The Five Most Common Mental Health Issues Facing Michelin Star Chefs

As lifelong friends of the hospitality industry, we have seen too many chefs struggle with work-related mental health issues. Read on to find out what the most common conditions are and what you can do to minimise your own risk.

At Paracelsus Recovery, we believe that creating exquisite dining experiences is a crucial and often overlooked aspect of any treatment programme. We have seen many clients re-find their inner sense of peace, happiness, and wellbeing through our emphasis on fine-dining and Michelin star hospitality.

For example, many of our clients have found that the rituals surrounding fine dining can function as a healthier replacement for the practices involved in substance abuse, which many were as dependent upon as the substance or behaviour itself. Nutrition-dense food will also minimise inflammation, which supports mood stability and overall well-being. An enjoyable and exquisite dining experience will also inevitably increase feel-good neurochemicals in a healthy and beneficial manner, which is crucial when battling a substance abuse dependency.

As such, we appreciate every element of the Michelin star experience, from the preparation to the rituals to the story that comes with each dish. Our chefs are vital members of our team, and most of our fondest memories and deepest friendships were made in kitchens.

That is why we are growing increasingly concerned about the number of chefs struggling with mental health issues. For example, a 2017 survey found that 51% of chefs struggle with ‘debilitating’ stress levels. While 51% is already too high, a more recent UK-based survey found that it has increased to a shocking 81%.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. As a result of the pandemic – which hit the hospitality industry far worse than others – there has been a renewed focus on mental health and wellbeing. For example, Hospitality Action - a UK based charity for those working in the hospitality industry - continues to provide crucial psychological, financial and career support. The work done by organisations like these have been an inspiration to our team and many others we know in the industry.

People are talking and behaviours are changing. At Paracelsus Recovery, we would like to show our support and be a part of that revolution. To that end, we asked our research team to outline why the mental health crisis occurred, what issues to look out for, and what steps we still need to take to minimise the wellbeing issues permeating the industry.


Why are Mental Health Issues Increasing in Kitchens?

Firstly, there are various factors contributing to psychological stress amongst chefs. For example, long nights, unsocial hours and even lack of sunlight play a role. Within that list, the leading causes are stress, loneliness and various toxic ideals that still permeate the industry.

In the case of stress, a career in hospitality will always be a high-stress and high-paced endeavour. Chefs need to be multi-taskers, and while this is impressive, it can add enormous pressure when so many things need to be done perfectly, all of the time. In our experience, chefs tend to also exhibit perfectionism traits. This means they put a lot of pressure on themselves and can struggle to move on when they make a mistake, which fuels that stress. Then, there is the reality that the higher up the ladder you climb, the more that stress and isolation can increase with you.

Chefs are also devoted to their work. While that is undoubtedly honourable, it can contribute to loneliness and isolation from friends or family. The unsocial hours and long nights only compound that isolation. We cannot overemphasise that, from our experience, stress and loneliness are the leading causes of substance abuse and mental health issues regardless of profession, background, or genetics.

Then, on top of these environmental stressors, kitchens tend to be these high-pressure environments where chefs learn to work through burns, cuts, and sickness. They are remarkably strong and resilient individuals. Unfortunately, this ‘toughen up’ ideal was glamorised in the late 90s and early 2000s, which resulted in kitchen culture fetishizing extreme pressure and turning the kitchen into a war zone. As a result, it led to a taboo around mental ill-health, which encouraged the idea that talking about one’s emotions is ‘weak.’ While these ideas are changing for the better, it cannot be overstated that mental health issues happen to anyone and are never a sign of weakness.

Five of the Most Common Issues Facing Michelin Star Chef

  1. Alcohol Dependency

Like a moth to a flame, there are few bonds, like alcohol abuse and long hours spent in stressful environments. Consequently, it is perhaps unsurprising that chefs are nearly twice as likely to become dependent on alcohol than the wider population.

