Is the service industry an incubator for mental health issues?
Content warning: this article contains talk of suicide.
It’s a busy night inside a well-known restaurant in the heart of Ottawa’s ByWard Market. It’s early in September of 2015 and the room is packed. Almost every seat is filled with a hungry and thirsty customer, watching a handful of servers dash from kitchen to table hoping to spot a glimpse of their ordered grub and drink.
The chatter of the restaurant blends with the frenzy of the kitchen, turning the noise of the room into a static buzz as server Sarah scurries from table-to-table, trying to keep up with a line now snaking ominously out the door and onto the sidewalk.
The rush has taken a serious mental toll on Sarah, a U of O grad and server at the downtown restaurant, who is tasked with accommodating upwards of 90 customers at a time with the help of just two other servers. She remembers the night, feeling her vision shifting, her brain turning fuzzy as the restaurant became busier and busier.
“A lot of it’s a blur because it was traumatic,” she admitted.
She reaches the kitchen, grabs a drink for one of her tables, and propels herself back into the sea of customers. But as she nears her designated table she feels the cup begin to slip, watching helplessly as it plummets to the floor, smashing and spilling.
“I freaked out … in my head I disassociated,” she said.
The rest of the night goes blank and Sarah isn’t sure if she managed to finish the shift or not, but since then she hasn’t returned to the restaurant, which she declined to name.
“I remember coming home that night and being like, I want to kill myself so bad,” she said. I ended up luckily communicating that with my sister and parents and then I went to the hospital for help.”
In a sit-down interview with the Fulcrum, Sarah said that prior to working at the ByWard Market restaurant she had struggled with depression and anxiety. Nevertheless, she cannot deny that her job played a significant role in the worsening of her mental health and her push to nearly attempting suicide.
“The environment did not help (and) I can’t separate the fact that work was so stressful, I can’t deny that it triggered that,” she said.
Especially since her brutal final shift at the restaurant was by no means unique, but quite common.
“We’d go into the washroom and cry and go out back or scream because it was so stressful,” she recalled.
Anxiety attacks for Sarah were a commonplace in the restaurant, which sometimes caused her to leave mid shift or not come into work at all.
“The service industry exacerbates mental health issues, 100 per cent.”
A kitchen nightmare
As of June of 2018, about 1.2 million people work in the Canadian food and drink service industry across close to 100,000 restaurants, bars and caterers, according to a joint study by Statistics Canada, Restaurants Canada and Ipsos. This translates into about seven per cent of all employed peoples in the country, generating four per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Sarah’s story isn’t just anecdotal: the prevalence of mental health issues and mental illness in the food and drink service industry appears to be backed up by statistics as well.
Statistics on mental health in the sector specific to Canada are difficult to come by, but studies conducted in other Western countries provided a look into what mental health in the Canadian service industry may look like.
In the United Kingdom, for example, a survey conducted by a trade union last year found that over half of surveyed chefs suffered from depression. The survey found around 25 per cent of surveyed chefs used alcohol to make it through their shift, while just over 40 per cent relied on stimulants. Stimulants were not defined in the survey, but could include drugs like cocaine, Adderall or Ritalin.
A study released in the United States in 2015 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration placed the accommodations and food services sector in third place for heavy alcohol use in the month prior to when the study was conducted for both 2008 and 2012. According to the study, about 12 per cent of employees in the service industry used alcohol heavily, slightly behind the construction industry and mining industry at 16.5 per cent and 17.5 per cent, respectively.
The same study found the accommodations and food services industry placed highest for illicit drug use among employees at close to 20 per cent, trailed by the arts, entertainment and recreation sector at about 13.5 per cent. For “substance use disorders” the study ranked the service industry at the top again, with about 17 per cent of industry employees reporting a disorder.
A more informal study by American food journalist Kat Kinsman made headlines in 2016 for shining a spotlight on a possible mental health crisis in the service industry. Kinsman posted an open and anonymous survey on her site “Chefs With Issues” in January of that year asking those working in the food and drink world to open up about their mental health.
By April of that year Kinsman said she received over 1,300 responses, primarily from kitchen staff and managers. Roughly 85 per cent said they suffer from depression, 73 per cent from anxiety and/or panic disorders and 50 per cent from substance abuse.
Perhaps the most shocking number Kinsman reported was also the smallest: she said just 3.5 per cent of respondents did not tie their mental health struggles to their workplace.
The other side of the plate
However, it’s important to recognize that not everyone working in the service industry reports suffering mentally from their job—others flourish in the environment.
Jessica, a U of O student who has worked as a server at a different popular ByWard Market restaurant and bar for over two years now, and the service industry in general for almost five, said she does not necessarily think the service industry may fuel or even cause mental health issues in employees.
