Substance Abuse is a Community Issue — Here's What We Need to Do About It

Bartender and patron taking shots

We’ve all been there: You’ve had a hard shift and bar friends come in. You take a shot with them when they sit down, and you take a shot with them before they leave. A short while later, you take a shot with the rest of the bar team. You do last call, and pour out the rest of the bottle of bubbles into a rocks glass to sip on as you clean up (you don’t want it to go flat!). Then, you take a shift drink and chat with your co-workers about which bar you’re going to hit up.

You go, and find your buddy behind the bar. You take a shot with her. You have a beer and commiserate with your coworkers about that terrible shift and that one nasty bar patron when the bar team from another local watering hole walks in the door. You love that about this bar — you see all your industry friends and anyone could walk in. You all take a shot with the bartender and order another beer. You’re feeling better. You catch up with your friends — ask about their new position, complain about how you feel under-appreciated in your work, and how both of you are exhausted. You look in front of you and another round of shots has appeared. Your bartender friend took care of these. She’s got you! You’re industry! Now conversation is getting louder and you’re not ordering beers anymore because they’re just appearing. You’re not ordering shots anymore because they’re just appearing. Magic.

You wake up hungover three hours later than you had planned. You check your Uber receipt to see what time you got in, because you don’t remember. There’s no time to go for a run or hit that yoga class, let alone go buy groceries. You shower, drag yourself to work, pour yourself a cup of coffee and maybe a shot of whiskey to help your hangover and then do it all again.

And again. And again.

"So many of us are actively trying to break this cycle. Then we get angry at ourselves when it doesn’t work out, and more often than not, we internalize that failure."

This is an all too common narrative, and it isn’t a pretty one. If you recognize any of it, you’re not alone. Another piece of this narrative is that so many of us are actively trying to break this cycle. We say, “I’m not drinking for a month” or “I’m going to start working out because my body hurts.” We pledge to go to yoga, to stop drinking so much, stop smoking so much, get up in the morning … so many promises. Then we get angry at ourselves when it doesn’t work out, and more often than not, we internalize that failure.

If we’re always trying to quit, then why do we keep doing this? We know it isn’t good for us, and it’s impeding on our daily functioning — not to mention taking a toll on our health. It’s no secret what excessive drinking can do to a body, but within the bar community we act as though we’re protected from the harmful effects of alcohol. And why? Because we pour it? Because we study it? Real talk: it isn’t okay that we’re doing this. It isn’t professional, it isn’t safe, and it isn’t beneficial to our careers or the longevity of this industry.

And we justify it. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “I’m just appreciating the spirit!” or “I need to understand what it’s like on this side of the bar!” or “I’m not an alcoholic because I was able to quit for NO-vember.”

Just because you’re not experiencing alcoholism does not mean there isn’t a problem. Just because you’re not experiencing alcoholism does not mean you are not abusing alcohol. That scenario I wrote out above? That’s alcohol abuse. That scenario that you identified with? That is alcohol abuse.

In addition to working in the beverage community in multiple positions on both sides of the bar for many years, I’m currently just a few hundred clinical hours away from conferring my masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I find myself seeing my beloved community’s behavior through a highly unique lens. It would be foolish to pretend like there wasn’t a problem. As a therapist, what would I say to myself if I sat down in my office? I’d ask myself to advocate and activate. Then I’d write a treatment plan. Think of this as my treatment plan.

First, let’s just take a moment to discuss the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Put simply, the difference is just a matter of how much and how often you’re consuming alcohol. The behavior is almost identical: planning your day around drinking, continuing to drink despite attempts to quit or cut back, allowing alcohol to impede on your daily functioning, your relationships, your performance at work, your finances, and so on.

When you’re suffering from alcoholism, though, all of those behaviors are present, but you’re also physically reliant. In other words, the volume is turned up and it’s reached a point of dependency. That means when you don’t drink, you suffer withdrawal symptoms including tremors, increased anxiety, profuse sweating, depression, nausea, fatigue, irritability and insomnia. Withdrawal from alcohol is very serious — I cannot stress this enough. There is a common misconception that alcohol detox isn’t fatal, but it is. During alcohol detox, not only do individuals experience tremors and hallucinations, there is a risk those symptoms will intensify into delirium tremens and life threatening seizures. That being said, if you have any inclination that you’re suffering from alcoholism, please do not attempt to detox without the supervision of a medical professional.

