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Making Preventive Care as Common as Mise en Place

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How a former bartender is using her clinical mental health degree to help the industry deal with its myriad mental health challenges.
By Laura D’Alessandro May 2019 Executive Insights

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How long were you in the restaurant industry before pivoting to mental health? I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 17—from bussing tables to serving when I turned 21, then finally bartending in 2010. It wasn’t until a friend convinced me to work behind the bar making craft cocktails in 2010 that I fell in love and everything changed. I saw the artistry in it and wanted to bury myself in the world of craft spirits and cocktails.

A.j. kane

Laura Green, like many in the restaurant industry, has lost friends to suicide. It wasn’t until making cocktails in 2010 that she fell in love with the service industry, but shortly after she realized its lifestyle was at odds with mental health. Green says she was drinking excessively and spending most of her money at bars after work. Later, while studying clinical mental health counseling at DePaul University, Green became very aware of her relationship to alcohol, which helped her gain perspective on the struggle that many other members of the industry are facing. After graduating, Green decided to forgo clinical work to stay in the industry where she believes she can do more good. Green works as a spirits specialist for Winebow, a wine and spirits distributor. At the same time, she’s creating resources for the food and beverage industry to combat suicide, harassment, alcoholism, et al.

I was in school fulltime from 2013-2017, and in that time I saw my career in beverage start to advance. When I graduated, I was working as the lead bartender for Stephanie Izard’s Chinese concept, Duck Duck Goat. The team there was incredibly supportive—I was completing my 700-hour clinical internship at the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago while in a leadership role at DDG. I’m so grateful for their willingness to put up with me.

Why are you still in the industry rather than a practicing clinician? It was a hard decision, but I figured my voice would be louder from inside the industry than out, and Winebow is wildly supportive of my work with mental health. I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I’m working to create resources for the food and beverage industry to utilize—downloadable PDF guides that detail how to find a therapist, what you can expect from therapy, how to identify substance use/depression, how to approach someone who you think might have a problem, etc. I’m also creating resources for therapists working with this population to increase their understanding of the industry and its cultural nuances.

What experience made you realize that mental health was something that needed to be addressed in the restaurant industry? During my clinical internship, I had a 9 a.m. training, was a little hung over, and felt ashamed. I knew it was inappropriate for me to be hung over, even slightly. It was shameful. I still feel it in my body when I think about it. Not only did I never come to internship or class hung over again, I also started to question the acceptance and glorification of being hung over while working in bars. I started writing about this on Facebook, and a friend connected me with someone who was writing about alcoholism in the drinks industry. She sent me a list of questions to answer, but I was just starting to wrap my head about the nuances of the subject matter. Converting and integrating my clinical education into something that was palatable and digestible for the bar community was challenging at the time, but I wanted to practice. I reached out to her and asked about writing a more in-depth look into the drinking culture of our industry, and I did. I realized that I had spent so much time trying to leave this industry because it was unhealthy, but I had actually been building the skills to help change it all along.

What makes the restaurant industry particularly problematic for mental health? When I speak about the issues in the food and beverage industry, I describe a knot. Each issue—suicide, untreated mental health issues, discrimination, sexism, sexual assault and harassment, ageism, racism, verbal abuse, burnout, lack of affordable healthcare, problematic guest interactions, social stigmas of service work, etc.—is a thread and they’re all tangled together. This makes it really challenging to know where to begin. The answer is to address the influx of suicide attempts and completion, but the industry has a lot of work to do to get out of the constant crisis mode we’re in. We need more preventive care—I call it “Emotional Mise en Place.”

What prevents restaurant workers from getting help? People who work in the restaurant industry are asked to work overtime, often double shifts, for very little pay. We operate in a culture that glorifies overworking yourself. People wear burnout like a badge of honor because when they don’t, they’re not a team player. Furthermore, if they are offered benefits, the cost is often prohibitive. If they pay for benefits, the copay is too high. I think about how often people are living with untreated mental issues because they either can’t afford help or don’t know where to go. Pile on top of that a culture that demands you work through physical/mental illness and fatigue. And they’re paid a wage that is barely livable. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Where can restaurateurs start when it comes to creating a work environment that encourages employees to get the help they need? Restaurateurs need to pay both their hourly staff and management more than barely livable wages/salaries and offer thoughtful, comprehensive, and affordable health insurance. Pay them enough and staff appropriately, and your team will work more effectively and you’ll eliminate overtime. If, as a restauranteur, you cannot afford to take care of the people who are devoting their careers to your dream, then I’d recommend re-evaluating whether or not you’re ready to open your restaurant or expand to your second. The fact that there are restaurant groups opening store after store while complaining that they can’t find enough talent to staff the restaurants is infuriating. Their staff is overworked because there isn’t enough coverage and they leave. Or get fired. Or they start stealing. Or drinking. Or showing up high. The reality is that while the restaurateur thinks they’re saving dollars in labor, the real cost is falling on the human being working for them—and what we’re seeing now is that they’re paying with their lives. It’s not OK.

Develop programs that incentivize your teams to see doctors, go to the gym, and further their education. Treat them like the human beings and professionals they are, and they’ll take care of your guests and your business.

What can people in the restaurant industry do to help themselves? What about helping each other? Advocate, advocate, advocate. Bring this article to management and ownership. Celebrate and patronize the bars and restaurants that you know treat their employees humanely and with respect. Also, talk. Talk about mental health. Practice conversations about physical and mental health issues at work and celebrate someone’s progress while they get better. Confront the presence of mental health issues in the workplace by openly encouraging each other to seek treatment before it gets to the point of crisis. This doesn’t mean unloading all of you issues on your colleagues, but certainly acknowledging those issues are there can have a tremendous impact.

Moving forward, these conversations have to continue to happen. We have to make changes. This cannot be a fashionable trend, and supporting bar and restaurant workers cannot just be posturing and empty marketing. It has to be real. The cost is too high, and I can’t keep watching my friends die. If you’re reading this, please take it to heart and use the power you have to do more.