Numerous factors contribute to this, including unsocial hours, skyrocketing burnout rates, and the fact that alcohol is readily available in kitchens. Chefs also spend all day ensuring that their customers have a wonderful experience at their restaurant. However, that experience will, more often than not, include alcohol. If you spend all day surrounded by alcohol consumption, it can quickly normalise abuse and excessive consumption.

If you are worried about your substance abuse, consider the following:

  • In the last few months, have you failed to meet expectations because of your drinking?
  • Do you ever need alcohol to function after a night of heavy drinking?
  • Do you often find it hard to identify what you are feeling when or after partying?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms?
  • Do you think, or know, your relatives and friends are concerned about your drinking?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you could be developing a dependency. Try to speak to a professional as soon as possible. If that is not an option for you, reach out to a loved one and share that you are struggling. Working together, try to figure out what triggers your cravings and take steps to implement a healthier coping mechanism. For example, if stress triggers an urge to drink, try to implement a plan to instead go for a walk or take a moment to yourself.

 

  1. Cocaine Dependency

Like alcohol abuse, cocaine dependency is one of those ‘worst kept secrets’ amongst chefs. For example, the New York Times notes that restaurant workers have the highest rate of illicit drug abuse by industry.

Even the strongest of us can struggle to manage a kitchen's constant, high-paced, high-stress nature. To navigate the exhaustion that comes with that, many chefs turn to cocaine as a means of ‘getting through the shift’. On top of that, being part of a restaurant means being part of a ‘good time.’ Once workers finish their shifts late at night, stress relief usually comes in the form of partying.

Signs of cocaine dependency include mood swings, feeling increasingly stressed, symptoms of anxiety, paranoia or depression, the sudden inability to complete social activities or tasks without the substance, increasing the amount ingested to get the same ‘high’ and withdrawal symptoms such as paranoia, anxiety or flu-like symptoms. If you have developed any of these symptoms and are worried about your substance abuse, speak to a professional as soon as possible.

If seeking professional help is not an option, please reach out to a loved one and let them know you are struggling. However, it will be hard to regain control over your health against a backdrop of exhaustion, cravings and withdrawal so please seek out support groups. Feeling isolated can fuel the inner critic and worsen your chances of long-term recovery.

  1. Depression

Tragically, studies show that suicide rates are significantly higher amongst chefs than those in non-hospitality professions. Even more worryingly, a 2017 survey revealed that 51% of chefs and hospitality staff struggle with depression and debilitating stress levels.

In our experience, at their core, chefs are highly sensitive artists. As a result, the ‘if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen’ mythology that permeated restaurants for decades was highly damaging. What’s more, no one wanted it. It is one of those lingering toxic messages from the early 90s that we needed to confront so as to finally be rid of it. While we are still in the confrontation period, there is a lot to be said for a change in the attitude towards these issues.

For example, while these kinds of ideals were prolific in the late 90s and early 2000s, the tragic suicide of Antony Bourdain (and many other stories alike) led to a lot of soul-searching within the industry. Many are now realising that these ideas were unhelpful, aggressive and ultimately counterproductive. We are both hopeful and confident that with continued discussion and support, we can put an end to these tragedies.

Symptoms of depression include a negative perspective on life, increased fatigue and sleep problems, changes in appetite accompanied by either weight gain or weight loss, excessive feelings of guilt or worthlessness and a lack of hope such that you feel as though things will never change, feeling apathetic or numb and thoughts of death or suicidal ideation (amongst others). If you are worried that you might be suffering from depression, speak to your GP as soon as possible.

  1. Anxiety

As aforementioned, chefs are perfectionists. When combined with artistry and discipline, this innate drive for perfection can be a chef’s greatest asset. Because of these traits, they can provide clients with unique and exquisite experiences. However, there is a thin line between perfectionism and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, exhaustion and stress can quickly push a chef (and anyone else for that matter) over that line.