Now that you’re reading this and potentially confronting the possibility that alcohol and substance abuse it an issue for you, first, take a moment to breathe. Next, forgive yourself. Don’t skip over that part.

Perhaps you’ve known this about yourself for a long time (*raises hand*) and can’t seem to find a way out of it. You read the articles about self-care that include turning off your phone, going to yoga, exercising and so on. These bits of advice should work, so you try but still find yourself out after work with colleagues. Why?

"This is not an individual issue. It’s on all of us."

I’m going to share with you my theory on this that’s based on what I’ve experienced and observed in my career both as a beverage professional, and as a person studying community and clinical mental health. This is not an individual issue, meaning all the responsibility isn’t on the person who is consuming too much. It’s on all of us. We drink because it’s the culture we’ve created in our industry. We excuse substance abuse and write it off — not even as an occupational hazard — but all too often as proof that we’re invested in our jobs. We utilize substances as a tool to connect and network, and when we over do it, we laugh it off. We laugh about it the next day. We brag about it.

We’re killing ourselves.

What are we going to do about it?

We take responsibility and fix it. We support each other. We rally, because there is so much at stake: the public legitimacy of our profession, the longevity of our careers, our health and our lives.

Before I offer my recommendations for community intervention, it’s important to identify the “why” of our alcohol consumption patterns, as well as exploring potential barriers to harm reduction. People drink for a lot of reasons; some are specific to our industry, and some aren’t. I’ll do my best to cover as many here as possible.

Why do we do this?

1. To cope. This is a doozy, and the reason why most people over-consume whether they work in beverage or not. Since it is so broad, I’ll break it down even further. Over-consuming can be a coping mechanism for:

Work environment issues: This industry doesn’t always foster positive work environments. There are reports of rampant sexual harassment, racial divides and barriers, interpersonal issues, a lack of employee trust and lacking standards for professional decorum. It’s insensitive. It’s dramatic. Why do you think so many reality TV shows are about restaurants and bars? It’s entertaining! In this industry, we get away with a lot more than in other workplace settings — but like any work environment, if it’s toxic, that toxicity will seep into the hearts of the employees, and then into the experiences of the patrons.

Problematic guest interactions: Woof. People can be mean. They can be insulting, selfish and rude. There are guests that will yell at you about the most trivial problems. Some will verbally assault you without batting an eye and then Yelp about it. People are also sexist, racist and ignorant. We all know this. We don’t like these people, but we’re asked to endure and serve them.

Lack of emotional intelligence: “Smile! You’re on stage! Shake it off!” You’ve heard that, right? How many hours a day do you spend repressing your feelings in order to control your reactions in the moment? Commonly, we see those feelings eventually come out in the form of uncontrolled anger, or (you guessed it!) substance abuse. The ability to identify and process emotions is an incredible skill to have. It’s like turning the light on in your mind — without it you’re just feeling your way through in the dark.

Issues with mental health: The acceptance and support of people suffering from mental illness in our industry as of late has been exciting and inspiring. I’m finding that mental health issues — while still grossly stigmatized — are being discussed more openly, and with care and safety. Still, there are folks working in food and beverage who have untreated and unmanaged mental illness and don’t have the resources to get help. Health insurance is uncommon when working in bars and restaurants and (to be perfectly blunt) when it is available, it’s expensive and often ineffective. With alcohol and other substances being more accessible than mental health care, it’s easy to see why individuals are self-medicating with booze rather than treatment. Furthermore, when people ARE actively seeking and receiving treatment for their mental illness, this job is HARD and (as stated above) bars and restaurants aren’t the most sensitive environments.

Burnout: Burnout is real and most of us have experienced it. It’s that feeling when you Just. Can’t. Anymore. Burnout is caused by all of these factors and is best avoided through prevention, but sometimes we can’t catch it in time. We drink to cope with burnout, which is hugely problematic since drinking won’t help. It’ll make it worse.

