The hospitality industry in the United States is a major sector of the economy, employing around 17 million adults in 2019. It encompasses many different job functions in businesses from hotels to eateries, but restaurant workers play a key role in the hospitality space. From running drinks to waiting tables, servers, bartenders, hosts, and managers are an important part of everyday American life in restaurants of all shapes and sizes.
The service industry also comes with many unique pressures. Food safety concerns, customer service and a dependence on tips can create a stressful environment. As such, it’s understandable that substance abuse and mental health challenges can be prevalent in the industry. For those working in hospitality, it’s important to know how to get help when it’s needed.
Many circumstances can impact the wellness of workers in the hospitality industry. While not all points apply to everyone in hospitality—managers, for example, will have a different experience than entry-level workers who earn a tipped wage—there are some realities that exist for most people in the business.
Variability of Income
Many hospitality workers rely on tips as a form of income. While this has its benefits, like cash in hand at the end of a shift, there are considerable downsides to an inconsistent cash flow. While a good shift can lead to earnings far above minimum wage, a bad shift can leave workers scrambling to make ends meet. A single table that doesn’t tip, especially a large party that takes up most of a restaurant worker’s time on a shift, can be the difference between paying rent on time and scrambling for pennies. This can result in higher levels of anxiety than what might be experienced in jobs with a stable and solid paycheck.
In many states, the tipped minimum wage is still significantly lower than the standard minimum wage; the federal tipped minimum wage is just $2.13 per hour.
Lack of Benefits
While some hospitality workers have the support of a union or work for a larger chain with an established benefits program, many hospitality workers are categorized and scheduled in a way that doesn’t provide benefits. This means that many hospitality workers don’t receive insurance coverage or retirement savings. A lack of benefits can seem inconsequential for younger workers, but as time goes on, paying out of pocket for insurance and saving for the future without retirement contributions from an employer can cause a lot of stress and financial hardship.
Many workers in hospitality work unusual hours as compared to a standard office employee. Restaurants, for example, generally don’t open until late morning or, in some cases, late afternoon, and close late in the evening. As such, many servers and cooks head off to work when the rest of the working world is calling it quits. In addition, the busiest days in restaurants are usually weekends, which means most employees are busy on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays when many people are off. This can make it hard to live a normal life, spend time with family members, see friends, and attend events. This can create feelings of stress and isolation.
There’s a strong correlation between hospitality work and partying, likely in at least some part due to the stress of dealing with the general public in a hectic environment. A restaurant after hours is often full of workers partying, which can lead to an increased correlation between work and drinking or using drugs. Many workers drink or use drugs regularly, and some may do so during shifts to manage the stress of a restaurant full of demanding tables and hours’ long waits.
The association between hospitality problems, drinking, and getting high has led to clear trends: The accommodation and foodservice industry show higher rates of substance use disorder diagnoses than any other field—at nearly 17 percent.
Hospitality jobs like waiting tables might seem easy, but this is rarely the case. Balancing the wants and needs of multiple tables at once, including patrons who can be very demanding, takes a significant amount of time, energy and focus. This is especially true in settings in which quality of service can affect income.
Due to the nature of work, hospitality workers are prone to sleep problems, stress over income and future planning, exhaustion from working long hours, and depression. Hospitality workers, in general, are more likely to develop mental illness as a result of work conditions, and the risks are higher among tipped workers, according to a 2017 report by Mental Health America.
In spite of these dangerous trends, without easy access to insurance and thus affordable medical care, it’s not uncommon for low-paid workers to sweep problems under the rug and hope they go away eventually. Hospitality workers’ mental health frequently goes undiscussed in the workplace. Meanwhile, drinking or getting high can become a temporary reprieve from life’s problems and over time can itself pose problems.
Steps to Getting Help
Getting drunk or high in a restaurant after hours may seem like a fun way to pass the time after a long day of work, but for many people, it can become too much of a good thing. However, when everyone else is partying on a regular basis, it can be harder to make healthier lifestyle decisions. Servers and other hospitality workers may be reticent to get help for behavior that others see as normal.
Nevertheless, noticing the warning signs and admitting a problem can be critical to preventing the health dangers of a lifetime of substance abuse. Confronting a need for help can be hard but can also significantly improve your quality of life.
The correlation between the hospitality industry and addiction means that it’s never too early to seek help. Warning signs of substance use disorders or mental health disorders should be taken seriously, and this usually means speaking to an outside source. Going to a counselor, attending a 12-step meeting or taking part in a support group can all be good first steps toward overcoming a drug or alcohol problem.