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Mental health in the restaurant industry: “COVID-19 is an opportunity for us to change for the better”

In this instalment of articles focusing on mental health in the restaurant industry, we spoke with Alison Hallett, co-founder of Work Mind Matters and practising mental healthcare professional.

Work Mind Matters will be hosting an online connection session on 14 September with South African hospitality industry leaders to talk about mental health in the workplace.

Eat Out: What is your background?

Alison Hallet: I’m a qualified occupational therapist and, after about four years of rural community work and starting a family, I opened my own practice in 2010 focusing on assessment, intervention and case management for the insurance industry. Over the last four to five years I have focused on mental health; specifically on assisting clients in preparing for their return to work and supporting the client and their employer through the return-to-work process. After managing a number of complex return-to-work cases where there was a lack of tolerance and insight into mental health and wellness in the workplace, I felt a real burden to advocate for authenticity in this space. I founded Work Mind Matters in 2018 with this intent.

EO: Tell us about the work that Work Mind Matters is focusing on?

AH: Our aim at Work Mind Matters is to start authentic conversations about mental health in the workplace, especially targeting business leaders across all industries in South Africa and Africa. This year we have moved to an online format with shorter, one-hour sessions that focus on a different industry each month. We have considered some of the industries hardest hit by COVID-19, so this month our focus will be on mental health and wellness in the restaurant industry.

We have a fantastic line-up of panellists who will be sharing their experiences and starting the conversation about mental health and wellness in the industry on 14 September. Whilst our vision is to provide this platform for ongoing conversations and building community, we also provide mental health support sessions tailored for companies to educate and create awareness relating to stress management, burnout and mental health and wellness at work.

EO: What are some of the most common mental health challenges in the restaurant industry?

AH: The restaurant industry is a high-pressure industry with demanding and inconsistent work hours and an expectation of sustained levels of high performance from employees. It is also an industry where creativity and a service mindset are defining qualities that have to be maintained under high stress.

The ongoing stressors in the kitchen and front of house, in small start-ups and in managing groups or franchises has a significant impact on employee well-being and work-life balance that often results in burnout. When facing these stressors, many resort to substance abuse to cope with life and work demands, and the stressors also fuel conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and sadly, in extreme cases, suicide.

EO: How can a stressful working environment impact your mental health?

AH: Many seem to think that mental health is all in your head; however, our mental and physical health is interlinked – you can’t separate the head from the body. When we face stressors, the stress response – or ‘fight and flight’ response – automatically kicks in with a release of stress chemicals to help us respond to the stressor effectively. Once the stressor has passed, there should be a time of recovery for balance to return in the body and brain. However, when the stress is ongoing in a highly stressful work environment, there is no time for the recovery; no time for rest, sleep, exercise, healthy eating and balance.

This constant state of imbalance is a dangerous territory to be in and if not addressed can lead to burnout, substance abuse and often the onset of a mental health condition. This ultimately results in high absenteeism, reduced creativity and overall poor performance.

EO: The restaurant industry has been deeply impacted by the pandemic and lockdown. How are these changes affecting staff and business owners?

AH: The restaurant industry has faced extreme levels of stress during the lockdown period. Many have lost their jobs or have reduced hours and income, whilst others have lost their entire businesses and are faced with enormous debt and no buffer. The whole restaurant experience has changed as a result of COVID-19 regulations, which puts further strain on restaurant owners and managers. The trauma of such significant events and the uncertainty of the future can and will have a lasting and significant impact on the mental resilience and health of those affected. Now, more than ever, leaders in the restaurant industry need to consolidate resources and take this opportunity to put structures in place to support the mental wellbeing of those most vulnerable in the industry at this time. This doesn’t require a massive amount of money but can simply begin with authentic and honest conversations by the leaders themselves.

EO: Where can people go for help with their mental health challenges?

AH: Start by reaching out to a trusted friend, colleague or a significant other. Your local GP/doctor can also provide you with contact details to see a psychologist in your area and, if necessary, they would assist you with referral to a psychiatrist. Should you prefer to remain anonymous, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group has helplines that you are able to call and counsellors that you can speak to. You can access more information on their website.

EO: What are the best ways to start a conversation with someone who is struggling? How can you help a friend?

AH: Most people at some point in their lives experience a period of high stress, anxiety and burnout. When we share our experiences and are vulnerable with others, it provides a safe space for them to share their experience and find support. Be the one to start the conversation.

EO: How do we help each other heal and recover from the pandemic?

AH: The pandemic has brought a huge sense of collective loss and grief around the world; few have been left untouched by the impact of the global lockdowns. This is an opportunity for us to reach out with compassion and empathy to those who have suffered greater loss than ourselves on a personal level.

On a professional level, each company should take this opportunity to change for the better, acknowledging the need for authenticity and proactively building a community of support within their company and their wider industry.

Work Mind Matters is hosting an online connection session on Monday, 14 September featuring some leaders from the South African hospitality industry. We will talk about mental health and how we can create more caring and sustainable workplaces.

This session is in partnership with Fair Kitchens, a movement to inspire a new kitchen culture – because a healthier culture makes for a healthier business.

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