The Unseen Perils of the Hospitality Industry
Several studies have found that those who work in the hospitality industry have the highest rate of substance abuse of any profession and are highly susceptible to mental-health issues, predominantly depression and anxiety. This leads to a particularly destructive and vicious circle, in that substance abuse leads to mental health issues and mental health issues lead to substance abuse.
It’s a multi-symptomatic problem. Working conditions are extremely precarious, for example, instability, seasonality, low wages, exhausting workdays, discrimination, bullying, stress, and emotional exhaustion. The hours are not just long but unsocial as hospitality staff are working when everyone else is partying, relaxing and blowing off steam. Family time is at a premium due to working evenings, weekends and holidays. Many suffer burnout, not just from the hours but from the intense, high-pressure environment. The industry’s proximity with alcohol and food can trigger a never-ending cycle of stressors and coping mechanisms.
At its core, the hospitality industry is counterproductive to the basic requirements for good mental health, i.e. a basic routine of good sleep, exercise and mental stimulation. The fallout can lead to divorce, bankruptcy, eating disorders, and even suicide.
The hospitality industry offers employment opportunities for minority groups, such as women, young people, and immigrants. Women – particularly those with low education levels and young mothers seeking part-time work; young people – particularly those who need part-time or seasonal work while in education or those looking to take the first step onto the employment ladder; and immigrants, who make up a significant proportion of the hospitality workforce. Across the EU, hospitality is the number one source of employment for migrants, ahead of manufacturing, transport, and construction.
By providing an accessible employment avenue to these particularly vulnerable demographics, the industry plays an important role in the economy of most countries, not just tourism-dependent countries such as Spain, Italy, or Ireland. Hospitality accounts for more than 250 million jobs worldwide, generating about 10% of the global GDP. As such, it behoves governments and industry leaders to address the harmful and far reaching issues of mental health and substance abuse.
The narrow, bare-concrete staircase underfoot leads the way to a new chapter of my life. My feet are heavy and not just because the steel-toe-cap shoes are a size too big. I trip on a step, stumble to one knee and catch myself; the rattle of my knife case echoes, startling the HR lady, who, instinctively and with a sharp gasp, asks if she should fill out a report. I decline and nervously laugh it off. The air is heavy with embarrassment as we climb the last few steps in silence. The butterflies in my stomach turn to stampeding buffalos as I walk through the door.
I am now standing in the kitchen of the Number One Hotel in the World. I don’t know what I was expecting. But as the HR lady led me through the door, a strange sense of calm came over me. It wouldn’t last.
I was stationed on the pastry section, the daily duties of which are daunting. Every element of every dessert is prepared daily. Dinner service consists of no fewer than EIGHT desserts AND a cheese course. Desserts such as a dark chocolate ganache under a crispy, three-chocolate disc, topped with grated chocolate, roasted hazelnuts interspersed with dots of thick caramel and finished with a quenelle of milk sorbet.
Almond sponge, topped with fresh orange segments, orange purée, and saffron custard, finished with a quenelle of orange sorbet, candied orange zest, roasted almonds and strands of saffron, all balanced on a paper thin disc of sugar tuile.
A globe of peanut butter parfait on a bed of crushed peanuts, served with banana brûlée, roasted peanuts and a quenelle of chocolate crémeux topped with sea salt.
Before any of this can start, chefs must go to the amazing eight acre garden to pick all the fresh products required, such as fresh rhubarb or garnish flowers. On top of that, there are five kinds of bread to be baked daily; post-dinner petit fours; outlandish pre-starter canapés; three kinds of cookies baked fresh every day; and scones prepared on a moment’s notice should one of the guests decide to partake in afternoon tea.
On the first two nights, my participation was limited to standing, slack-jawed, trying to stay out of the way while absorbing the frantic hustle of dinner service. Expectations were high. The pressure did not come from serving as much food as possible as fast as possible, instead, the emphasis was on the details. Everything must be perfect. Perfect.
One week into the job and I was responsible for lunch service – on my own. This meant preparing approximately 30 – 40 desserts while also busily preparing my mise-en-place for dinner service. I was given no notice; it was sprung on me without warning. There was no safety net, no one to walk me through each dish; but I got through the service and gained immense confidence.
Just one week later, only a fortnight into the job, I was thrust into the position of running the pastry section for dinner service. The intricacy of the design, the elaborate garnish, and the pressure to replicate each dish with pinpoint accuracy was often too much to bear. This was a harrowing night, the antithesis to my experience one week prior. My confidence was shot.
I was out of my depth. It stopped being fun. Enjoyment was replaced by stress and the pressure was unbearable. I found myself overcome by anxiety on a daily basis, to the point where I was often brought to tears just thinking about going to work. There was simply no way I could go in without smoking a joint – not a chance.
My drive home each night was a 20 minute journey that I often managed in 10. And why was I dangerously racing home? For the comfort of a joint. A warm, pungent cannabis hug. By now it was midnight, but the adrenalin of dinner service meant that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until 2AM or 3AM. So I smoked. And I smoked. And I smoked. This was my necessary decompression.
On what was supposed to be my last day, I called in sick. The reason I gave was a lie but the fact was no less true, I was in no condition to work. I’ve never felt anything like this in any job, before or since. I often wonder if these details are important enough to break someone’s spirit and reduce them to a snivelling mess. Or if the meticulousness required was for the benefit of the guests or the ego of the chefs.
The dark cloud of depression had been hovering over my shoulder long before I donned the chef whites. But the anxiety was new. The stress of this kitchen was more than I could bear. Smoking joints after work was not merely a reward for a hard day, it was a survival technique. Half the chefs I know either drink, smoke or snort away their problems.
I contemplated quitting on a daily basis. By the end I began to fantasise about ways of getting out; I thought about dropping to the floor and pretending that I had slipped, twisted my ankle or even passed out. Once, while dicing fruit with unnecessary precision, I considered cutting off the tip of my finger.
Of all the kitchens I’ve worked in and the four years spent training to work in the hospitality industry, I received training in everything from health and safety to waste management to breaking down animals. But never once was the subject of mental health discussed. Nor was addiction. In an industry where both crippling issues are so prevalent, this must be addressed. Anthony Bourdain first broached the topic 20 years ago – he killed himself two years ago – and still, nothing has changed.
“Gastronomy is the science of pain.” – Anthony Bourndain