"With alcohol being more accessible than mental health care, it’s easy to see why individuals are self-medicating with booze rather than treatment."

2. To connect. Drinking is a social activity, and communities are fostered through connection. It only makes sense that we’re connecting through what unites us!

3. To network. There are so many events to attend. Tastings, trainings, portfolio shows, seasonal cocktail release parties, competitions, industry parties thrown by brands and the list goes on and on. There are new invites in our Facebook notifications every day. Mezcal Week. Whiskey Week. Sherry Week. We go to learn, but we also go to network and build our careers. It’s hard to attend these networking events when drinking has become an issue for you.

4. Because it’s fun. And delicious!

So, what do we do about this?

As far as treatment goes, there are two ways folks tend to go about it. One is abstinence, aka sobriety. The other is approaching treatment from a “harm reduction” perspective. This means limiting usage to reduce the potential for harm. It’s up to you (perhaps with the guidance of a professional) to decide which approach will serve you better. A lot of people find success with harm reduction. Some people start out with harm reduction then eventually embrace sobriety. Neither one is right or wrong as long as you’re healthy, happy and thriving. Whatever route you choose, you shouldn’t go about it alone. Here are some ways the community can help.

Take ownership

Danny Meyer is doing it right, folks. Invest in your staff. Invest in their health, wellness, visions, dreams and ambitions. Provide them with basic needs like access to competitive healthcare benefits. Give them time off. Pay them appropriately. Treat your people like professionals as opposed to folks just passing through. If you offer more competitive benefits packages, the positions will be pursued by more competitive professionals. Give them a reason to stay and grow in your company.

I know it’s expensive, but constantly training new staff is also expensive. I recommend creating a long term plan to begin implementing these benefits, then ensure your staff that you’re committed to their health and well being. Give them a reason to be loyal. You know what will save you a lot of money? Loyalty. We know when you look at us like we’re disposable, and if we’re disposable, then you are too. Foster greatness! Create an environment in which people can thrive. Give them reasons not to find another job. Don’t burn them out. Please don’t burn them out.

Something that you can do immediately and with little expense (compared to the extensive benefits listed above) is ensure that your leadership staff is properly trained to identify mental health issues. Hire a consultant who works in Industrial Organizational Psychology or Clinical Mental Health. Taking this step will benefit you and your business in quite a few ways: you team can potentially save careers, and you’re taking measures to ensure the safety of your staff. A move like this creates an educated environment in which individuals feel safe to disclose when they’re struggling and take action to care for themselves. It also empowers your staff to intervene before it’s too late. Untreated and unmanaged mental illness isn’t something to brush off. Take action.

"Foster greatness. Create an environment in which people can thrive. Give them reasons not to find another job. Don’t burn them out."

What those in management and leadership roles can do

Your job is not easy. It’s profoundly thankless, you often make less than the tipped employees you’re managing, and you work long hours on your feet. You’re just as susceptible to these problems as your team but probably have more comprehensive benefits. My recommendation to you is to utilize those benefits. Find a therapist. Something I’ve found in my experience managing as well as being managed is that when the superior’s struggling mentally or having a hard time coping with life, the job, or whatever else, the subordinate usually takes the brunt of it. When they don’t have the ability or tools to cope, it creates more stress for you and it because a dirty cycle that creates a toxic work environment. You hold people’s employment in your hands, which is a lot of responsibility. Take care of yourself — and that includes your brain.

Another management technique you can implement is based on a social psychological phenomenon called the “fair process effect.” This phenomenon is rooted in the vast concept of justice and — overly simplified — says that if an individual (or a group of individuals) either have input in the procedural processes or the outcomes, they are more likely to be happier with those outcomes and remain engaged over time. In order for this technique to be successful, there has to be true engagement, explanations and clear expectations moving forward.

An example of this is cocktail menu design. If the bar team is involved in the artistic development of the menu, they are more likely to stay committed to the project overall. They’re invested. If they offer an idea that’s not feasible, explain why. Or, design a whole mess of cocktails and give them space to try and critique them. Ultimately, people want to feel like they’re contributing. They want to know that they’re more than a number. I challenge you, as a manager, to ensure that they are.

