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High pressure cooking: The mental health problems of the professional kitchen

Mental health is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds, partly thanks to the success and reach of this year’s World Mental Health Day. Mental health is as prevalent to professional chefs as it is to any other profession and while working in a professional kitchen can look, to an outsider, like an easy job, unfortunately, the reality is often a long way from this. Many chefs under work under incredible amounts of pressure, and suffer damage to their mental health as a result.

It’s all too common for those working in professional kitchens to leave for work at seven and not return home until after 11 at night. The situation can be doubly hard for those with families, as it seems they can go weeks without really catching up with their spouses and children, needing instead to sleep on their days off.

The issue of mental health in professional kitchens was thrust into the limelight last year when acclaimed chef, Benoît Violier, was found dead in his home. Despite being named ‘Chef of the Year, in 2013 by the Gault et Millau guide and running a three Michelin star restaurant in Switzerland, Violier could only see black.

Violier was not the only one either. In 2003, similarly acclaimed chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life, purportedly over fears about losing his third Michelin star. And those are just the big names; a quick Google around will reveal many others who found life too much.

The stress of the professional kitchen

Running even the smallest of restaurants can be incredibly stressful. Trying to maintain a profitable business, keep energy levels up and keep customers coming through the door has seen all too many chefs burn out, and in such a competitive environment, taking your foot off the gas is just not an option.

UK based Tom Kneale knows all too well just how easy it is to spiral into depression as a pro chef, following his close call with a bridge over the M4 some years ago.

“It gets to you after a while and it takes its toll,” he said. “but I’ve come out the other end. The big thing for me was… not having this bravado of not wanting to be seen weak, but opening up and saying ‘look, I’ve got a problem.’”

Research by Mintel has found that more than half of workers in the hospitality industry struggle to find the time for a social life. One in two said they worked longer hours than they were contracted for, and two thirds said they’d been stressed at work, turning to food, alcohol and drugs to cope.

It seems the kitchen can be a hotbed of worries such as addiction, debt, relationship problems and illness. Bullying is rife, jobs hang in the balance, leading to bigger problems such as depression, anxiety and stress. The intense nature of the industry makes people less likely to speak up if they are struggling, for fear of being seen as weak; it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation.

Making a positive change

If all this sounds worryingly familiar, make it your mission to put the brakes on this damaging culture in your workplace. Embrace a more open, honest approach to staff management, and let people know it’s no longer taboo to admit there might be a problem.

Look out for the tell-tale signs of mental health slipping; emotional outbursts, changes in appearance or attitude, tearfulness, and step up to make the first move with an offer of help. Changing the culture of an industry that is notoriously hardnosed is not going to be an easy task. But in the wake of all too many tragedies, it’s time we brought the industry into the 21st century.

If you or somebody you know has been affected by mental health issues, information and support is available from www.mind.org.uk and lots of other great charities.

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