Food & dining

Why working in the restaurant industry can be hard on your mental health

Shojo chef Mark O’Leary is a vocal advocate of work-life balance in the restaurant industry.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Shojo chef Mark O’Leary is a vocal advocate of work-life balance in the restaurant industry.

Many years ago, restaurateur Gary Strack went to the roof of his restaurant, Central Kitchen in Central Square, and took out a kitchen knife. Then he cut the fan belt on his exhaust system.

“Sorry, everyone, we have to go home!” he told his crew. “Kitchen problem.”

Strack put a note on the door and everyone took a day off. He’d been working seven days a week for months.

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“I didn’t know any other way to stop the show. I didn’t have the language or the ability at the time to say, ‘Hey, I need some time off for my own well-being.’ I had to go to extremes,” he says.

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Such is the unrelenting pace of restaurant life. Strack’s trick was pretty innocent: Only his fan belt suffered. But the recent deaths of several high-profile chefs have fixed a much crueler lens on kitchen culture.

In January, Michelin-starred Swiss chef Benoît Violier shot himself. Last April, Michelin-starred Chicago chef Homaro Cantu also took his own life. Closer to home, Committee chef de cuisine Geoff Lukas died unexpectedly in October.

While it’s impossible to pinpoint causes — who knows what’s going on behind the scenes in anyone’s life? — the tragedies have spotlighted an environment where creative pressure is relentless and showing mental weakness can be taboo.

Unlike other industries where work-life balance has become essential (telecommute! play foosball at lunch!), the restaurant industry still gets attention for a brutalizing, competitive atmosphere that’s mythologized in the media. See: the recent film “Burnt,” about a drug-fueled chef meltdown; culinary catfights like “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” and “Chopped”; or anything featuring Gordon Ramsay.

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“There’s a glorification of a terrible culture,” says longtime restaurateur Jody Adams, known for running even-keeled workplaces.

Oh, boo-hoo, you might say. Many jobs are stressful. Medicine? We’re talking life-and-death here. Teaching? Long hours for little money. Nobody’s going to perish over sloppily plated swordfish.

But here, perfectionism meets hedonism in harsh ways. Not everywhere, of course; there are more than 15,000 food and beverage operations in Massachusetts and many are undoubtedly lovely places to work.

Yet restaurant culture has brutal origins: There’s an ancestral machismo that developed in the classic kitchens of France, where working grueling hours built talent. A bad temper was considered a sign of toughness, commitment, and originality. And tolerating admonishment was a character-building experience, not a human resources nightmare.

“There’s a Sisyphean nature to the work,” says Strack, who studied psychology before becoming a restaurateur. “It’s accepting and welcoming, but at the same time, there’s an unrelenting nature, which is going to find you out sooner or later. Restaurants are creative and artistic communities with a higher tolerance for eccentric behavior. People are drawn here because it’s an alternative lifestyle. It’s fundamentally different than a 9 to 5 job.”

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Those with extreme emotional resilience might flourish in this milieu. Others can crack without support.

“When I was coming up in the world, there was an expectation that it was critical that you be in the restaurant for as much time as possible. Taking time off wasn’t even an option. It wasn’t considered. If you cut yourself and got stitched up, you went right back to work,” says Adams, who returned to cooking three weeks after having her first child. One missing line cook out sick, and the kitchen loses its rhythm.

“The restaurant industry is particularly interesting: It’s a difficult environment for a number of reasons. It’s not the same level of stress you see with surgeons, perhaps, but it’s very unpredictable. I think whenever you see something that is unpredictable, where someone doesn’t have the ability to control the environment very well, it’s fertile ground for anxiety,” says Todd Farchione, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders.

Social media has made working conditions more tense. Restaurants can crumble after a nasty Yelp! review or a Facebook rant gone viral. At a traditional job, only you (and maybe your boss) might know that you screwed up. A mediocre meal can ripple across social media in real time, with real consequences.

