Food Service Workers Are on the Brink of a Mental Health Crisis. These Efforts are Helping.

Newly unemployed and frontline food workers are struggling with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Nationwide, efforts are underway to encourage and provide mental health support.



At the Envie Espresso Bar & Cafe in the French Quarter of New Orleans, an almost empty brunch in mid-March presented an ominous prediction of the months to come. “Weekends are [usually] busy,” said manager Cate Watson as she recounted her last weekend in business. “I cut my kitchen at 10:30 a.m., which never happens. At that point I was like, ‘This is not going to be good.’”

When Louisiana issued a stay-at-home order in March, it impacted Watson’s cafe and the nearly 1,200 other New Orleans dining establishments that serve the city’s 391,000 residents.

Watson, who has an autoimmune illness, had a painful conversation with her small staff. “I told everybody to be very careful with their money,” she recalled. “I reminded them that they did have a paycheck coming on Friday, but they needed to be really careful.”

While Watson’s staff was understanding, the conversation set off a series of emotions within her team, and that day and in the weeks since, Watson has found herself grappling, as so many in the food service industry have, with her employees’ mental health challenges.

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“I have one staff member who’s in recovery, and he talked a lot about what it’s like doing this sober, and how it’s a lot different than what others will experience,” she said.

Cate Watson at Cafe Envie in New Orleans.

Cate Watson.

Watson’s life, like many others in the food service industry, has been radically transformed by COVID-19. Shuttered establishments, garnished wages, and stalled unemployment benefits have devastated the industry that nourishes our society. U.S. jobless claims reached 26 million this month, with restaurant and bar workers accounting for 60 percent of jobs lost in March. But perhaps the most devastating element is the mental health toll the pandemic has placed on food service workers.

“A lot of service industry folks are going to commit suicide,” Watson said, adding that a rise in alcoholism, depression, and anxiety isn’t just likely—it’s inevitable.

Mental Health Issues—and Collective Trauma—in the Food Service Industry

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 47.6 million people—or one in five Americans—experience depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Only half of those living with mental illness receive treatment, and women tend to experience these issues at a higher rate than men.

Bar and restaurant workers are especially at risk. Not only are service workers in tipped environments more likely to develop mental illness than those in non-tipped, salaried industries, but they also tend to have the highest rates of heavy alcohol consumption.

Furthermore, accessing affordable mental health care can be an uphill battle. In addition to the structural racism that has allowed COVID-19 to decimate Black and Brown communities, a new study from the Urban Institute found that food service and preparation workers—overwhelmingly people of color—have low annual earnings, averaging just over $20,000 per year. In 2017, nearly a quarter of these workers—including waiters, bartenders, dishwashers, and cooks—were uninsured.

“There are lots of additional stressors when you’re worried about meeting your basic needs to survive,” New York-based clinical social worker and therapist Erika Ames told Civil Eats. “Food service workers are more vulnerable…. They don’t have jobs where you can work from home and mitigate the risk.”

“We should be reaching out to farmers and chefs. They’re inundated with pressure, anguish, and fear now on a daily basis.”

The collective trauma that food service workers are experiencing is a major concern to many in the food community. Katherine Miller, vice president of impact for the James Beard Foundation, is well aware of the challenges.

“The anguished concern and fear that we are hearing is profound,” said Miller. As a response, the Foundation’s website prominently features a Mental Health Resource section, which directs people to Women for Sobriety, Chefs With Issues, Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, and other resources. Miller hopes they can reach people at all levels of the food service industry.

“We should be reaching out to farmers and chefs,” Miller told Civil Eats. “They’re inundated with pressure, anguish, and fear now on a daily basis.”

A Sacramento Restaurant Tends to Mental Health

For many in the food service industry, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing challenges. Patrick Mulvaney, owner of the restaurant Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento, California, has spent the last two years working to build an infrastructure that helps struggling workers.

In 2018, he began working in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, VSP Global, WellSpace Health, the Steinberg Institute, and the James Beard Foundation to design, implement, and expand a pilot program to end the silence on mental health in the industry called I Got Your Back.

