Over the years, restaurants have earned a reputation for being grueling and often stressful work environments. In general, it’s particularly pronounced in the upper echelon, fine-dining concepts where late-night hours, high pressure, and hot tempers can lead to burnout, health problems, and even substance abuse. Limited service may lack the “rock star” chef culture with all its extreme trappings, but many employees across the board—from the front lines to management to the C-suite—still face stress on a daily basis.
Gretchen Van Vlymen, vice president of human resources for payroll and management resource firm StratEx, says a lot of things have come to light recently in the restaurant industry regarding mental health and stress, especially after celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide earlier this year.
While it’s not the same environment as the full-service restaurants that Bourdain came up in, there’s a lot of stress that quick-service workers face on top of what Van Vlymen calls blatantly low wages.
“It’s backbreaking work. … You go, go, go, especially during height hours around lunch or dinner,” she says. “You’ve also got really demanding and sometimes rude patrons who want to get in and get out, and they’re very particular about how they like their food.”
Van Vlymen says general managers and franchisees also face a different set of stressors, noting it’s an unpredictable industry fraught with employment law issues. Plus, those general managers have to deal with difficult customers, too.
“[Franchisees] have to always keep an eye on what’s the next big thing,” she says. “There’s that pressure to always make new openings, like ‘Where can I grow next?’”
Frank Klein, brand ambassador and cofounder of the California-based fast casual Asian Box, says supporting employees begins with robust training. Before new hires go on the clock, managers should make sure sure they work well with other employees, understand how to properly serve customers, and can handle the stressful peak hours of business. Klein says Asian Box’s general managers then make sure that those employees are always being heard and supported.
“We are asking each and every staff member at each store, each week, to have a sit-down with our general managers,” Klein says. “That’s as simple as a general manager saying, ‘How are you doing?’ Then you shut up and listen.” He adds that such outreach offers employees a safe environment to voice any problems they’re having—personally or professionally.
From there, Klein says the business can get a good idea of the personal struggles—and successes—of employees and how to provide them with meaningful rewards for a job well-done.
“We buy a lot of dinners out; we buy movie tickets; we buy concert tickets. We try to connect with people in different ways other than saying, ‘Here’s some cash,’” Klein says. Asian Box managers will also combine bonuses with other perks, like a night off. That’s in addition to the brand’s attendance policy wherein employees can take paid days off once every month or two with little notice, if they need a mental health break or are having a bad day, Klein says.
Van Vlymen says there are a few ways to improve workers’ mental health outlook: predictable scheduling, paid time off, and affordable benefit plans. Better pay in general would help, but Van Vlymen says if that’s not possible, bonus incentives for especially good work are a step in the right direction.
“Our employees face numerous stressors outside of the workplace. We have a culture of care and empathy at Everytable, and we believe that in order to give our guests great hospitality, we must show hospitality to each other first.” — Christine Hasircoglu, director of front-of-house operations at Everytable.
Another innovative way Asian Box rewards employees is through so-called hustle chips. Valued between $10 and $100, these chips are awarded to employees who do something above and beyond their duty. Employees can cash in for additional money on their next paycheck or they can be used for other rewards, like concert tickets.
In terms of improving the mental health outlook for general managers and franchisors, Van Vlymen recommends that companies demonstrate a real career path within the industry and offer opportunities for continuing education or additional training, as well as other incentives, like extra pay for childcare or access to 401(k) plans.
“Investing in them and continuing their career path is a really good way to reward them,” she says.
Limited-service executives in the C-suite face many of the same stressors as franchisees but on a macro level. “And then of course with the dawn of social media, one bad experience can have a massive ripple effect across the brand,” Van Vlymen says.
Van Vlymen recommends these leaders not only invest in an HR manager to serve as a go-between, but also provide extensive training for employees and managers on the front lines, thus freeing up executives to concentrate on some of the larger-scale issues
Everytable, a small, community-focused chain based in southern California, takes pride in hiring people who live in the same neighborhood as the restaurant, says Christine Hasircoglu, the brand’s director of front-of-house operations. Some of those neighborhoods in Los Angeles— Compton, Watts, and Baldwin Hills— are located in an area classified by the USDA as a food desert.
“Our employees face numerous stressors outside of the workplace,” Hasircoglu says. “We have a culture of care and empathy at Everytable, and we believe that in order to give our guests great hospitality, we must show hospitality to each other first.”
Hasircoglu adds that showing hospitality means giving those employees time off from work when needed, and supporting them with basically any resources and services the company can muster.
“We have a rule that no Everytable employee or their family should go hungry, and we provide Everytable meals to any staff member who needs assistance, no questions asked,” she says.