In our latest webinar, “Cultivating Restaurant Staff Well-Being,” we tackled the importance of increased focus on mental health in the restaurant business. Our panelists—Douglas Keane of Cyrus Restaurant, Colleen Silk from The Burnt Chef Project, and Mary-Frances Walsh of NAMI Sonoma County—shared actionable advice on how you can implement a secure and nurturing environment for your staff.
1. Living wages based on locality are essential for your employees’ stability.
Socioeconomics is often a significant barrier to your staff’s mental well-being. Factoring the local living wages into your business plan can alleviate this tension.
“Ensuring a decent annual income, even if it’s not as much as some people would like, is powerful,” says Mary-Frances Walsh, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Sonoma County. “It’s a powerful thing to enable people to feel like they don’t have to stress constantly about affording to live.”
Considering the limited profit margins within the restaurant industry, chef-owner Douglas Keane worked out how many staff members he could hire at that rate while ensuring they could meet the restaurant’s operational needs.
“We concluded that $75,000 was enough that you could live here [in Alexander Valley],” says Keane, a trailblazer on workplace wellness in the industry. “That’s where we drew the line and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to figure out how to make sure everyone makes $75,000.”‘
2. Cross-training is the key to optimizing operational efficiency.
To make the living-wage financial model work, Keane decided to cross-train his staff for both front- and back-of-house tasks to promote an agile environment. This is particularly useful in restaurants, where people often avoid taking sick or personal days because only they can do their jobs. Another benefit Keane points to with cross-training is his staff’s increased pride in their jobs.
“People (who) had never run food before got to see a guest’s reaction when they dropped down a dish,” adds Keane.
3. Apply the ‘made-from-scratch’ mantra to your menu, not your wellness policies.
When it comes to mental wellness, you don’t need to have all the answers. Enlist the help of trained mental health experts to create wellness protocols and checklists that best suit your operational needs. Organizations like The Burnt Chef Project provide the restaurant community with best-in-class training courses and support tools at no cost. There are also free downloadable resources like this workplace stress guide and an end-of-service checklist. You will find additional resources via our guide to cultivating restaurant staff well-being.
4. It is essential to provide additional training and support for managers.
When putting together a wellness program, account for your leaders. Training the entire staff—including management and owners—to handle wellness situations equips them to support their team effectively and sensitively while also managing their own well-being.
“Giving managers a platform to connect with one another may be a place to talk about challenges they’ve had in managing employees,” says Walsh. “Pretending those issues don’t matter just leads to increased managerial stress.”
5. Destigmatization comes from leading by example.
Employees will feel comfortable sharing their feelings when they see their leaders modeling similar behavior.
“Create an environment where stigma is not tolerated. It is not okay to use words like ‘crazy’ or ‘schizo’ or ‘OCD,'” explains Walsh. “We need to get to a place where we can feel comfortable talking about our mental health, just like our physical health, and know where to reach out for help if it’s needed.”
Silk recommends implementing non-alcoholic activities like post-service check-ins, where staff can openly discuss challenges and concerns. Keep the atmosphere light but productive by gathering everyone around snacks or desserts instead of with shift drinks. “I personally don’t feel shift drinks should be allowed. It can lead to some dangerous things,” expresses Silk.
Keane agrees, pointing to his policies of never allowing shift drinks in any restaurants he’s managed. “It’s a slippery slope,” he calls it.
6. It’s vital to balance customer satisfaction with staff well-being.
Set clear boundaries and protective measures to reinforce that respect is a two-way street between customers and staffers. These boundaries will protect your team while providing an optimal experience for your guests. Communicating these boundaries can also help get your staff more comfortable with your wellness program.
“I have no problem walking [a customer] out the door. I just refund their money,” Keane says. “You have to do that in front of the staff because they shouldn’t have to do it.”
7. The right time to start implementing wellness policies is now.
You can start workplace wellness practices anytime, whether you’re a longstanding or new establishment. The key is open communication.
“We try to set the culture from the start,” says Keane. “We’ve got everyone in on the same philosophy, which is really important. It’s about setting culture.” Share your wellness initiatives with potential new hires in the first interview so that you and potential hires are both comfortable with expectations.
For established restaurants, don’t be afraid to initiate change. Be honest about how the culture shift will help your staff succeed. Remember, change takes time. Keane suggests bringing in mental health and industry professionals for a sit-down orientation with your team.
“After that, I think it’s really about repetition. You’re going to have to change that culture over time. You’re going to want to do it overnight, but it’s going to take a while to make it cemented.”
Want more details? Catch the full conversation via the webinar recording.