R U OK? In Hospitality

R U OK? is working with the hospitality sector to find better ways to ensure the industry is equipped to handle the pressures that come with what is an exciting, yet demanding, workplace.

MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES such as depression and anxiety affect us all in varying degrees from time to time, especially if we’re working long hours in a high-pressure industry such as foodservice.

A recent survey of hospitality workers commissioned by suicide prevention charity RU OK? reported that 80 per cent agreed that mental health issues are a concern to those in the industry. While fatigue was the number one challenge, unsociable work hours, dealing with difficult customers and pay rates were also identified as leading to stress.

Around 50 per cent of those surveyed said that in the last year they had wanted someone at work to ask them if they were OK, and around 40 per cent had thought of asking someone else if they were OK, but didn’t. A third of those indicated that they didn’t feel it was their place to ask the question.

“The survey shows there is more work to be done to help hospitality workers feel comfortable checking in with each other,” points out RU OK? Campaign Director Katherine Newton. “We want to encourage early intervention, to empower people to start that conversation which will strengthen their work relationships. When those relationships are strong, we’re more inclined to notice the signs that someone isn’t OK.

“We all face challenges in life, we all grieve – yet it’s so common for many of us to struggle with those things. It’s important to recognise we can all be support to each other through those times. In the hospitality sector there are lots of things that can be done to support each other, like sharing the prep work for the day, rostering shifts carefully, and having staff meals to encourage each other to communicate and reach out. We also need to watch out for each other generally – and notice warning signs like changes in behaviour, people drinking or partying more or less, or anything out of character.”

The RU OK? website includes advice and resources specifically created for foodservice, including guides on how to initiate a conversation about someone’s wellbeing, postcard reminders, and notepads for FOH staff. “These tools can be helpful memory joggers to encourage staff to look out for each other,” Katherine explains. “At some point everyone is likely to come across someone at work who’s not OK, `and often the best thing you can do is simply listen. When people are given the space and time to talk openly without being judged, it can make a world of difference to them.”

Chef and RU OK? ambassador Mal Meiers has been working to raise not only awareness of mental health issues in foodservice but funds to support organisations which provide advice and assistance. Five years ago Mal created Food for Thought, which hosts events ranging from dinners to cocktail parties. “The concept started with a group of friends from the industry – at that stage we were sous chefs and senior chefs de parties. We typically run degustation style events which include a variety of speakers. The core theme is always how we can improve and empower and give better tools to upskill our industry leaders of tomorrow in dealing with issues like anxiety and depression.”

Mal speaks from personal experience – as a young chef he threw himself into cooking to such an extent, other areas of his life and his general health began to suffer. “I thought being a chef defined who I was, which is fairly common. It’s not a conscious choice – you don’t say I’m just going to focus on cooking and let my health decline and not engage in relationships. It’s more about being driven by ambition or ego. In my case I wanted to become a better chef every day and thought the only way to do that was expose myself to it more and more. In hindsight, it wasn’t sustainable – you need balance in your life. If you don’t have anything to fall back on and your world falls apart, you’ve got nothing left. I had to go to the brink of existence before I learnt that lesson.”

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Mal shares his story as a cautionary tale – noting that although help was available, it was very much taboo to talk about these issues. “It was a fear of being treated differently and ostracised. I had anxiety for the longest time and I didn’t really know how to address it, and that led to depression and self-destructive behaviour. In the end I was just lucky that when I called my best friend to say goodbye, he answered and realised I was in a bad way, and from there I started to seek help.”

Mal says the Food for Thought fundraising initiative has helped him personally by giving a public face to his depression and anxiety. “It gave me something to fight for, and through actively raising awareness and money I became more able to deal with what I was going through and realised I wasn’t alone. It became empowering to show vulnerability, and now I’m actively involved in sharing my story wherever possible in the hope that I can reach someone who needs to hear it, so they can reach out for help and have someone rally around them. I spoke to a chef this morning who has changed his working roster to include four days on, three days off, and all his staff have completed the Allara Learning hospitality training program that we created with RU OK? When I hear things like that it reinforces that we’re on the right track and inspires me to keep going.”

The higher profile that mental health awareness now carries within the industry is reflected in its inclusion as a key topic in the Proud to Be a Chef mentoring program (see culinary competitions story for more details on the program). Last year and again this year Proud to Be a Chef partnered with former AFL sportsman Wayne Schwass who founded social enterprise Puka Up! which like RU OK? is focused on creating authentic and genuine conversations to prevent people suffering in silence.

“Wayne will be returning as a presenter for this year’s Proud to Be a Chef program, and while mental health is certainly part of the conversation, the key focus will be on building resilience,” says Kym Gill, Channel Marketing Manager at Anchor Food Professionals which runs Proud to Be a Chef.

“Wayne talks about having courageous conversations that are genuine and frank and this can be a very effective resource – we know that too many chefs bottle things up until they’re at crisis point. Foodservice is a high pressure industry not just when you’re an apprentice but potentially for the whole length of your career. Our aim is to ensure that when our finalists complete the program and go back into their workplaces, they’re equipped with the insights they need to make a real difference, and part of that is by leading the conversation around resilience, mental health and wellbeing. If they can drive positive change, that will attract others and flow on throughout the whole work environment making things better for everyone.”

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