Why Reliable Scheduling Matters for Bartenders

A woman pouring a beer from a keg at a bar.
Knowing your bartending schedule ahead of time makes it easier to function in and outside of work. Photo via iStock/nisimo.

Recent discussions of self-care in the industry have highlighted the importance of taking and making time for yourself, but too often we’re not given time to make time.

The worst nights behind the bar are the unpredictable ones — the mellow Tuesday night an unannounced bar-crawl turns into a five-deep slaughterhouse; the Saturday a keg blows and you realize far too late that the back-up never arrived; when a glass breaks in your well right as the dinner rush begins — these are the things stress dreams are made of.

Unpredictability, too, is one of those qualities we fear most in guests and potential colleagues. Consistency – in temperament, in dependability, in quality – is what keeps us balanced in our spontaneous and volatile work environments.

Yet for many bartenders, a consistent work schedule is a fantasy.

As conversations around self-care blossom throughout the industry – managing depression, preventing burnout, and finally getting to sleep at night – what an establishment can do look out for its staff ought to also be considered, and doing away with last minute and unreliable scheduling should be at the top of the list.

“At the heart of what we know from psychology and research that’s been done about the ways people find work satisfaction and find work valuable is when they have core psychological needs met,” says Melody Wilding, LMSW, a licensed therapist and professor of Human Behavior at City University New York Hunter College who specializes in career and workplace psychology and mental health.

“Two of those most primary needs are autonomy and mastery, so independence and control,” she says.

According to Wilding, without some control, some level of predictability in your work schedule, you’re likely to be more stressed and anxious, and the potential for burning out skyrockets.

“Every time we have to make a decision it’s a lot of mental heavy lifting,” Wilding says. “Not knowing when you’re working more than a few days in advance wears you down because you’re constantly having to make decisions.”

According to a 2008 study in the American Journal of Psychology, every time you can’t make a decision because there’s no consistent pattern to rely on, anxiety and stress increase.

“Predictability is a fundamental modulator of anxiety in that the ability to predict aversive events mitigates anxious responses,” the study reads.

In plain English: knowing what is coming up helps keep us sane.

"The frustration [around unpredictable scheduling] is very real and it can be a really hard thing to recognize,” says Jared Sadoian, bar manager of The Hawthorne, sister-bar to Eastern Standard, both near Fenway Park in Boston.

“I’ve been on all sides of it – anywhere from not knowing the scheduling for the week until the week actually starts, to having schedules out a month in advance, to having set schedules – which is nice but not always an option,” he says.

At The Hawthorne, one of Boston’s quintessential and most well-respected cocktail bars, schedules are made for two weeks at a time and are posted at the start of the second week, so that employees have three weeks of schedules available at a time.

“Scheduling is always a challenging puzzle,” Sadoian says. “Two weeks is a balance in giving our staff the ability to plan ahead while also giving us a little bit of extra lead time.”

Which is important for all establishments, but especially for somewhere like The Hawthorne where the proximity to Fenway Park and the bar’s back room, popular for private events, make every night of the week a different ball game.

This month, for example, had the Red Sox continued in the World Series, staffing requirements at The Hawthorne would have changed considerably for game nights.

“You can’t always plan,” Sadoian says. “But the communication between staff and management, open communication, is hugely important.”

Posting schedules two weeks in advance has been a helpful happy medium in aligning staff needs with running a large scale bar, two bars in fact, at the moment, for Cat Tobey, bar manager of Foundry on Elm and its sibling bar, Saloon, both in Davis Square, Somerville.

“You’ve got to have time to breathe in more than one establishment,” Tobey says. “It makes you a better bartender.”

Science agrees. “That lack of feeling like you have control over your life, frankly, can lead to really high rates of anxiety and depression,” Wilding says. “Good managers realize it’s only to their benefit to optimize people,” and a large part of that is understanding that no one works well when they can’t plan a life outside of work, she says.

In an industry where you never really know what a shift will bring, knowing well in advance when your shifts are is paramount to building a sustainable bartending career.

From our partners