Bobbin and Patrick Mulvaney, I Got Your Back co-founders. (Photo courtesy of I Got Your Back)

Bobbin and Patrick Mulvaney, I Got Your Back co-founders. (Photo courtesy of I Got Your Back)

Mulvaney’s program, which launched in his own restaurant, is a peer-to-peer counseling program that trains select workers to identify signs of mental distress while on the floor and empowers them to check-in with their coworkers in a supportive way. At least one employee wears a purple hand marker on their shirt, indicating that they are available to talk, support, and “have the back” of those who may need help.

Since the program’s launch, several other Sacramento restaurants have joined in, including Binchoyaki, Scott’s Seafood, Ella Dining Room and Bar, OBO’ Italian Table & Bar, Randy Peters Catering, Hook & Ladder, and others. While Mulvaney is proud of this work, this is just the beginning for the program. I Got Your Back aims to help others access trainings, wellness culture, and mood checks in kitchens across the industry by creating a “Recipe Book” that lays out the road map for others to install their own program.

While Mulvaney says he knew the work was important, it took him some time to realize that he needed support, too. “It took a good six or eight weeks before I was comfortable with the idea that the people who were in pain and needed help included me,” Mulvaney told Civil Eats. “If I accepted that help—if I actually engaged in that process—then I would be stronger to help others.”

Juan and Jared, participants in I Got Your Back. (Photo courtesy of Mulvaney's B&L)

Juan and Jared, participants in I Got Your Back. (Photo courtesy of Mulvaney’s B&L)

Now more comfortable with this reality, Mulvaney is proud of the forward movement his restaurant has taken to combat mental illness. His team finished the pilot in September, and a report on the program implementation and impact showed positive results. In Mulvaney’s restaurant, the program increased awareness and encouraged hard conversations. Most important to Mulvaney, though, is the fact that 22 percent of those who participated reached out for resources and help. As he sees it, the program has also reduced some of the stigma around mental health.

“The important pieces of this work seem to be leadership and creating an environment where it’s safe to talk,” said Mulvaney of the program’s success. Over the last few months, the pandemic has made I Got Your Back especially relevant.

Having just been forced to lay off 54 people, though, Mulvaney recognizes the need for even more support for vulnerable workers. Emphasizing a “not me, we” strategy, he continues to help his staff get the support those in need, especially those who may be afraid to ask for help or unsure of where to go. While social distancing has made some of the work more complicated, Mulvaney’s friend, a participant in a 12-step program, reminded him of one hopeful truth.
“In this fight, you need to not have expectations, but you continually need to have hope.”

“He said, ‘In this fight, you need to not have expectations, but you continually need to have hope,’” Mulvaney said.

For Mulvaney, staying in touch is key to that hope. On Thursdays, he serves socially distanced “family meals” to his staff. In addition, his restaurant has served over 10,000 meals to vulnerable members in the community, most recently joining a collaborative effort to feed the city’s seniors. “It’s not physically touching, but it’s a way of checking in and making sure that you’re hanging in there,” he says.

Intensifying Depression and Anxiety among Food Workers

Checking in is essential for recently laid-off workers. Vera Ríos, a Peruvian resident of New York City, worked at Eat Chic Chocolates, a women-led chocolate shop while working toward her master’s degree in food studies—until COVID-19. Though Ríos has long dealt with anxiety, losing her job was especially destabilizing.

Vera Rios cooking at home.

Vera Ríos.

“I’m a very anxious person, and I think this has definitely triggered episodes for me,” said Ríos. “So, I’ve been talking to friends and family who also need that social interaction and connection.”

Anjelica Cazares of Houston, Texas, works in public relations, often helping to coordinate food events in the diverse city. She has struggled with depression for 10 years and described the coronavirus shutdown as world-shifting for her life and family. Moreover, she’s found that in Houston, people aren’t prone to talking about their personal challenges publicly.

“I’m more on edge now, waiting for the time to pass,” Cazares told Civil Eats. “People are trying not to talk about it, and that makes me feel so alone,” she said. “Pretending like it’s not a problem gives me even more anxiety, because it makes me feel like I’m the only crazy one out here.”

