by Sylvia Yamanaka-Mead
When celebrity Chef Matt Moran was asked to comment on working in the hospitality industry and the recent suicide death of friend and fellow chef Justin Bull he said: ‘Fatigue probably was the biggest factor years ago, working 90, 100 hours a week, but we also had a sense of achievement by doing that. It was about how tough you can be, and how much work you can get done.’
Bull’s widow, Justine Kendall explained in a recent interview that it was the realities of running a busy café in Bronte (Bull’s dream job) that had become too much for Bull; “the hours are unsustainable. You are on your feet for 16 hours a day. All of a sudden he was dealing with 20 staff … front of house, not just kitchen, paying bills […] It just got to a point where it was too much, and he knew he needed help to try and cope.” Bull received professional treatment in a rehabilitation centre in 2018 however less than a year later he took his own life.
In a similar instance only months apart, another well-known chef Jeremy Strode also took his own life. His widow Jane, also a chef, cited exhaustion combined with bipolar disorder as the likely cause of her husband’s suicide,
“I really just think he was exhausted,” she says of the period leading up to his death. “And he got to that point where he just let the disease – or whatever you want to call it – get the job done.”
Matt Moran’s comments are a common refrain from successful chefs and bartenders –the ‘trial by fire’ approach where ‘only the strong survive.’ Gordon Ramsy has made a career out of bullying and screaming at would-be chefs to the delight of tv viewers. In real kitchens, however, night after night, the dramatics aren’t scripted and real people are being pushed to their physical and mental limits. Often these environments are steeped in the hangovers of past abuse and chefs justify their treatment of their staff by arguing that they went through it first and are therefore allowed (or even required) to pass on the same.
Chefs, in particular, are often contracted for 45 hours per week but have tasks and schedules that require them to work 20+ hours of unpaid overtime. It is often seen as a sign of weakness to ask others for help on specific tasks; instead, greenies must muddle through and figure it out on their own. And if asking for help with tasks is vilified (which it is), asking for help about how to cope with stress and anxious produced by work is nearly impossible.
Hospitality is a culture that glorifies gruelling long hours as a sign of true commitment to your job and it is this attitude that is more dangerous to physical and mental health than anything else. In an industry that requires hard physical labour and sharp mental capacity, it is counter-intuitive to envy a lifestyle that deprives workers of sleep, compromises mental health and increases the chance of injury, disease and suicide.
The unrelenting pressure to do more, to stay later, to prioritise work above all else, can rain down from managers, owners, colleagues and peers and has a cumulative effect. ‘Being tired’ doesn’t fully encapsulate the exhaustion felt by workers; RUOK? reported that “fatigue was the number one challenge faced by those in the industry, more so in the 45 to 64 years age group.” It is the crushing weight of unrealistic expectations and the striving to reach them that creates the atmosphere in which drug and alcohol abuse tend to flourish.
To work in hospitality is to commune with humanity. Being ‘in the trenches’ night after night we are exposed to truths usually hidden away during the day. We see covert love affairs, sparkling wedding proposals, relationships beginning and ending. And we are there to celebrate and commiserate alongside our guests. We spend our working hours enabling and encouraging others to live! To chase new experiences, to celebrate, to stay up late and enjoy life. Over long lunches, bottomless brunches and degustation dinners we slave away in hot kitchens to bring our guests divine culinary offerings, to facilitate the deeper, eternal connection felt between people who share a meal.
We anticipate the needs of others; we see and solve problems before they happen. A full dining room requires numerous people to be at the very top of their game – restaurant managers and waiters who can think on their feet and conjure tables out of thin air, bar managers and bartenders spot nervous would-be grooms getting ready to propose and quietly stock champagne fridges and fill ice buckets to be ready at the golden moment. Executive and head chefs days begin with the rising sun and end long after the meals are over as they steer the unwieldy ship across tumultuous seas, line chefs, CPD’s and pastry chefs who deliver perfection to hundreds of plates with an infinitesimally small margin of error.
This rich collage of human interaction is the crucible in which we forge our skills as confidanté, counsellor and cheerleader. These are the people who feed and water the masses, and we do so with love and professionalism. But at a great cost to ourselves. In a recent interview with the author, Bartender Boxing founder Raj Nagra reflected on working in the industry, “serving other people – there’s a huge emotional, mental and physical toll that comes with the role.”
There are limited scientific studies that measure the effect this work has on the minds and bodies of workers but the consequences are getting harder to ignore. Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in 2018 and Justin Bull’s in early 2019 are two high profile deaths that were felt around the world, especially in kitchens and restaurants. Speak to anyone in the industry and you will hear the same, behind the scenes our friends and colleagues are dying.
Putting on a show every night for guests takes emotional energy and a level of resilience that no one talks about, no one teaches you how to cultivate and nurture. This, combined with long hours, late nights and poor wages, “many people in our industry are barely surviving … living from week to week” according to Nagra. A recent RU OK? Survey also found that 80 per cent of hospitality workers agreed that mental health issues, such as feeling depressed, anxious or manic, are a challenge currently facing those in the industry.
Recent high-profile suicides and an industry at breaking point have led to an increasing number of organisations (White Jacket Effect, Food For Thought and The Giving Kitchen) working to support hospitality workers and, perhaps more importantly, change the culture and expectations within the industry itself.
Health in hospitality is more than a trend, something to read about in headlines and magazines. If we want to keep our chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs alive we need to stop glorifying 80-hour working weeks, sleep deprivation, and drug abuse and create healthy expectations to strive for. We need to create venues that pay staff legally for the hours they actually work, bolster staff hierarchies with enough workers to share the load, entrench mental health awareness policies and strategies and provide incentives for staff to achieve a balance between their lives and their jobs. Hospitality can be a deeply rewarding career but right now, the cost is too high, for too many. The next time someone brags about working 70 hours over the last week, consider that they might in fact be asking for help.