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A New Take on the Smoke Break

Authored by: Lynda Reinarz (Campaign Strategist) & Melissa Dimmitt (MarComm Coordinator)

Happy Restaurant Employees

Few industries are more stressful than the restaurant industry. With customer service, labor management, lunch/dinner rushes, and juggling razor-thin margins with food quality, restaurants have a lot on their plates—pun fully intended.

Especially since the pandemic, there has been more focus on managing stress and anxiety. In order to create a hospitable environment in which guests feel welcome, both the front-of-house staff who greet and serve customers and the back-of-house staff who prepare and cook must feel relaxed and supported by management.

HungerRush’s employees are industry veterans and know all too well the mental strain of working in a restaurant. So to help our restaurant partners start building healthier work environments, we spoke with a long-time restaurant owner (and HungerRush associate!) and uncovered some simple ways to encourage your restaurant’s employees to give themselves a mental break.

Create a Safe Space
Employees must feel safe to express themselves and ask for support. General acceptance and awareness of mental health have improved dramatically over the last two decades, but the restaurant industry has lagged due to the shift-work nature of the business.

You may not be able to offer an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) for hourly employees, but you can provide access to mental health days or create a safe space to vent. Just by being open and listening, you can destigmatize the topic of mental health.

“Just recently, my restaurant got unexpectedly slammed, and my poor team was in the weeds for hours. The shift lead called me after the rush subsided to explain what happened and ask if they could close early. I said yes, of course! This shows my team that I value their health above all,” said Kat Willis, Owner of Dead Beet Eats and Menufy Client Success Specialist

A multi-university study of restaurant and other service industry employees showed that mistreatment by customers is one of the top reasons people quit their jobs. Restaurant managers should step up when it’s time to handle rude customers and take the stress off of their hourly employees.

Consider Time Off
All businesses have their slow season, including the restaurant industry. While it may not make sense to close for a week during the winter holidays, taking a week off in January might be possible. And on some holidays, such as New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July, you may be able to close early. This can prevent burnout and offer a reprieve for staff who are overworked.

“Employee burnout in the restaurant industry is real and really bad for business. I do everything I can to prevent my team from overworking. If an employee needs a day off, I encourage them to take it! Working for days on end will ultimately lead to burnout and higher turnover,” Kat said.

Gallup reports that replacing an employee will cost one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary (a conservative estimate), which is why it is worth investing in current employees.

Prioritize Physical Wellness
We all know that regular exercise improves cardiovascular health and physical wellbeing, but it has mental and emotional benefits as well, such as stress reduction and the release of “feel-good” endorphins.

Maybe your restaurant can team up with a nearby gym or studio to offer special memberships in exchange for food coupons. Or consider bringing in a chair masseur before a busy shift on Saturday night. Even a short stretching exercise before each shift can remind your staff to take care of themselves physically as well as mentally and emotionally.

“I have a no-questions-asked policy for calling in sick. This policy is in place so employees understand that their health comes first,” confirmed Kat.

Act Like a Family
The phrase “there is no ‘I’ in team” is especially true in restaurants, where each role relies on all the others to successfully and collectively delight guests. It is important for your employees to feel connected to their peers and supported by management.

You can create bonding through group meals, tip sharing, team building, and more.

“My team members hold one another accountable by tagging each other in and out of breaks. Before, during, and even after their shift, every employee can enjoy a meal on the house,” said Kat.

Restaurant operators can create family holidays for that particular restaurant or celebrate birthdays in a special way. The restaurant is a family, so creating and honoring traditions can encourage trust and stability among staff.

Make Thoughtful Hires
The leadership of your restaurant sets the tone for the whole operation. While crisp execution and tight operations are necessary for a healthy bottom line, emotional intelligence and empathy in leadership can make or break the business.

Certainly, different personalities respond to different leadership styles, but kindness and understanding are table stakes.

“It’s important to lay a foundation of empathy, compassion, and respect. Starting in the interview process, I let potential employees know my expectations—humans first, business second,” explained Kat.

When recruiting new talent, ask questions about stress management and effective and compassionate conflict resolution. Be sure the candidate understands the environment you want to reflect for your guests and staff.

The Last Bite
Since 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in May. It emphasizes that mental health deserves as much attention as physical health, even for restaurant operators and their staff.

“Taking care of my team’s mental health is the number one priority. Treating people with genuine care then trickles down from my employees to the customers. If my employees feel loved and appreciated, that’s how they treat our customers,” Kat said.

Acknowledging the importance of mental health and taking action to improve working conditions is also good news for restaurant operators, given that happy employees beget happy customers.

Implementing small changes to create healthy working conditions will build respect and encourage employee retention. This benefits both the bottom line and your customers!


Meet the Authors

Melissa Dimmitt
Melissa is the Marketing Communications Coordinator for Menufy by HungerRush. She began working with restaurant managers and executive chefs over a decade ago, coordinating seasonal menu releases, executing photoshoots, and creating fresh digital content.

Lynda Reinarz
Lynda is the campaign strategist and social media leader for HungerRush. She has 25 years of experience in all facets of technology marketing, specializing in digital marketing, demand generation, social and media.