“Social media adds a big layer to the pressures that chefs feel, especially chefs in leadership roles where reputations are on the line,” says Chris Lin, who runs Roslindale’s Seven Star Street Bistro.

“You put something that you’re passionate about out there for people, exposing yourself, and people don’t realize there’s a human being behind it. People make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes get really exaggerated,” he says.

Meanwhile, it’s tough to find time to go to the bathroom while in the kitchen, let alone to squeeze in a therapy appointment during traditional hours. Although Massachusetts requires full-time workers to carry insurance, mental health coverage varies. Oftentimes, visits are only partially reimbursed and can be prohibitively expensive. Nobody I spoke with for this story knew of any industry-specific support group.

Then, of course, there’s the pervasive stigma around disclosing mental health struggles — especially in cultures that thrive on stoicism, occasionally with language barriers.

“You’re dealing with a lot of people who may have mental health issues who do not speak English,” says a restaurant consultant who requested anonymity. “That has a huge stigma. They do not get treated. They either ignore it, they drink, or they go to church.”

“‘Hey man, sorry I yelled at you, I’m a little depressed!’ Nobody is going to say that,” agrees Shojo chef Mark O’Leary, who’s vocal about work-life balance in the restaurant industry.

“People are reluctant to talk with a boss because it’s a sign of weakness. . . . Will I be labeled? Should I just get over it? Unlike a true disability, should I be able to change it?” says Farchione.

Therein lies the problem: Even the most supportive work environment can’t solve people’s problems if they don’t disclose them.

“You never know what’s going on in people’s personal lives. Geoff [Lukas] was happy, proud. The restaurant was his happy place. And there’s another side that people just don’t know. You can’t follow people home,” says Committee owner Demetri Tsolakis, who describes his kitchen atmosphere as “like a yoga studio.”

So how to cope? Well, there’s always self-medicating. Partying is part of the culture more so than, say, at an accounting firm.

“People can hide in plain sight. It’s so easy to reach for a bottle or a cigarette,” says Kirsten Amann, a restaurant industry vet who runs weekly yoga sessions for Trina’s Starlite Lounge staffers. (Or something harder: For a hedonism primer, read anything by Anthony Bourdain.)

A quick fix, maybe, but an easy way to crash and burn. Many flee restaurants entirely to work at universities or for corporations or in food sales, where the hours are predictable and the lifestyle is simpler.

“People are leaving because of quality of life,” says Jacqueline Dole, a pastry chef who’s worked in several Boston-area restaurants. She’ll start an ice cream pop-up, Parlor, this spring.

But there are signs of change, she says.

“Larger restaurants are starting to adapt to needs of workers, with [things like] maternity leave, recognizing their value as people and not just employees,” she says.

For instance, the Barbara Lynch Gruppo began offering mental health counseling through an employee assistance plan called ESI after the death of a co-worker in 2013. Counselors are available around the clock, essential for workers with odd hours. The response has been positive.

“The stamina and physical and mental strength you need to have to get yourself through a 12-hour workday requires you to really clear your mind,” says BLG human resources director Elizabeth Maul.

The climate might have to change in order to attract and retain this new generation.

“I don’t know if it’s a younger generation of people in leadership roles, but a brighter light has shined on the industry in the last few years, with [shifting] tipping policies and benefits. With all that stuff front of mind, we’re forced to engage in these conversations,” says Loco Taqueria’s Mike Shaw, whose restaurant has a drug-free policy called “Livin’ La Vida Without the Loca” and offers discounted memberships to Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston. “How do we make this industry and this career appealing?” he wonders aloud.

With perspective, for starters, says O’Leary.

“At some point, you have to realize: It’s your job. It’s what allows you to pay your bills. You start to realize that your performance could be compromised if the rest of your life isn’t fulfilled. So after a 10-hour day, take time for yourself,” he says. “Go home and pet your cat.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.