Heads Above Water: Mental Health Problems in the Service Industry

Recently, one of my bartender colleagues celebrated her last day at our workplace. This was an especially great day because it was likely to be her last day in the service industry as well. She is moving on to pursue a career in social work, we are all proud of her.

At the end of her last shift, a group of us were sitting around talking over a beer like we normally do after a busy Saturday night. This night, the conversation was about her plans and next steps in her career. As she explained, a coworker and I joked about her sticking around to be a resident therapist for our staff, we all got a kick out of it. As funny as it was at the time, the joke had some seriously dark undertones considering how working in the service industry can be so hard on your mental health.

If compared to other jobs, restaurant work probably wouldn’t be on a list of high-stress careers to people who have never worked in the service industry. What is stressful about delivering a sandwich to a table when you compare it to life and death situations doctors and nurses deal with? It really seems trivial when looking at it that way. The reality is, when you peel back a few layers and examine the details, the service industry is a quagmire of mental health issues and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The first thing you must accept when taking on a bar or restaurant job is that you are almost guaranteed to be living an alternative lifestyle from the rest of society. Your money is often based on the kindness of others. You work long hours primarily at night. When it is busy, days off are sometimes not an option. There is no calling in sick. I could go on and on. Sure, every establishment is different and some treat their employees better than others but overall most service industry workers deal with the same issues.

Let’s talk about the hours first. Whenever I bring up working a double with a service industry friend, the conversation will likely turn into a sharing of horror stories of the longest, hardest shifts you have worked. The longest shift I have worked was just under 17 hours, the longest I’ve seen is 22 hours. I know many industries work long hours, but in the service industry, these hours can also come with little reward if you work for tips. My longest shifts are usually the most lucrative, but there are instances where I make just over minimum wage. As said before, many restaurants deal with this better than others and try to limit the long shifts. Also, most SI people I know are okay with these hours and anticipate them. Unfortunately, in some places, if you open your mouth about working doubles regularly, management and owners will throw it in your face because of a macho hard-work culture. Some common phrases are “Well don’t you want to make money?” or “You knew what you signed up for.” Yes, sometimes this is true but if an employee is unhappy, the conversation should be constructive and not aggressive. They usually fall on the aggressive side of the spectrum.

This leads me to the next issue: the lack of days off when its busy. Much like the long hours, this is something I see everywhere in the industry and is usually anticipated by its workers. “The busy season” is often code for the “no-days-off-season because I need to make money before the slow season.” Workers can go weeks with no days off. This means very little time to decompress and take care of yourself. Healthy habits fly out the window. You lose sleep and don’t drink enough water, and often more alcohol. Personally, I end up eating one meal a day, while walking miles upon miles. The stress of these long stretches of work, supplemented by the bad habits formed, is fuel for a breakdown. Coupled with the long shifts, it can drive you mad.

The daily work stress is enough to break any person down. Some deal with it in healthy ways but others simply don’t. In an industry so involved with alcohol, it is no wonder that many of its workers turn to it as a coping mechanism. I am no stranger to this either, I dealt with my work stress with alcohol for years. I’ll admit that a beer after a hard day of work is great, and people across all industries can enjoy this tradition. It is also no secret that I love shift drinks. The problem is these traditions can lead anywhere from unhealthy habits to full-blown alcoholism, especially in restaurants and bars. Shift drinks can be especially dangerous in a bar or restaurant with a toxic environment. Instead of a reward for hard work, they can turn into a substitute for proper management and conversations that need to be happening. Instead of dealing with the problems employees face, everyone just “drinks about it.” It is a slippery slope into creating a culture of alcoholism in the workplace, which happens far too often.

The late-night nature of working in restaurants fuels this as well. Often there is nothing else to do when you get off late at night other than having a few drinks. Once again, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. Most people I know frequently meet up with friends after work to have a drink, no matter what their job is. The problem comes when you do it after every shift because you find yourself in a place where it is the only thing that helps you deal with the stress of your job. This is textbook alcoholism and it is commonplace in the service industry.

Drug use is also very common in restaurant and bars. Much like how it’s easy to deal with stress with alcohol, drugs can be an easy way out. The two often go hand in hand as well, people start and just won’t stop. I think everyone who has been in the industry for a while has a story about an addict and they are all heartbreaking. I have lost friends to it, there is not much more I care to say about it.

There is research backing up the prevalence of substance abuse in the industry as well. In a 2015 study done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it was found that the food service and accommodation industry is at the highest ranks of worker substance abuse. In their survey, they found that 11.8% of food service workers reported heavy alcohol use in the past month, only behind the notoriously tough jobs of mining and construction. Furthermore, they found that 19.1% reported illicit drug use, much higher than any other industry. Last, they found food service workers reported the highest rate of overall substance abuse in the past year they were surveyed, at 16.9%. To myself and many others in the industry, this is not surprising. Despite this, it is disturbing to think that according to this survey, nearly 1 in 5 people who work in our industry have substance abuse problems. I can’t imagine that number going down anytime soon either.

Chart provided by SAMHSA

All the long hours and poor coping mechanisms have a horrible effect on your personal life as well. People often fall into depression, sleeping all day and staying up all night. In the winter you rarely see the sun. It’s hard to find time for your friends or do things other than go out to a bar and drink. Having meaningful romantic relationships tends to be incredibly difficult as well. Finding the time and putting in the effort is nearly impossible, especially if you’re partner is not in the service industry. What I am saying is that the unforgiving nature of working in food service and not dealing with the stress in a healthy way will make your entire life a nightmare. One of my favorite things about my job is that I don’t take anything home with me, but if you are not dealing with the stress of your job healthily, you’ll be taking everything home in a terrible way.

So what do we do about this? As service industry workers, we are all in this together. There is a lot of comradery in this industry and whether you believe it or not, support is there if you look for it. Take it upon yourself to look out for your coworkers and industry friends. Not to be corny, but if you see something, say something. You don’t have to dive into people’s lives but let them know you’re there for them. You never know how much someone might need it.

Heads Above Water is a series on mental health issues in the service industry, if you have a story you’d like to tell or any suggestions on what we should be talking about or anything to contribute at all, send me a message through the contact form.

If you are dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues please visit http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/im-looking-mental-health-help-myself. It’s a great step to finding help for yourself. It was for me at least.