Not 9 to 5: mental health initiative targets ‘toxic’ pressures for restaurant workers

July 18, 2018, 3:00 pm

Source: The Guardian

When he was at his most desperate, Jakob Anderson was working himself so hard he couldn’t even think. Every morning and night, the young aspiring chef undertook the almost 90-minute commute from his home in the suburbs of Whitby, Ontario, to the fashionable Italy restaurant in downtown Toronto, where he worked for 12 hours a day.

In the evening, clocking out and heading home at last, he would board his commuter train, chug an extra large cup of boiling-hot coffee, and immediately pass out.

Anderson suffers from atypical anorexia, a condition that, for someone in the food industry, can make going to work a living hell. But he had no idea how bad things were. He was too busy to even realize he was sick.

“It was a toxic circle,” Anderson says, reflecting on the period. “You get to hide from the world, and hide from yourself, by burying yourself in your work for 12 hours a day – and all that work, all that hiding, only makes it worse.”

It took Anderson years to understand the severity of his illness, and longer still to extricate himself from an environment that was exacerbating the condition. For Anderson, the kitchen isn’t a healthy place to be for people suffering from mental illness: the very culture of the business makes it next to impossible for those in pain to admit their problems and seek help.

“The food industry is notorious for this bro attitude of pushing things to the back of your mind,” he says. “You’re expected to put your head down, stop complaining and just do your job.”

Anderson has been in recovery now for three years. He no longer works in the kitchen, and he is ready, he says, to share his story, for the sake of the “million restaurant workers currently sitting in the dark who don’t even know what’s going on with them”. He wants to help fight what he describes as “the stigma in the food industry around mental illness” – a stigma that for many chefs and restaurant owners has become a health crisis of the gravest urgency.

Ariel Coplan, owner and head chef of Thoroughbred Food & Drink in Toronto, has witnessed the devastating effects of the industry’s mental illness stigma firsthand.

Late last summer, after one of his employees tried to take his own life, he felt he couldn’t go on without bringing it up. So he organized a free panel discussion in his dining room about mental health in the restaurant industry and invited leaders from the local community to come and talk.

“It was a really wonderful, open dialogue with people,” Coplan says. “People were excited to finally have a chance to talk about this stuff openly, and I realized it needed to be addressed on a continuing basis, not just a one-off.”

“It wasn’t a massive crowd, but it was a very engaged crowd,” remembers Hassel Aviles, one of the speakers on the panel. “Everyone was really present and passionate and open. It felt intimate and comfortable. Ariel and I both walked away feeling like we needed to do something about what was being said here.”

Aviles and Coplan decided to collaborate on a more fully formed and active initiative – an ambitious community organization dedicated to creating an ongoing dialogue about mental illness in the restaurant industry, dialogue meant to eradicate the stigma that keeps so many chefs, cooks and servers languishing alone. They called it Not 9 to 5, to reflect the kind of schedule kept by people like Anderson.

Aviles herself has a lot of experience dealing with mental illness and the kinds of challenges faced by restaurant workers in particular. She’s struggled with mental illness, she says, for more than 20 years, and has always felt like no one in the industry was willing to talk about problems like hers in an open or honest way. “It becomes a problem of shame,” she explains. “In my 20s I was in a crisis. I worked as a server at a restaurant, but I did not feel like I could tell my manager that I couldn’t come in today because I was having a full-blown panic attack. I literally thought I would get fired. No part of me believed it would be OK.”

How can a server on the verge of a mental breakdown be expected to come in and put on a friendly face for the customers she’s serving? The hypocrisy is obvious, Aviles says, when you consider how we think of mental health problems compared to anything else. “If you broke your leg, of course you wouldn’t come in to work. But what if your mind is broken? Can you also have some time to rest and recover? That’s never a topic that was addressed.”

Instead of providing much-needed rest, what tends to be offered in kitchens is a much more dangerous solution: self-medication. “When things get tough, it’s shot time,” Aviles says. “You had the craziest service ever? Here’s your staff beer. That’s our industry’s really weird way of dealing.” The result of that attitude, of course, is a culture of addiction – and a tendency among the most badly hurting restaurant workers to simply party hard to deal with their pain. Talking openly about the prevalence of substance abuse in kitchens is another mission of Not 9 to 5. As with other kinds of mental illness, it’s not something the industry cares much to discuss.

When chef Matt Basile opened his acclaimed Lisa Marie restaurant, at the age of just 27, he was not coming from a restaurant background – he worked a white-collar job at an office before starting his first venture in food. One of the most astonishing things he discovered in the early days, he recalls, was how common drinking seemed to be. “I was shocked how everyone seemed to think it was totally OK to crack open a beer in the middle of service,” he says. “I would find beer cans and glasses of booze stashed everywhere, hidden all over. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it.” It wasn’t long before he instituted a dry kitchen policy. He would rather give his cooks the weekend off to relax and recover, he insists, than to see them pounding back vodka between shifts.

Basile was never much of a drinker, but he suffered in the kitchen. His battles with mental illness have been just as severe. “Everyone suffers from mental health problems differently,” he says. “Mine manifested in the form of stress and anger. I didn’t cope with stress. I was just angry all the time.” At its worst, Basile reflects, his anger and pain made him “the worst possible version” of himself, distressed and resentful 24 hours a day.

He places the blame in part on the pressure put on people in the restaurant business. In the food industry, he says, “everyone is more sensitive to success and failure because it’s more visible who fails and who succeeds”. That sensitivity – that need to be the best and to show your peers you’re thriving – leads to the kind of unsustainably long hours and never-ending physical strain that exhausts the body and taxes the mind.

The solution? Care less.

“At the end of the day, we worry too much about what other people think of us. You have to be OK with what you have. If you are chasing approval, you can’t stop.”

Basile points out that no matter how much he accomplishes, people can’t help but ask him what’s coming next – what new challenge he plans to take on, or what new aspiration he hopes to achieve. That’s the kind of attitude that can only lead to damaged mental health. “I’ll tell you what’s next,” he says. “Working a little less and being happy with what I have. That’s what’s next.”


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