Mental health is closely tied to the sustainability of restaurants


Sustainability is a movement, an aspiration, a buzzword, a trend but also a necessity. Global leaders are thinking of sustainability, even if it’s just to satisfy the bare-minimum requirements needed to greenwash their brands and increase revenues. These values are often related to the environment, food production, energy production and single-use plastics, but rarely do we look at sustainability from a perspective of mental health.

Unsustainable business practices have mired the hospitality industry since the conception of restaurants as we know them today. But in recent years, there’s been a shift in mindset to encapsulate, or at the very least consider, the impact of operating in an unsustainable manner.

Food costs have soared due to a broken food system that continues to fail everyone except the large corporations, which profit continuously. But food cost has always been a factor in any restaurant or food business and operators have always had to navigate these waters. What hasn’t been largely considered is the psychological toll that restaurant work often has on those who work in the industry. Only now, post pandemic, are we seeing a greater number of restaurants considering the mental-health needs of their workers. Strategies that are commonplace across other industries, such as health benefits, flexible work weeks, mental-health support and paid sick days, are nearly non-existent in hospitality. For decades, those who have worked in restaurants have had to deal with a tremendous amount of physical and emotional abuse with no safety nets or support. This practice, by definition, is completely unsustainable. But it has taken this long to get to a point where restaurant workers have had enough. 

There have been major red flags on this road to our current struggle, including the last decade’s labour shortage. Aspiring cooks are directed to college to attain qualifications in culinary arts only to realize that upon graduation they have $20,000 of debt and will be working for $15 per hour in much the same position as they would have had moved directly into restaurants without any qualifications. This is a barrier in itself, but considering the turnover rate of restaurant staff is one-and-a-half times that of all private-sector workers, the prospects are not rosy. The numbers speak for themselves and clearly outline what is an entirely unsustainable model of entry and longevity in the industry.

The result is a shrinking labour pool and employment opportunities decimated by the pandemic. But the opportunity exists to re-build, strengthen and uplift. The value of the employee is suddenly being considered, as it always should have, as the restaurant’s most-valuable asset. The sincerity of these pivots into a stable and supportive work environment is hopefully a long-lasting philosophy.

The word sustainability at its most basic concept means to be able to last or continue for a long time. There is only so much we can take from our minds before we are depleted and need to be replenished or seek other sources of energy. Sustainability of our mental health is often overlooked, while more responsibility is piled on us to make positive change in the world towards a sustainable food system. The question is: how long can we sustain this level of psychological onslaught? Restaurants have the opportunity, and duty, to be a part of reform in the food system. Equitable pay structure, investment in training, paid sick days and mental-health support are all areas in which we need improvements. Some are easier implemented than others, but all are possible. Change starts with intention.

Chris Locke is the executive chef at Marben Restaurant in Toronto.

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