Mental Health and the Service Industry: How to Get Help

A group of people talking in a hallway.

This year, Anthony Rudolf celebrates 10 years in recovery from alcoholism.

After spending years as a beverage manager and server, Rudolf knew he needed to break away from the lifestyle of throwing darts and drinking after work. He transitioned to a general manager position at Per Se in New York and then director of operations at Thomas Keller Restaurant Group in California, where he began developing an idea for an organization that could help others struggling with the same mental health and addiction concerns he had.

“Servers and bartenders often have to be on show. You have to put your best foot forward and smile,” he says. “The job doesn’t give you time to deal, and that leads to addiction.”

Rudolf founded Journee, a group that empowers service industry workers to call for an evolution in the workplace that fosters authenticity and vulnerability in the discussion about substance abuse and addiction.

“I think of the airplane analogy. When oxygen masks fall, you’re supposed to take care of yourself before those around you,” he says. “That goes against our instinct of what we do in the industry.”

In July, Journee promoted videos about mental health and addiction, which brought together a series of speakers to discuss common concerns in the industry and how to address them. The rotating monthly series focuses on industry-specific takes on family, wellness and motivation.

“The whole goal of the series and Journee as a whole is to get people talking,” Rudolf says. “There’s a macho attitude in our profession that you don’t let anyone see your cards. Instead, we need to raise our hands and open up before we crack — or fall.”

Journee is one among several organizations that have formed in the past few years to address substance abuse and mental health concerns in the service industry in particular. As data shows year after year that the industry tops most lists for alcoholism, addiction and mental health concerns, advocates have looked for ways to push a new conversation.

“Addiction is the same trait that drives us to work 80 hours per week,” Rudolf says. “We love what we do, but it’s the same flavor as addiction, the same lack of self-care.”

Following the numbers

In recent years, more research has backed the anecdotal notion that service industry work heavily influences lifestyle and health. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is conducted each year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administrative Administration, puts the accommodations and food services industries near the top in terms of substance use and abuse.

Nearly 12 percent of food service workers engage in heavy drinking, as compared to about 9 percent of average workers in the U.S. Heavy drinking is defined as drinking five or more drinks during the same occasion on five or more days in the past 30 days. Only the mining and construction industries have higher rates of heavy drinking at 17.5 and 16.5 percent, the survey says.

In addition, the food service industry has the highest rate of illicit drug use by far, with more than 19 percent of workers using marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens or heroin, as compared to 14 percent of arts and entertainment workers and 9 percent of average workers.

On top of that, the study noted that food service workers reported the highest rate of substance abuse in the past year, with 17 percent saying they were dependent on alcohol or drugs, as compared to 9.5 percent of average workers.

“This is something everyone in the industry knows about, but not a ton of research proves what we’re saying,” says Sarah Ory, executive director of The Heirloom Foundation, a nonprofit that Ory and her chef husband Jonathan formed in 2014 to combat suicide, substance abuse and stress in the food and beverage industry. The group hosts public outreach, networking and benefit events in New York City.

“We lost three friends in one year due to substance abuse, suicide and driving accidents after long shifts,” she says. “It’s a hard life, especially if you have a family. These quality of life issues need to be discussed.”

The Heirloom Foundation teamed up with Kat Kinsman of Chefs with Issues to sponsor a study of mental health concerns in the industry. The survey found that depression, anxiety and substance abuse were the three most common issues, and 94 percent of the 1,000 workers reported current or past mental health issues. That’s much higher than the average, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report as 20 percent of employees.

Additional recent research explains why this may be the case. A 2013 study in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health found that earning cash tips likely fuels heavy drinking among food service workers. Many servers and bartenders says they went out with friends after a good shift, which made it tougher for them to restrict their drinking habits. Plus, the social networks of servers and bartenders often include peers at nearby venues, which contributes to frequent drinking off shift due to discounts and shared patronage, the study added.

The Heirloom survey also noted that only 2 percent of workers says they could openly speak about mental health issues at work, and 18 percent had health insurance through their workplace.

“We all know the story of working a 15-hour shift, sleeping for five hours, and going back,” Ory says. “When you combine long hours, stress and our perfection-driven work with no insurance or health resources, it really drives up that high incidence of mental health problems.”

Finding a solution

Several well-known national organizations — such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Alcoholics Anonymous — provide help for those struggling with mental health and addiction issues. However, Rudolf, Ory and others are working to create specific resources for those in the food and beverage industry, especially for those who haven’t found what they need elsewhere.

“I attended a few group meetings early on, and though they’re great resources, they’re not for me personally,” says Andrew Robertson, the private events director at LiveWire Athens in Georgia. “In fact, for the type of person I am and my mentality, they actually made me want to leave and go drink.”

Robertson clearly remembers his last day of drinking — July 5, 2014. In the midst of a 22-hour drinking binge with no sleep, he had a moment of clarity and decided he would quit alcohol cold turkey. He received news earlier in the day that he would join his brothers in opening a new venue and realized that in order to make it successful, he needed to change.

“Everybody has a different personality and a different route to recovery,” he says. “For me, it was multiple times of telling myself that I couldn’t keep drinking as much as I did. In the end, I had to keep myself accountable.”

At age 19, Robertson and his brother opened a music venue on River Street in Savannah, Georgia, where booze flows freely and open container laws don’t exist. He later realized that his drinking often got in the way of business.

“Since 2014, I’ve seen my side of the business — and the venue as a whole — run smoother,” he says. “And within eight months of quitting, my bank account was higher than it had ever been since I started working at age 15.”

Robertson enjoys staying in the industry, although he’s removed himself from the immediate role of serving from the bar. He still develops signature cocktails for weddings and creates menus for private events but often asks a trusted coworker to test his drinks.

“There are resources everywhere, if you’re ready,” he says. “You’ll know when it’s time and why it’s necessary to seek help. For me, it was for my family and my business.”

Additional resources

Restaurant Recovery creates support networks to help industry workers address addiction and its effects. The group helps workers find and pay for drug and alcohol treatment and advocates for change in the workplace through increased awareness.

The U.S. Bartender’s Guild empowers bartenders to take charge of their careers and work with partners to promote career advancement through peer-to-peer learning, expert instruction, service projects and competition. One of the group’s main focuses is mental health and substance abuse.

Journee promotes holistic growth for those in the restaurant industry. Overall, the group strives to provide resources to workers who want to dream bigger and improve their careers.

The Heirloom Foundation addresses suicide, substance abuse and mental health in the food and beverage industry. In particular, the group brings together culinary professionals to increase awareness about the high-stakes, high-pressure lifestyles that many experience.

Rehab 4 Addiction offers free support and help to people who suffer with alcohol and drug addiction. Rehab 4 Addiction offers free telephone assistance and also maintains useful resources and guides on its website.

Local groups, such as the Mental Health Association and Mental Health America in your state or city, focus on healthy living and grassroots policy changes in communities.