'I can't be seen to be weak': facing mental health issues in professional kitchens

By Daniel Woolfson

- Last updated on GMT

Mental health issues in professional kitchens

Related tags: Chef

Tom Kneale found himself in a drunken haze, considering throwing himself off a bridge onto the M4, shortly after returning home from a trip abroad.

Kneale, a freelance chef who worked at a string of high-end food pubs across the country, had been struggling with a deep depression and already came close to committing suicide with alcohol and medication twice.

"I look back now and I think 'you’re a d*******'," he says. "How could it even go through my mind?"

He can't precisely pinpoint why he was depressed, he says, but working in kitchens had considerably amplified the problem.

"Things were going great, but it all started to get a bit too much. You're going to work at seven in the morning, coming home at 11 at night and your missus is asleep, so you don't see her because, on your days off, you sleep."

The issue of mental health in professional kitchens was thrust into the spotlight last week when acclaimed chef Benoît Violier, of three Michelin-starred restaurant l’Hôtel de Ville, Lausanne, was found dead in his home, reportedly having shot himself.

Struggled

Recent research by Mintel reported that 54% of workers in the hospitality sector struggled to find the time for a social life, with 45% claiming they found it hard to take proper care of their health and 50% saying they worked longer hours than contracted for.

"It gets to you after a while and it takes its toll," says Kneale. "My biggest problem was the alcohol because it was so readily available – at the end of the shift you'd get a beer from the owner, you'd get one on the way home and by the time you're back it's been two bottles of wine and eight beers."

More than two thirds of respondents to Mintel's research said they had been stressed at work, with turning to comfort food, alcohol or smoking or vaping the most common ways of dealing with that stress.

"Everyone deals with stress differently, but stress-busting habits in the hospitality sector are a particular cause for concern," says Ina Mitskavets, senior consumer research analyst at Mintel.

"These workers 'over-index' on eating comfort foods and drinking alcohol when tackling stress, while also being less likely than the average to exercise in order to reduce stress."

Bad news

This spells bad news for a nation currently trying to stem rising levels of obesity and illness among the most productive share of its population, she adds.

According to charity Hospitality Action, which offers fact sheets on dealing with difficult issues online for hospitality workers, the most commonly accessed fact sheet has been on coping with bullying and harassment in the workplace (17%).

This is followed by dealing with redundancy (11%), low mood and depression (8%) and personal legal problems (8%).

"Long hours and a demanding work schedule is a very real problem that afflicts the pub industry and puts great stress on its employees," says Penny Moore, chief executive of Hospitality Action.

"When you add in personal pressures such as depression, addiction, stress, illness, or financial strain, it can escalate and have a major impact on people's lives. We urge pub owners to contact us immediately if you need support."

For Tom Kneale, alcohol led to cocaine, which led to paranoia and further depression, before things finally came to a head.

"But I've come out the other end," he says. "The big thing for me was realising there was a problem – not having this bravado of not wanting to be seen weak, but opening up and saying 'look, I've got a problem'."

Suffering

For Kneale, many kitchens still have a 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude when it comes to the mental health of their staff – which can have disastrous results. It's imperative, he says, that employers keep an eye on the demeanour and mood of their kitchen teams and act quickly when they believe someone is suffering.

"You'll see it straight away – you'll see someone change," he says. "I had a young lad who worked with me who became very despondent, so during the day he'd just close off. Their personality might be happy and chirpy and then, all of a sudden, they'll start to come in scruffy, dirty whites or ringing in sick. In this case, Kneale noticed the change within a week.

"Eventually it got to the point where I had to drag him outside and say to him 'you’re not moving from this bench until you tell me what’s going on'.

"It turns out he was using drugs and his mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer – but he didn't feel like he could stand up and say anything to anybody. You have to have a relationship with your staff to be able to see that."

Steven Smith, chef-patron of the Freemasons at Wiswell, Lancashire, agrees that as a business owner or head chef, it is fundamental to have a dialogue with staff about how they're feeling, given the intensity of the work they do.

"I think because [chefs] are so enthralled in the kitchen they can leave their outside life to one side and then, all of a sudden, things can just jump up and bite you on the bottom," he says.

Spot it a mile off

"As soon as I see it – and you can spot it a mile off – I pull them to one side and find out what's going on. Try and help them as much as possible."

Changing the atmosphere in kitchens from one where, traditionally, chefs had been very hard on their staff to one that was firm but encouraging and open, is also massively important, he adds.

"Just because it happened to us, it doesn't mean that it is right. If we can stop that then hopefully the next generation won't do it. It's the old saying 'the abused becomes the abuser' – because you got shouted at and tormented, you kind of believe that they should get shouted at and tormented."

"We have to be firm but fair. People start going on the downward slope because they believe that they're on their own with nobody else to help them and when you're working these hours, soon the smaller things begin to get to you."

For Smith, encouraging his team to be creative and get their own dishes on the menu, as well as having group outings and trying to create a real sense of camaraderie, has been tantamount to keeping morale up.

Kicked

These days, having finally kicked both his addictions, Tom Kneale now lives in Devon with his partner and young daughter and hasn't set foot in a kitchen since December.  

"This bravado of 'I'm the big man, I can't have mental health issues, I can't be seen to be weak' needs to end," he says. "That s*** died out in the 1960s – we're all human at the end of the day.

"Stand up and take your head chef to one side. Tell him the problems. And if he's not willing to listen, help or support you then it's not somewhere you want to work."

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