Cazares isn’t the only one struggling in Houston. Annette Cenci, a furloughed general manager at the kitchen supply store Sur la Table, was coordinating cooking classes for guests and planning private events with lauded chefs when her industry took a massive hit.

Having to deliver the devastating news to other staffers has caused a great deal of stress and anxiety. But she’s especially worried for her employees. Cenci’s decades-long history in the retail and food industries have exposed her to many colleagues who struggle with addiction and other mental health challenges.

“Under circumstances like this, it scares me. For people who are more fragile or in recovery… the closings weighed very heavily on me for them,” said Cenci.

Routine and Connection

These concerns are extremely valid, says mental health counselor and author Dr. Gregory Jantz. He noted that those who were in recovery before the pandemic may have turned back to old habits, or are getting closer to doing so.

“It amplifies everything,” he said. “There are so many unknowns: ‘Am I going back to work? What will it look like?’”

Dr. Jantz warned of a probable rise in suicide rates, but also added that it’s not inevitable. He pointed to the importance of doing seemingly simple, yet especially important daily activities, like walking twice a day for at least 20 minutes, staying hydrated, and eating a robust breakfast. Noting that many are mistakenly turning “social distancing” into “social isolation,” he spoke of the importance of maintaining social connections online.

“If we’re creating our own small virtual support groups and we’re connecting people [with the vulnerable person’s consent], it helps to get people out of the isolation and get them talking and communicating about what’s really going on.”

Therapist Erika Ames agreed that connection is deeply important in alleviating some of the stressors and pointed to online therapy as another useful option. Many therapists are doing work pro bono or for lower rates and offer online classes.

“If you work in a restaurant or are a farmworker whose work has been disrupted, that may be a good resource for you,” said Ames.

Facing Grief, Together

As therapists and food-industry leaders work to provide resources, the ever-changing stay-at-home orders are complicating these efforts. While cities with major COVID-19 outbreaks like New York City will likely be shut down well into the summer or fall, states such as Georgia and Texas are already reopening, albeit with capacity restrictions for restaurants and other businesses.

I got your back logo for restaurant mental health

However, reopening does not assure jobs for the long-term, and some restaurants will not reopen at all. Additionally, many workers have already expressed grave concern about the risks of going back to work too soon—and some establishments are perpetuating that same inequality and lack of support that can create the mental health challenges in the first place.

“Even when restaurants reopen, this kind of collective trauma is not going to go away,” said Miller of the James Beard Foundation.

Many workers are dealing directly with grief. The food world was stunned when influential Indian chef Floyd Cardoz of New York City passed due to complications from COVID-19. Unfortunately, other chefs and food service workers—many who aren’t as well-known—have succumbed to illness, leaving behind family and colleagues to grieve their untimely deaths.

“Dealing with mental health and sobriety is going to be on the plate in every restaurant moving forward”

Miller added that grief is an important focus when it comes to supporting workers, and that the Foundation is considering providing more resources to address those challenges. “Within the training modules for I Got Your Back and Giving Kitchen, there are discussions of grief counseling,” she said.

While Miller is concerned about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on food workers’ mental health, she’s encouraged by the collective unity she’s seeing in the field.

“When I look for a silver lining, it’s that … we’re openly talking about these issues and the new normal, which is that dealing with mental health and sobriety is going to be on the plate in every restaurant moving forward,” she said.

Many workers hope the most important lesson society takes from all this is simply remembering that the people preparing and serving the meals they eat—in and out of restaurants—are humans with feelings.

“I take pride in my work—we all do,” said Watson in New Orleans. “We deserve to have opportunities given to us and to be treated like other workers are, too.”

Top photo: An employee wipes down the windows of the Argentino Las Olas restaurant as it prepares to open to customers on May 18, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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  1. Friday, May 29th, 2020
    My heart goes out to these people. It is indeed true that the current pandemic spread has shattered the food industry. My uncle who runs a hotel in my native could not run his hotel due to the current crisis. It is really heart wrenching to know about the sufferings of jobless food service workers. Mulvaney’s mental health program seems to be interesting.