tony [Bourdain] passed/took his life. We could all relate, and many of us put our phone numbers down for anyone to call — just to talk, or more importantly, to listen.”
Does the restaurant industry attract people who are struggling and exacerbate their symptoms? Or is the restaurant industry actually causal? Or both?
“No, but we don’t turn them away. If you’re on time, work hard, [and] don’t call in [sick], you’re basically in.
I think we all just fit in whether we are struggling, coasting by, or just normal, or in denial.
Any high-stress customer service-based job will inevitably bring out the best and worst in anybody, regardless of any mental health issues known prior to entering the field. So yes, both for me.
I now know that I’m dealing with adverse childhood trauma and without realizing it I was self-medicating and not dealing with what was really wrong. It wasn’t until everything came crashing down that I realized there was a problem. I think no matter what industry I eventually ended up in, it would have become too much without help.
The restaurant industry actually gave me an outlet to work out whatever was going on, and little by little it became harder and harder to hide — mostly from myself — what was going on. And boom my mental health became a problem.”
Would a local support group for restaurant industry employees help?
“I definitely feel like there needs to be a local support system for anyone to receive help.
Luckily for us – or for me – I have my community of chefs and people in the industry on Facebook and in person who are willing to help listen, act, and do so without judgment because they either know what it’s like to be going through or know someone who went through mental health issues. [We are the] Gastronomic Union of Tucson and we are all here for each other.”
Local female bartender and server with 10 years of industry experience
Why do you think the industry draws out and/or facilitates employees’ struggles?
“Party culture. It looks appealing as a young adult, but as you get older it easily becomes a habit and a lifestyle that’s hard for people to change and move on from.
Party culture, whether one is in their twenties or mid-thirties, isn’t healthy regardless and can lead to ongoing alcoholism that is the ‘norm’ of today’s society.
The industry depends on this to make money. It’s a cycle for many people in the industry. You make money slinging drinks. You spend money on drinking. Some people will spend all their tip money in one night after getting off work.”
When did you first notice this issue?
“Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize it until I was 26 [and I] didn’t seek help until I was 31.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) can get the best of people. Peer pressure is still a thing after high school. It didn’t take me rock bottom to know I needed to stop but it did take me losing a few things and having way too many blackouts for me to want to change.
Being in the industry, people brush off blackouts like they are a norm to a Saturday night or well, weekday night if you work in the industry. ‘What did you do last night?’ ‘I got sh*t-faced.’ ‘You need a hair of the dog.’ The cycle continues into day drinking.”
Do you think Tucson is a less or more conducive environment to unhealthy behaviors/ideation, compared to other cities?
“More. Tucson keeps creating more atmospheres to drink, party, and let loose.
[You hear]: ‘You deserve this beer.’ ‘You deserve this night out after a long week of dealing with other drunks.’ I think personally Tucson doesn’t create enough fun things to do without having a beer or drink in your hand.
What do you think could be done on a public health level to address this under-addressed population, and how might we advocate for better conditions?
[We need to] address that alcoholism comes in a few forms.
Just because you don’t need a drink every day to function doesn’t mean you might not be an alcoholic. People that binge drink are alcoholics. It’s considered normal (in the industry), but by health standards, it’s considered alcoholism.”
“If you’ve blacked out while drinking, you might want to consider seeking help. If you have hangovers every weekend? That’s not normal.”
“Addressing these things can help and be mindblowing for those who don’t know what it’s like not to be in the industry. Once I learned these things my life went from a depressing cycle of hangover blues to clear thinking and ongoing sense of self-awareness. I became a better server and bartender too, believe it or not.
Being present beats party culture any day.”
Female industry professional with 6 years of local experience
What is your experience in the industry?
“I have worked in the F&B industry from job number one. It’s all I’ve worked, give or take a few odd jobs. I mainly work in kitchens and have worked with people from all walks of life.
One thing about the (Tucson) industry is that almost anyone can work in it. If you’re a hard worker and have some basic human communication skills, you’re hired. It’s not always fun or easy, but the hustle and grind [are] addicting.”
What sorts of struggles have you experienced or witnessed? Why do you think your industry exacerbates symptoms?
“I have watched friends from work deteriorate from opioid addictions and fall off the face of the earth. I have had friends not sleep for days because of their narcotic use. But something about the constant grind of cranking out food and drink, meeting strangers’ (customers’) demands, sometimes [falls at] your own expense.
