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Hospitality News Viewpoints

Addressing mental health in the restaurant industry


Carrie Leishman Delaware Restaurant Association President

For restaurants, it’s always about the people. Yes, it’s also about the prime rib, but the heartbeat of the restaurant industry centers directly upon its employees and the communities they serve. In Delaware, 50,000 people choose to work in restaurants and they serve hundreds of thousands of Delawareans every day—every single day! It is an industry of incredible excitement where no two days are ever the same. Each shift is like opening day with no preseason practice or second string ready to take over when things get rough.

This is an industry of choice, but with that freedom and flexibility also come stress, long hours, and a demanding public that can often take a toll on workers. Although mental health challenges know no specific age, demographic or profession, it is certainly prevalent in restaurants, perhaps due to the fast-paced nature and demands of the industry. The workplace can be the most important environment to talk about mental health, yet most businesses (including restaurants) have only just begun to talk about it. Where negative culture, stigma and lack of knowledge historically kept the industry silent, a seismic shift is happening, and it comes at a time when attracting and retaining talent is at the top of the restaurant industry’s list of biggest challenges.

Mental illness and substance abuse costs all employers an estimated $225.8 billion each year, according to a study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that featured a random sample of over 28,000 workers in the US. The largest indirect cost of mental illness comes n the form of decreased performance due to absenteeism (regularly missing work) and presenteeism (working while sick) which costs employers an estimated $1,601 per employee annually.

Mental health challenges affect more people than you think. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20% Americans reported that they have experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder, including 25% adults experiencing serious mental health challenges along with 17% of our youth (ages 6-17).

The cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace is no longer acceptable financially and more importantly at the negative cost in human resources. Investing in a mentally healthy workplace is good for business, and restaurants are beginning to take the lead.

The Delaware Restaurant Association convened a panel of experts in late February, led by State Rep. Valerie Longhurst, along with Dr. Josh Thomas, executive director of the Delaware Chapter of NAMI and industry leaders to openly talk about mental health challenges and solutions in the workplace—specifically in restaurants. It is the beginning of a year-long conversation and campaign to offer resources for the restaurant industry and take the lead in addressing employee well-being.

It must begin with a conversation in every business community. Addressing the issue of mental illness in the workplace has to begin with the acknowledgement that it exists, and that unchecked it will take a toll on our workplaces. Once that happens all businesses can begin to strengthen their individual brands and enhance employee engagement by focusing and cultivating a culture of enhanced engagement that prioritizes mental health. Healthy and productive communities will help drive the economic health of our business communities as well.

Carrie Leishman is president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.

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