How Pandemic Dining Is Affecting Restaurant Workers’ Mental Health

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After more than a year of closing, pivoting, and re-opening, restaurants are now scrambling to deliver diners the experiences they crave — all amid challenges such as staffing shortages and supply chain issues. Recent news stories of diner outbursts have drawn attention to those working in the hospitality industry, who often take the heat when a menu dish isn’t available or service is slow. While frustrations are high all around, it’s time to ask: How are restaurant workers holding up?

Many are protecting their well-being with the help of support networks such as the Southern Smoke Foundation, a crisis relief nonprofit for people in the food and beverage industry that raises funds to battle health crises, storm damage, and those affected by COVID-19. The foundation provides free mental healthcare to anyone in the industry, and their children, throughout Texas (with more states to come — and those who don’t live in Texas can still apply for help paying for mental health resources via their Emergency Relief Fund). 

To understand what restaurant workers are going through right now, we talked to Southern Smoke’s executive director Kathryn Lott, who works closely with counseling partners at Mental Health America and the University of Houston. Read on to learn how restaurant workers are coping and how kind dining can support the industry.

There’s been an uptick in bad diner behavior since the pandemic (examples here, here, and here). What’s going on?

Kathryn Lott of the Southern Smoke Foundation | Credit: Julie Soefer

While none of us can be completely certain, I think that there are a number of things going on. 

1) This pandemic has lasted far longer than any of us anticipated. 

2) Patrons may feel that they rushed to the aid of their favorite neighborhood spots and used the restaurants’ to-go service to keep the establishments afloat for the first six months of the pandemic. Clearly, to-go is not the same experience as dine-in, and yet they were happy to pay the same. And now that dine-in is available, patrons are not as understanding when it comes to lack of product and lack of labor. 

3) It’s been 18 months of struggle for everyone, and I think people come to restaurants to escape and indulge. When the realities are presented to them — when they, too, are obviously affected by COVID in their own lives — they are over it. And it’s the server, bus boy, bartender, manager who receives that message and suffers from a diner’s behavior due to their frustration. The awful part about this is that they are crippling the system even further. The people they are lashing out on are the people that didn’t leave the industry, that worked even when they were terrified of contracting the virus and were uncertain about their restaurant’s future. It’s a shame all around. 

Lastly, people undervalue restaurant workers. Period. If a customer has a bad day, culturally we put such little value on the restaurant worker that they are seen as “fair game.” And right now, most of us are having really, really bad days.

So then how can restaurant workers protect their mental health during this time, knowing these kinds of interactions are taking place? 

It’s necessary for employees to let their managers know that they cannot tolerate abuse and that they ask for help when a customer begins to escalate things. But for managers…oh man. I do not envy them. Many of them have survivors’ guilt from the pandemic as they were the ones that had to lay off workers, they are working around the clock due to labor shortages, and they are put on the front lines as the defense against abusive customers. Not to mention, they are having to answer for not having product, supplies, people and systems — all of which are out of their hands.

The industry itself is doing a much better job of talking about mental health and taking it really seriously. We have seen tremendous growth here versus when we first started our mental health program at Southern Smoke. But, in the case of individuals, they should find out what resources are available to them in their area. We hope to have free mental health programs available in all 50 states in the next 5 years for F&B workers. But currently, we are only in the state of Texas — if you live in Texas, there is free mental health support for you through Southern Smoke and, if applicable, your children. 

If there are no free mental health programs in your area, there might need to be a coming together with other restaurant workers in some place other than a bar. It’s imperative that people are heard when they are suffering. Saying “This sucks” is different than saying “I’m really struggling” — let others around you know that you are having a really hard time and why.

What are some tactics restaurant professionals can use to avoid or mitigate blowups or misunderstandings? How have you seen people address these challenges from a practical standpoint? 

A check presentation from Southern Smoke’s 2019 fundraising festival | Credit: Robert Jacob Lerma

While I was in food & beverage for ten years myself, I am not working in a restaurant today, and I don’t pretend to know how to run one. But I can say that we have case managers that deal with people who are abusive, and there are two steps I have taken. 

1) Write it down somewhere. On our website you will see that if an applicant is abusive with language or tone, they will immediately become ineligible for funding. I think it’s incredibly important to be able to point to something that clearly expresses that the staff is united and that they are valued, and that no one has the power to destroy those two things. 

2) If I find out that you have been accepting abuse, I will write you up. You may feel that you are strong enough to handle someone that is acting that way, but you are going against the first principle in no longer standing united if you accept abuse. Also, working with abused people creates an entirely different environment than working with happy, healthy people. It is important to protect your culture. I find if I take the decision totally out of their hands, they can breathe easy. 

Now, I am rarely face to face with the begrudged, so again, I don’t pretend to know what restaurant owners should do better than they do. But I think it would be quite powerful if the kitchen, bar and service just simply refused to serve someone once they have displayed that behavior. But I recognize that is an idealistic perspective and that the confrontations are usually more complicated than that. 

Has the way restaurant employees think about hospitality shifted since the pandemic, and if so, how? 

Maybe the question here is: has the way the nation thinks about hospitality workers shifted? And I have an unpopular answer. As I said above, this is a cultural problem that has existed for a long, long time — forever maybe. And yet, we do respect people who serve us in other industries — from first responders to entertainers. And we respect chefs. But there is a gaping divide between those who live on tips [servers, busboys, bartenders etc.] versus those who are salaried [chefs and the leadership team]. There is an entitlement from customers who think because they decide how much you are going to get paid, they also have the right to reprimand, humiliate, and belittle restaurant staff.

Throughout multiple industries, people have seen just how fragile their world is. And I do think it’s frustrating that, as a restaurant worker who is always asked to show up right behind the first responders in any disaster to serve their communities and the people in need, you are not treated with respect and patience. Imagine just trying to do good — for your customers, for yourself and for your community — and never having anything but a tough day for 18 months straight. You are making less money, your hours are cut (necessarily), and your infrastructure has been ripped apart. I would love for the media to cast a spotlight on the good that these workers do. They are so willing to do it without as much as a thank you, but this time it’s just been so long. And rather than thanks, in many cases, they are treated as prey by people who have had a bad day (or year) and are just looking for someone to spew at.

I know that most of our case managers still love to serve. One is a bar manager, one works the early shift at a coffee shop and one is a sommelier. There’s nothing like that interaction with the customers that are kind and forgiving and truly grateful or inspired even. They love to listen and figure out what your favorite draft beer might be or what new dishes on the menu might make you tell your friends what an incredible meal you had. At the heart of this industry, there is good. It is here to feed people. What’s more human than that?

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