How to support food sector staff with mental health

13 June 2024, 13:26 PM
  • From neurodiversity to struggles with stress or depression, the food and drink sector must do more to help workers in retail and hospitality thrive, industry insiders say
How to support food sector staff with mental health

Heston Blumenthal recently made waves in the food and drink sector after revealing that he was diagnosed as bipolar. As well as opening up about his mental health, the celebrity chef and restaurateur called for a change in attitudes towards neurodiversity in the workplace.

He went on to say neurodivergent people were ‘woefully underrepresented’ in the workplace, while calling the condition a ‘superpower’. 

“These are individuals who may have exceptional skills and unparalleled abilities yet because of traditional ways of working, we are missing out on the brilliance they can bring to UK business,” he said.

Mental health in the food and drink industry

Every retailer and restaurant or cafe manager wants to get the best out of their staff. But mental health struggles are unfortunately prevalent in the food and drink world, and they’re likely to affect your team’s performance and morale.

The Burnt Chef Project was established to provide education, support and resources to tackle mental health stigma in the hospitality industry. Kris Hall, CEO and founder, told Speciality Food that in this sector, the impacts on mental health are many.

“In a profession that operates seven days a week, diminishing resources that result in turnover rates far above average, and little to no training in leadership or health and wellbeing, the demands on our workforces are high and the impacts to mental health are startling and require immediate action,” Kris said.

In the retail sector, meanwhile, workers are having to cope with increasing numbers of shoplifting and retail crime.

Exacerbating this are skills shortages in the hospitality and food industries, says Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira). “The labour change may be linked with people changing careers following Covid, but whatever the reason, businesses in these sectors need to review their recruitment and training processes.”

A fast-paced environment also takes its toll. “Your senses are constantly firing – heat, noise, customer demands,” Kris says, “All this alongside rising costs, poor retention and untrained management can mean unsupported teams in historically stoic and ego-driven conditions.”

As more and more people speak out – from celebrity chefs to co-workers – the good news is that organisations like The Burnt Chef Project are seeing a shift in how people approach mental health. “It’s a much more widely accepted conversation as we continue to burn the stigma associated with it in our industry,” Kris says, “but there’s a long way to go.”

“Businesses are recognising the importance of management training, mental health training, and incorporating policies and procedures to nurture their teams’ learning and development and manage stress,” Kris says.

How to support your team’s mental health


Want to ensure your team feel supported? It’s all about creating the right culture, Kris says. “There has to be a culture created in an organisation which is felt not just on the ground but from the top down – creating psychologically safe environments with supportive structures in place.”

By encouraging conversations about mental health, creating a supportive environment and fostering a culture of wellbeing, staff will have clear signals that it’s okay to talk about mental health, and they won’t be penalised for it. Kris says it’s also important to recognise the signs of someone who might be struggling.

These include:
• Changes in people’s behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues.
• Changes in their work output, motivation levels and focus.
• Struggling to make decisions, get organised and find solutions to problems.
• Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed.
• Changes in eating habits and appetite, and increased smoking and drinking. 

Kris outlines a 10-step plan for supporting an employee struggling with mental health:

1. Foster a supportive environment
• Promote open communication: Encourage employees to talk about their mental health without fear of stigma.
• Lead by example: Share your own experiences with mental health if comfortable, showing that it’s okay to discuss these issues.

2. Recognise the signs
• Be observant: Look for changes in behaviour, performance, or mood.
• Respect privacy: If you notice potential signs of struggle, approach the employee discreetly and respectfully.

3. Offer support
• Check-in: Regularly check in with employees to see how they’re doing. 
• Active listening: Listen without judgement and offer empathy and understanding. 

4. Provide resources
• Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP): Ensure employees know about and have access to EAPs which offer counselling and support.
• Mental health days: Allow for mental health days just as you would for physical health. 

5. Encourage professional help
• Normalise seeking help: Encourage employees to seek professional help and provide information on how to access services.
• Be supportive of therapy: Allow flexibility for therapy appointments and necessary time off. 

6. Create a flexible work environment
• Flexible hours: Offer flexible working hours or remote work options if possible. 
• Workload management: Monitor and manage workloads to prevent burnout. 

7. Train managers and staff
• Mental health training: Provide training for managers and staff on how to support colleagues with mental health issues. 
• Crisis management: Equip staff with the knowledge of how to respond to a mental health crisis. 

8. Implement wellness programmes
• Wellness initiatives: Introduce wellness programs that include stress management, mindfulness and physical health. 
• Regular breaks: Encourage regular breaks and ensure employees take their leave. 

9. Maintain confidentiality
• Respect privacy: Keep any discussions about an employee’s mental health confidential. 
• Anonymous feedback: Allow employees to provide feedback or voice concerns anonymously if they prefer. 

10. Follow up
• Continuous support: Regularly follow up with the employee to see how they are progressing. 
• Adjust support: Be ready to adjust the support you provide based on their evolving needs.

Food and drink industries also have specific areas to address. In hospitality, Kris says, the mitigation of stress within the workplace “must be a priority”. 

“It’s the leading cause of mental illness amongst our demographic, and for a long time we’ve been told ‘that’s just hospitality,’ but why does it need to be? Why have we just accepted damaging levels of service and stress without looking at its impacts and how to address it?”

The advice applies to retailers too, who deal with high levels of staff stress particularly over Christmas and other seasonal spikes, as well as staff shortages.

The food and drink sector must also encourage leaders to ask their teams what they want and how they feel. “We often assume we know what is best for others, especially in hospitality as we’re very good at providing service to others. However, we need to service ourselves with self-care and respect as well as asking our professionals what they need in order to create hospitality 2.0,” Kris says.

“The answers are already there, we just need to be courageous enough to ask the questions and hold that space.”

Supporting neurodivergent workers


As Heston Blumenthal shows, neurodivergent workers can be very skilled members of any workforce. “My most artistic, innovative and exciting work is because I am neurodivergent, which I describe as my superpower,” he says. “The world needs to move on from outdated and archaic misinterpretations of perceived difference and embrace the opportunities neurodiversity presents.”

Research that he commissioned revealed that more than one in 10 people surveyed were diagnosed as neurodivergent, and 47% of UK adults with a neurodiverse condition believed it makes it harder to find a job.

“I urge employers to assess future candidates on their merits and with an open mind,” says Bira’s Andrew Goodacre. “It only takes a few minor adjustments to help people with mental health problems to become part of a workforce and to show their true potential. We are now more aware and more understanding of mental health, and we should all see the opportunities rather than the barriers,” he says.

The hospitality industry can become a place where people with neurodivergent conditions thrive if given the right support, writes Michelle Righini, a former hospitality worker and founder of We Recover Loudly, in a blog post for The Burnt Chef Project.

“If we work towards making our workplaces not just inclusive but in fact a place that nurtures and upskills, we can catapult our team members into successes even they did not think possible,” Michelle says. “The emergence of [neurodivergent] diagnosis in your teams is not going to stop. This is the time to start ensuring that you are creating spaces when all individuals have the same equal opportunities to excel.”

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