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How Hospitality Workers Identify and Manage Stress

Line Cook Thoughts, Laurel, Maryland
Photo: Cory Jackson

Ray Delucci is the host and producer of the podcast and social media brand Line Cook Thoughts, created to help the everyday cook feel heard, related, and inspired.

It's no secret mental health is a concern for most restaurant and hospitality workers these days. We’ve operated in a culture for too long that equates overwork with passion for the craft. We’ve seen an industry demand the most out of its workers, while often giving very little in return.

I hear countless stories from people in the industry struggling to maintain their mental health, myself included. But even when we know something is wrong, it’s still hard to recognize the physical and mental symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Recognizing Stress

“What I usually explore with clients is how stress can affect both their mind and body. If you can identify what symptoms show up while experiencing stress, anxiety, or a depressed mood, you will be more attuned to when you need to engage in coping or wellness practices,” says Julie D’Amico, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and director of mental health operations of the nonprofit, Restaurant After Hours.

D’Amico says stress can manifest as headaches, GI issues, muscle tension, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, restlessness/fidgeting, rapid or pounding heart beat, and shortness of breath.

“In the mind, it can look like trouble concentrating, racing thoughts, negative thought loops, fear of the future, increased irritability or temper, desire to isolate, lack of motivation, or experiencing less enjoyment in your usual hobbies or activities,” she says.

As someone still figuring out how to cope with my own stress and anxiety, I relate to all of the above, and I know I’m not alone. I recently spoke with hospitality professionals to find out how they identify and manage their mental health issues, be it through meditation, therapy, or changing jobs/work situations altogether.

A New Path

When Harley Huryta started in the industry, he coped with stress like many of his peers—with alcohol. “After a long shift you go out with your linemates and get drunk,” he says. “Then on limited sleep you go back to work the next day and do it all over again. I got tired of waking up feeling like crap. It really wasn’t changing my mindset. It wasn’t changing the way I felt. I was unsatisfied with my career.”

The pandemic actually helped Huryta learn to manage his health: “COVID allowed me to reset. I started going to the gym about a year and a half ago, and that completely changed my well-being and mental health. I was a lot happier with the person I started to see in the mirror.”

Huryta is now in a mental space where he can prioritize personal and professional growth, and he recently took on a new management position. 

Sam O’Fria never had the chance to pause during the pandemic, and she just left a management job to prioritize her mental health and well-being.

“It was the people I was working with,” she recalls. “Around 9 a.m. I would literally have a mental breakdown and then go into work. And then at around two, three I’d have another one.”

In the last 18 months, O’Fria experienced days when she would be asked to work without time off. If she asked for breaks, she was made to feel guilty. “I’d have to just remind myself of the paycheck, and think, it’s just for like three, four hours.” It still wasn’t enough, and she’s now looking for work outside of restaurants. “I am afraid if I go back, my mental health will never get better,” she says.

Mindfulness and Meditation

I learned about meditation while attending The Culinary Institute of America. My professor Jerry Fischetti, would start each class with a meditation session and always stressed the importance of mental health.

“I think in order to be successful you really have to be whole first,” says the hospitality consultant/adjunct professor. “Most students reported that meditation helped them reduce anxiety, study better, get better grades, and have better interpersonal relationships with their classmates and the people in their lives.”

Professor Fischetti started taking his own mental health seriously when he realized that leadership and food service are fundamentally about connecting with other people. “If you’re not in a good place to begin with, you can’t deliver on hospitality,” he says.

“The basis for this is that attitude drives your behavior. Your attitude is your outlook, your mindset. I firmly believe you must have a quiet mind in order to be present. If you are present, then you can notice what’s going on, undistracted by outside thoughts. You show up to other people with undivided attention.”

Of course, it takes work and energy to set aside time for meditation, not unlike making time to sleep and workout, but it’s worth the effort. “It can feel intimidating to try to incorporate wellness practices or coping into daily schedules, especially for restaurant workers who may have little free time,” says D’Amico. “A stressed brain tends to adopt an ‘all-or-nothing’ mentality, which means we may think we need to change everything in our lives in order to feel better. This makes incorporating coping and wellness extremely difficult, because it sets us up for failure, and we continue living with the stress with no tools for support. What is most helpful in developing effective coping mechanisms or wellness practices is focusing on what you can control and by starting small.”

She suggests starting to think about what you can change about your sleeping schedules, exercise and eating habits, time management and how you might be able to incorporate meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness into daily tasks. “Every time you wash your hands, pay attention to the temperature of the water, the feel of the soap, and how your hands feel against each other. Before, during, and after work, take a moment to scan your body to notice sensations such as tension, pain, or relaxation,” she says. “This is a much more approachable way to reconnect with your body and stay in the ‘here-and-now’ instead of feeling stuck in a stressed headspace.”

Seeking Out Therapy

Christopher LeMark’s Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health provides underserved communities in Chicago with economic opportunities and access to physical, emotional, and mental health resources. His events have a therapist, a moderator, hip-hop performances and food, and offer people within the BIPOC community a safe space to open up.

His work and mission were sparked by his own profound experiences with therapy.

Photo: Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health

“Life was exhausting,” says LeMark when I asked him why he started therapy. “I was doing everything I thought I could to get through the day, and I had all these unhealthy ways of coping. I just knew this wasn’t enough anymore.” He would try to escape in music, performance or even by jumping into a new relationship, but his problems only followed him.

As much as some food service workers can relate to hiding behind work, “it can only do so much,” says LeMark, “Because eventually people have to get up and go home. You’re left by yourself. Every job ends, every performance ends. Every relationship ends. I was always still left with my own reality.”

The work LeMark does now focuses on helping others get well with their own mental well-being. He realized that by telling his own story, it gave others permission to tell theirs.

“What therapy did for me most, most importantly, is it allowed me to find my level. And that level was: ‘Christopher it isn’t your fault, it wasn’t your fault you were abused, abandoned, beaten.’ All these things I had allowed to cripple me throughout my life, I realized it is in the way I’m arrested by this trauma. Therapy gave me permission to live outside of all of that for the first time.”

We need to do a better job serving restaurant workers and make it clear that seeking out mental health support is a good thing rather than a sign of weakness. Having workers with good mental health is vital to the longevity of our industry, so don’t be afraid to reach out and get help. Stay well.

Useful resources:

Restaurant After Hours

Coffee, Hip-Hop and Mental Health

Check our Ray's Line Cooks podcast interview with Professor Fischetti here.

Ray Delucci is the host and producer of the podcast and social media brand Line Cook Thoughts, created to help the everyday cook feel heard, related, and inspired.

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