Hospitality’s mental health struggle

 width=The first week in May was especially difficult. It was a dark week. We lost two lovely chefs. They decided that life was no longer worth living. We didn’t see it coming. They both seemed just fine. Bright, sparky as always, funny and full of fun. Two vibey and talented guys. But, they chose an optimistic sunny day in Autumn to end it. Life was just too painful. Who knows what joys they will miss, the success not experienced, the friends not met. A tragic loss, and now, as I write this, I hear of the suicide of world renowned chef and author Anthony Bourdain. Devastating.

Recently, I’ve been in conversation with chefs about mental health challenges. It’s not that chefs are a special study group on depression and anxiety, I don’t have any statistics to refer to and I am not a psychologist, I just talk to people. But, anecdotally, we have a massive problem in our society and our culinary community. The hospitality industry tends to attract deeply creative types. The work is arduous and does not always allow for a healthy balance in life.Ê Along with musicians, artists and writers, chefs appear to be a particularly vulnerable group.

The Ôblack dog’ of depression, as Winston Churchill called it, is a bitch to shake off and a silent, lonely struggle. All people suffer from low moods occasionally, we are happy and sad Ôcos we are human. But, I am not talking about being down in the dumps here. I am speaking about a crippling dark abyss. A foggy and fearful place where light has no dwelling, where the pain of hopelessness rules supreme. A place that sucks all energy, decimates joy and annihilates happiness. An inescapable labyrinth in a tortured mind without a skylight to see out or in. I know that place, I’ve visited it and I’m not going back.

Mental illness never discriminates. its victims can be wealthy and successful and appear to have perfect lives, like Anthony Bourdain. But, when the mind is in such turmoil the black dog’s prey looks for an escape. Tragically, this escape is often suicide.

‘Selfish!’, some people say. It’s not. A sufferer can be in such mental pain that the belief that they have no place in the world is wretchedly dominant.

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They say it’s easy to snap out of it, to overcome the temptation, to end the hurt, to simply put on a Disney style happy face, click your heels and be magically transported to a place where all is safe. I only wish it were that uncomplicated.

Most employers and colleagues don’t see that mental illness is life threatening. Sufferers are often afraid to talk about it lest they lose their job or be branded an employment risk. A nutter, mad as a hatter, bonkers. ÊStigma stops people coming forward and opening up.

Unlike other illnesses and dread disease, the symptoms of mental illness and depression are hard to see – there’s no plaster cast or scar from an operation. For some victims simply getting out of bed and making it to work takes courage and mind over matter. Attaching a cheery faade to mask the sadness of desperation is a daily make up routine for many.

Research shows that many mental health conditions are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors — not personal weakness or a character defect

Chefs, we need to talk about mental illness now! Look around you. At least one member of your brigade is battling with something. We need change in our kitchens. The long hours, the relentless pressure, the often-conflict-ridden environment is a potential breeding ground for anxiety, mental illness and life-threatening depression.

Let’s not be afraid to talk and create an environment where it is possible to do so.

A person living with a mental illness will tell you that being able to talk is a life saver. The first step on the road to recovery is to ask for help. No person should feel shame in saying ÒI am not coping, I need helpÓ to a colleague that one can trust. Getting the treatment needed starts with a simple conversation and an empathetic ear.

Listen, help your buddy talk it out. Support his or her struggle and be compassionate, have patience but don’t try to be a psychologist. Help them get the support needed.

Let’s not lose any more gifted chefs and friends. Let’s take care of each other.

Please keep an eye out for changes in behaviour:

  • Tiredness and loss of energy
  • Complaining of sleeping problems
  • Sadness that doesn’t go away
  • Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Changes in personality
  • Difficulty concentrating at work
  • Increase in errors
  • Not being able to enjoy things that are usually pleasurable or interesting
  • Avoiding other people
  • Loss of appetite and weight

About the author

Stephen Hickmore

Stephen Hickmore studied hotel management in the UK, graduating from Clarendon College in Nottingham with the National Diploma in Hospitality Management. Stephen obtained his first management position as Banqueting Manager at the Dukes in Kings Lynn at 20 years old. By a twist of fate, a year later, he was transferred to set up the personnel and training department at THF’s only hotel in South Africa. After three years Stephen returned to the UK with THF, but after a year returned to South Africa to join Southern Sun Hotels. Stephen held positions in Human Resources Management with the group until joining the world of hospitality recruitment and HR consultancy 25 years ago. During the past 20 odd years Stephen has established recruitment consultancy and search firm ÒHickmore RecruitmentÓ. Hickmore Recruitment works closely with key players in the industry to identify hospitality professionals. He is a co-founder of the largest full-service outsourced staffing company in South Africa, HSC (Hospitality Solutions Company) More information on Stephen and his ventures can be obtained atÊwww.hospitality.co.za.

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