“Working as a server or as a bartender is very, very stressful, but you don’t take any of it home with you,” she said. “There are no issues that follow me for the next couple days of my life … so maybe I’m subconsciously carrying that stress with me, but am I consciously seeing that? Not really.”
Instead, Jessica said, the industry may be a correlatory factor for mental health issues rather than a causational one.
“Most people that work in the food and drink industry are students,” she said. “We already live high stress lives: we have to pay for school, we have to deal with studying, doing our readings, making it to classes and we’re already sleep deprived.”
According to the Statistics Canada, Restaurants Canada and Ipsos joint study, one in five Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 work in the industry.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that Jessica, like Sarah, has experienced some seriously mentally taxing moments on the job.
“People think they can treat servers horribly, they think they’re uneducated, the bottom of the food chain, so people of power love to see what they can get away with.”
Recipes for disaster
Ivy Bourgeault and Wayne Corneil, two U of O professors who have extensive background in and currently study the intersection between work and health, note mental health stressors are dependent on one’s work environment.
However, they did admit that the service industry can be a home to workplaces that are especially mentally taxing, particularly when it comes to anxiety.
“Not having standard shifts and not having control over the flow of work … has major implications in terms of … stress and anxiety,” Bourgeault said.
“You’re often having to navigate your emotions so you have to smile” and be “pleasant even though you may be having some great difficulties at home or you might be dealing with difficult clients,” she added.
They also noted that the precarious nature of tipping culture in the industry could play a role in mental health issues which could develop as well, especially for servers and other front-end staff.
“There are ongoing issues around the fact that in some places staff are not adequately compensated and they have to depend on tips to top up their salary,” Corneil said.
A study published this June in the American Journal of Epidemiology which focused on the service industry more broadly to include all jobs which entail tipping, found those who rely on tips are at a greater risk for depression, sleep problems and stress.
Heavy alcohol use could be related to the sheer availability and proximity in the industry, Jessica added.
“I’m serving mass quantities of alcohol, my tables and customers are asking to buy me drinks … so that doesn’t help,” she said. “It’s like going into first-year: your parents never let you drink and you’re now in first year exposed to it everywhere.”
Employees in the industry “have ready access to alcohol and/or drugs,” Corneil said. “The likelihood is that this may be one of the methods they use to cope with stress.”
Sexual harassment, which has been revealed to be extremely rampant in at least the the industry in the United States, could also be a significant factor as well.
Again, data for Canada is unavailable, but information from the United States provides an idea of what employees in the country may face.
In 2017 Buzzfeed News published a data story where they obtained and analyzed the more than 170,000 sexual harassment claims filed with the US Equal Opportunity Commission between 1995 and 2016. Roughly 1,100 of these claims came from bar and restaurant and staffers, more than any other sector.
A 2014 report from Research Opportunities Center United suggests a staggering 90 per cent of women and 70 per cent of men in the industry have been affected by sexual harassment in the United States.
“There’s this notion that the customer is always right … so you’re either encouraged explicitly or implicitly … to maintain good relations with them,” Bourgeault said. “You’re not supported or encouraged to take those issues into your own hands and that requires a lot of emotional labour.”
Often times, Bourgeault added, these manifest in micro-aggressions.
“These are daily, small events or things that are said that are seemingly minor,” she explained. “It’s kind of akin to Chinese water torture: the dripping water just starts getting to you, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Hanging up the apron
“This is an industry fraught with issues and people working in it need to be aware of that and need to be supportive of each other,” Corneil said. “They also need to have a working environment” and “managers and organizations that support them.”
For Bourgeault, fixing these issues doesn’t mean just accommodating those in need.
“I think the service sector is definitely an area where we need to start paying attention to how we can change the work to make it healthier for everyone … and not just workers who are experiencing harassment or higher than normal levels of depression and anxiety,” Bourgeault said. “It’s not about changing the (employees in distress) but changing the work to make it healthy for everybody.”
The industry can start improving the working environment by better training managers to respond to the mental health needs and concerns of their employees, Corneil and Bourgeault said.
“People working in management positions often don’t have training for their positions” nor do they understand “how important their positions are for maintaining healthy workplaces,” Bourgeault said.
Customers also have a duty to show employees respect, they said.
“The onus is on all of us … as customers to be respectful … and to recognize that our behaviour is important to creating a healthy environment, one in which we want to go and enjoy,” Corneil said.
“This is a workplace and service workers are not our servants,” Bourgeault said. “This is a workplace that needs to be respectful of human rights, all different forms of employment equity and all the different forms of regulations that we have around work.”
The Fulcrum has agreed to protect the identities of both Sarah and Jessica to prevent any negative backlash from their current and/or past employers. If you are struggling with your mental health, book your first appointment with SASS counselling online or by visiting Health Services at 100 Marie Curie Private. A full list of mental health services in the city or on campus is available online.