What brands can do

When I first started representing a brand, I learned quickly that the key to success was loyalty. I have a hard time, on a personal level, repaying that loyalty by facilitating and promoting unhealthy cultural norms. What are some ways your brand can support professionals that support you, that don’t involve getting them smashed all the time? I challenge brands who seek engagement from beverage professionals to get creative so that engagement ensures the longevity and health of the profession. Life-long brand loyalty is awesome, and it’s possible to achieve it while also maintaining social responsibility.

What bartenders can do

Ok, my compatriots. Here we go.

Prioritize mental health: See a therapist. I know it seems cost prohibitive, but it’s a worthy investment. If you don’t have health care coverage, there are often clinicians that will see clients on a sliding scale basis, which may cost about the same as a few cocktails and a tip. At minimum, this will help you to increase your emotional intelligence: you can learn and develop coping mechanisms that can be implemented outside of work, and explore ways to cope in the moment during your shift. The more you can develop the skills to manage your emotional life and reactivity, the healthier and happier your mind will be. Additionally, your therapist will be able to offer you treatment, support and further resources for substance abuse if you feel it’s necessary (hint: it’s probably necessary — and that’s okay), as well as processing how that substance abuse may or may not be entwined with other mental health issues you might be experiencing.

If your employer does not take mental health care seriously, advocate. Let them know it’s important to you. Let them know it’s important, period.

"Changing habits can be tremendously isolating, which is painful. Support each other."

Connect outside of the bar: We’re social beings and crave connection. I love seeing my friends out and about, but I also love remembering what we talked about. So, how do you connect and stay connected when drinking after work seems like the only time to do so? Start small, like a book club. Meet for lunch before work once a week and talk about books. Start a craft group. Learn a new skill. Sign up for dance lessons with your coworkers. Re-learn how to maintain relationships without alcohol. We can do it.

Get active: This ties in with the above recommendations, but is worth its own subsection. You can’t stay out super late drinking if you’re committed to being active in the morning, or at least you cannot sustain that for long. Hold yourself accountable by finding a buddy to go on this journey with you, and don’t stand each other up. Sign up for classes that penalize you monetarily if you cancel late or no-show. Grab a few friends and chip in for small group training. Sign up for an event like a marathon or triathlon. Taking care of yourself will certainly help you to re-prioritize away from drinking, but it will also make you a better bartender. You’ll have more endurance, you’ll be able to move faster, and your body will feel better.

Go to bed: One reason a lot of people go out and stay out after work is because they feel riled up after their shift and are looking to decompress. Are there other ways to relax after work that aren’t as problematic for you? Exercising in the morning helps because you’re exhausted by the end of the night. Another technique is to ask a yogi in your life about yoga poses that help calm your mind and body. In the mindfulness zone, there are so many guided meditations available to you online and in podcast form that you can utilize. It won’t happen right away, but nothing worthwhile ever does.

Cultivate respect: If you have a colleague that is trying to cut back, respect that. Even better, support them. Ask them what you can do to help them succeed in their goals. I’d avoid saying to them, “I never see you anymore!” or “C’mon, just come out for one!” I’m ashamed to say that I’m guilty of this. Instead, say, “I miss seeing you. When do you run? Do you want a buddy?” or “XYZ new restaurant just opened for lunch. Do you want to go say hi to so and so?” Changing habits can be tremendously isolating, which is painful. Support each other.

This also applies to those individuals that aren’t ready to change. Give them that same support and respect you would want. But there is a fine line between respecting someone’s decisions and enabling destructive behavior. It’s all in the approach. Don’t laugh off their alcohol abuse. Let them know you’re concerned, offer help, and take it seriously, but also acknowledge that you can only control what you can control. Sometimes leading by example is enough. Show it’s possible.

Some final thoughts

All in all, I just hope to see the community I love in a healthier state. I might be leaving the trenches of this industry for a career in mental health, but I want nothing more than to see my colleagues grow and ascend into higher, more authoritative and continuously fulfilling roles, and they can’t do that if cultural alcohol abuse is weighing them down. The time is now to take action — it’s not too late. The face of the bartender is changing. Our role in society is changing. We should be doing everything we can to ensure our safety and longevity. Stand up. Take action. We’re all in this together. I believe in us.