It’s addicting, dehumanizing, and at times hard to process and unwind from — which is why I think people turn to alcohol and drugs to take the edge off.”
Do you think Tucson’s Food & Beverage industry could benefit from more formal support?
“Overall, I believe the [local] restaurant industry is a fantastic network of eclectic people — both mentally healthy and not.
Mental health is slowly being destigmatized and I hope it reaches the darker side of F&B that not everyone seems to realize exists.”
Gary Hickey – executive chef for Flores Concepts and chef-partner at Charro Steak
This is Hickey’s twenty-seventh year in the food and beverage industry. He has worked every position from dishwasher and bartender to executive chef.
Please explain how you see the state of mental and behavioral health within Tucson’s food and beverage industry. Is it better/worse/the same as other cities? Why?
“This is a subject that hits close to home for me. Being in the restaurant business for more than half my life, I have seen the toll it takes on people I love, fellow chefs, and owners.
It is a business that is run on paper-thin margins, payroll, food cost, rents and, of course, payroll taxes have to be paid. Every month. That is stressful, to say the least.
Then there is the line cook or dishwasher trying to make ends meet. All these factors run up and down in the industry and sometimes it’s too much to handle, so many look for an escape. Alcohol, drugs, extramarital relationships, and, of course, suicide run rampant in the restaurant industry.”
“My only fear is that there is someone else out there feeling alone while surrounded by people every day, who will not make that decision to ask for help or just reach out to a friend to talk, and it will be too late.”
“The current state as I see it, coming off a crazy 2018, is very unstable. I myself have struggled with drugs and alcohol my entire adult life.
I am a recovering addict and I have just recently quit drinking. Drinking was such a part of who I was as a chef that it was hard to see myself any other way. But when I actually took a second to look at how advanced my alcoholism had become, I was scared for my life and the people I love, it was time for a change.”
Was there a singular event that led you to understand or see the relationship between mental/behavioral health and the food and beverage industry?
“A very long time ago I had a theory that the reason industry people (including chefs, cooks, and servers) used drugs and alcohol as an escape is because we are surrounded by death, every day of our lives.
Don’t get me wrong: it takes amazing talent and skill to transform a lifeless animal into sustenance but the constant reminder of your own mortality has to plant a seed somewhere deep.
As I grew older, I saw how accepted it was to drink with your “brothers and sisters in arms” (there were bars that would serve me at the age of 17 because I was with my chef at the bar) and stopped analyzing the ‘why’ and just did what was the norm.
I have lost jobs, homes, cars, and relationships that will never mend because of my own personal demons.
I attempted suicide, [have] been admitted to rehab against my own will, but I never thought it was me. I never thought I was the problem.
It was this business that molded me into the negative, self-loathing narcissist that continually drowned my feelings. I cannot say that this is the case for everyone, but I have seen it in far more of my friends and coworkers over the past two decades than not.”
Does the food and beverage industry attract people who are already struggling, and exacerbate their symptoms? Or is the industry causal?
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the late Anthony Bourdain when speaking about mental health in the Food & Beverage industry.
As he so eloquently stated, ‘We are all pirates […] Maybe they didn’t make it through high school, maybe they are running away from something — be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, or a squalid third-world country with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here.’
So the answer is yes! I feel like the kitchen is what America used to be; we welcome everyone.
The food and beverage industry attracts those looking for acceptance and we will teach you a skill, feed you, give you hope, and make you part of a family.”
Would a local support group for food and beverage industry employees help?
“There are programs available to the public on sliding-scale [bases] for mental health and behavioral health issues, but I feel there needs to be a more focused program for the hospitality industry.
We can send a line cook strung out on heroin or meth to rehab, but if all that person has ever done is cook, washed dishes, or waited tables, how do we expect them to return to their life if we don’t teach them how to deal with the depression or peer pressure when they return?
I struggle every day with a choice. Many times in my life I have made the wrong choice.”
“The only thing I can say for sure is that I know how hard it is and if there is anyone reading this who needs help or feels that there is no way out, you are wrong!”
“Talk to someone, anyone — hell, call me!”
The next time you go out to eat or drink during busy season, remember that the employees might be suffering a little extra, although their smile is likely intact.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255). They also offer free, confidential online chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.