This is because perfectionism can breed unrealistic expectations about ourselves and our capabilities. For example, we have seen many chefs and friends punish themselves when they cannot work at their optimal level, even though they’ve barely slept in weeks. In other words, perfectionists struggle to accept that they are human beings with limitations. That kind of internal pressure sows the seeds for anxiety and low self-esteem.

Symptoms of anxiety include feeling persistently terrified for no rational reason, sleep issues, struggling with a constant sense of impending panic or danger, intrusive thoughts or fears and physical symptoms such as chest tightness, dizziness, tinnitus, vertigo, or sensitivity to light. If you are struggling, try to seek professional help as soon as possible. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to effectively minimise anxiety symptoms. If therapeutic support is not an option for you, try to focus on meditation or breathing techniques and minimise substance abuse.

  1. Burnout

As noted above, chefs work in high-stress environments. Stress is lethal in and of itself, but it can also lead to burnout. Unfortunately, burnout has become so prolific in hospitality; that experts even refer to it as ‘chef burnout.’ When this happens, the person enters a state of complete physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Burnout will weaken the immune system, cause sleep problems, and can incite feelings of helplessness, numbness, and disillusionment. Burnouts are also so relentlessly exhausting that when chefs try to ‘push through', they can quickly find themselves relying on cocaine or alcohol as a source of energy.

Signs of burnout include frequent minor illnesses and a weakened immune system, withdrawing from responsibilities or loved ones, using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope, procrastinating, or taking much longer to get things done, and a ‘wired but tired’ state of mind and a sense of failure or self-doubt (amongst others). If you are struggling, try to take some time off. If that is not an option, delegate as many tasks as possible and speak with a professional about how you are feeling. Being burnt out is not something to feel ashamed of. Instead, it is a medical condition, and, like any health issue, it will only worsen if it is ignored.


Okay, So How Can We Tackle These Issues?


In our eyes, there are three pillars to tackling wellbeing in hospitality. Firstly, we need to continue focusing on destigmatising mental health. To do that, restaurant owners, head chefs and leaders need to continue to speak openly about their own health and wellbeing – the issues they’ve struggled with, how they deal with pain and reiterating again and again that there is nothing weak or abnormal about struggling from time to time. Make sure not to glorify gruelling hours or toxic work environments, and remind yourself and your team that mental health is just like physical health – everyone has it and no one has it perfect.

Secondly, we would recommend trying to increase support and encourage healthy lifestyle choices. For example, try to make sure that your team has some sort of stability in their work schedule and routine. Whenever possible, try to also encourage the four-day week. Then, talk to your people, whether that’s over coffee or in 1-2-1’s. Ask them how they are doing, how they and their families are coping and what challenges they are all still facing. Show you care about them as people and not just as someone who completes tasks. In the last few years, we have seen numerous restaurants implement strategies like these and it has done wonders for employee morale and wellbeing.

Thirdly, educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of psychological issues and act fast if you notice any emerging within you or your team. Try to also include your team in this process and make sure they know that resources are available, should they need support. Remember, if nothing else, when we elevate the wellbeing of our team, productivity, creativity and employee retention will all skyrocket alongside it.


Final Thoughts

However, while all this is well and good, it is crucial for chefs and restaurant owners to look after their own mental wellbeing too.

Chefs worldwide have experienced vast economic loss during the pandemic that many are still recovering from. Or perhaps you are financially gaining ground, but you picked up unhealthy coping mechanisms during that time that you are still struggling with. To that end, try to ask yourself, ‘what do I do when I feel stressed or afraid?’ If you are unsure of the answer, you could be using unhelpful strategies such as denial, projection or substance abuse.

To change this, practice mindfulness to increase your self-awareness. Then, counteract each negative strategy with two positives. For example, for each cigarette you smoke or wine gum you eat, try to do twice the amount of exercise or healthy eating. The crux is to practice showing yourself the same compassion you would a friend, family member, employee or customer.

 

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