Being a chef — the passion, the adrenalin, the heat — it’s unlike anything else and something you must experience to truly understand. I love it. The camaraderie that goes with a busy, sweaty service — not to mention the joy and validation of someone loving the food you cooked for them, so much so that they feel the need to thank you personally. These are the reasons why chefs do what they do.
But there is a dark side. A side that leads to the suicide of high-profile chefs like the legend, Anthony Bourdain; a side that reveals some startling statistics about the mental health and wellbeing of chefs. Is it surprising — with the hours, the lack of sleep, the pressure, the aggressive culture that demands perfection, the drinking and the drugs — that it’s actually killing us? Slowly or all at once.
During my very first week of working as a chef, I don’t think I slept for even a minute. The adrenalin running through my veins was so much that rest was made impossible. It took some time for my body to get used to it; even now, after a particularly busy or intense service, the life of an insomniac resurfaces. That adrenalin is addictive!
It can be a dangerous game though, as sleep deprivation, unsocial working hours, a highly stressful work environment and easy access to alcohol and drugs, all combine to create the perfect storm for poor mental health and wellbeing. Whether you enter hospitality already dealing with mental health issues, or they develop over your time working, the statistics show that over half of hospitality employees deal with symptoms of anxiety or depression caused by their job.
Your colleagues become your life as no-one else lives the unpredictable, all-consuming schedule that you do. Is it any wonder then that drug use is completely normalised and drinking culture is encouraged? A form of escapism perhaps? After-work drinks, however late, turning into benders on a regular occurrence.
There’s something about working the hours others are usually socialising that makes us feel like we need to make up for lost time and cram in as much partying as much as we can into those few small hours we aren’t working. We ignore many of our basic human needs for a healthy mental state. This behaviour invariably leads to symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health conditions, and, when mixed with sleep deprivation, high pressure work situations, frequent bullying and abuse, it is easy to see why those in the industry are struggling. Gordon Ramsay isn’t acting on Hell’s Kitchen: this kind of behaviour occurs every day in kitchens across the UK. It’s an epidemic, and we’re losing talented workers because of it.
Unfortunately, I know personally all too well the negative impact working in hospitality can have on an individual’s mental health; the suicide of my close friend, and very talented chef, Kelly. She was working in a kitchen when she took her own life. Which one is irrelevant — there are hundreds out there with the same toxic environment. A kitchen in which she suffered verbal abuse and sexual harassment that resulted in her experiencing a panic attack, for which she had to be hospitalised.
Kelly didn’t die as a result of working in hospitality — she came to the job with a host of mental health issues — but these were exacerbated by working in hospitality. Her workplace had no mental health policy or training in place. The real tragedy, I believe, is that if they had, she would still be here today.
I don’t want the death of my lovely and wildly talented friend to be in vain. I believe that with mental health education, raising awareness and training, we can make a change for the better in the hospitality industry. It will require a lot of work, a lot of breaking down stigma, and changing attitudes, but it can be done.
This is why I started Kelly’s Cause Foundation; a not-for-profit that raises awareness of mental health issues faced by those working in hospitality and provides education and action-focused solutions to them. Kelly’s Cause Foundation works with hospitality businesses across all areas of the industry from neighbourhood independent restaurants and large-scale chain restaurants, to suppliers and farmers. Together we can improve the lives of all 3.2 million people who work in the industry across the UK.
With this in mind, I encourage you to consider the mental health and wellbeing of those in hospitality; of the chef who cooked your dinner on Friday night, the bartender who shook your cocktail and the kitchen porter who washed your dishes — because the chances are their work is impacting negatively on their mental health. To those who already work in hospitality, have worked in hospitality or plan to work in hospitality, I implore you to prioritise your mental health and wellbeing above anything else.