Despite its vastly improving reputation, the pressures of the working kitchen can sometimes be overwhelming. In 2017, Unite, the country’s biggest union, conducted a survey of professional chefs in London and the impact of their jobs on their wellbeing. Almost half regularly worked between 48 and 60 hours a week while 78% said they’d had an accident or a near miss through fatigue. More than a quarter were drinking to get through their shift, a figure which doubled to 56% when it came to taking painkillers. Fifty one percent of respondents said they suffered from depression due to overwork.
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, three members of the Essential Cuisine chef team share their personal experiences of battling with mental health issues whilst working in professional kitchens. They do so anonymously and in the hope that in hearing their stories, it will encourage others to come forward and seek help, safe in the knowledge that they are not alone.
Research suggests that 1 in 4 peoplewill experience a mental health problem in their lifetime*; which is why Essential Cuisine will bedonating £1,400 to industry charity Hospitality Action, helping it continue to offer vital support to those experiencing mental health issues.
To find out more about the work of Hospitality Action, visit: www.hospitalityaction.org.uk
“I make sure that whatever my thoughts, I know it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out whenever I need to.”
“Just over a decade ago I was working in a hotel kitchen; we were understaffed and overworked, and I patently wasn’t taking care of myself, not eating or drinking enough.
“I didn’t realise at the time quite the effect this was having on me until one day I passed out at the wheel of my car and hit a lamppost head on at 60mph.
“The crash left me with life changing injuries which over a period of years I would come to recover from. The hospital staff – doctors, nurses and physios – did a fantastic job preparing me to overcome the physically injuries. I was less well prepared for the mental toll it would take.
“In the space of 10 seconds I’d gone from a hardworking, independent person who had practically lived in kitchens from the age of 16, to someone who couldn’t get dressed on their own. I also knew I was never going to be fully fit enough to return full time to the job I loved.
“In the long months that followed, I was in and out of hospital, spending a vast amount of time on my own. I had a very loving girlfriend (who is now my wife) and family around to help with the physical day to day stuff, but no one to turn to and talk about how I was feeling, how I wasn’t understanding the emotions I was having. I went from being me to a person I simply didn’t recognise.
“Over time I became more distant, even giving up on my physio. Worst of all I was hiding how I was really feeling. With no one around to talk to who had been through something similar or had the skills to help me, I wanted to tell my family and friends, but the fear of them not understanding, the fear of me piling more burden onto them, the fear of not being a ‘man’ and being weak, was too overwhelming.
“In the end I realised how much I needed help. I went to see my GP, who diagnosed PTSD. Counselling soon followed – a place where I could truly open up and share my experiences. It was one of the best and smartest things I could have done; it made me see everything in a new light, helped me come to terms what had happened and face down the feelings I was having.
“The coping techniques I learnt from that experience were truly immense. The process changed my way of thinking and changed my life to the extent where I stand today much better equipped to deal with anything life now has to throw at me.
“One quote that stands out to me, and something I would like to pass on to anyone who is in a similar position is ‘its ok not to be ok’.
“Because the more we normalise these feelings, the more people will come to share their experiences.
“Whenever I think about the crash and what happened after, I always refer back to that saying and make sure that whatever my thoughts, I know it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out whenever I need to.”
“Talking to people around you is so vitally important and ensures you never feel alone.”
“I was going through some tough personal times in my younger days and ended up working all the kitchen hours I could take as a coping mechanism. The culture meant I was out most nights of the week drinking heavily. Alcohol became a crutch – I thought it was helping block it all out when, actually, it was the opposite.
“It was a move to a different job and reaching out of a good chef friend that helped me break that cycle. His advice led me to seek professional help to talk and work through my problems. I kicked the booze for 12 months and it straightened me out.
“I have seen many friends go down the same path and it’s still a big issue in the industry as is substance abuse in general.
“Talking to people around you is so vitally important and ensures you never feel alone. You can bet that at some point they will also have had a similar experience, or know of someone who has and can help you to work things through. No one needs to be alone with their thoughts.”
“Sometimes it just needs a whinge and a moan – someone to listen.”
I’ve worked in some tough kitchens. I did it for 20 years and understand better than most the macho mentality that really prevails in these places. In this environment it’s all about who’s worked longer, harder, who’s pulled the most days in a row, who’s got the most blisters and cuts, the wounds of war worn like a badge of honour.
Many are willing to excuse these behaviours citing the old “it’s not bullying it’s character building…” but I’ve seen first-hand the impact it can have on chefs. I have lost friends and colleagues to drink, drugs and depression.
I was lucky to have friends and family around me who cared. Sometimes it just needs a whinge and a moan – someone to listen.
It’s not a weakness to talk about how you are feeling, nor is it ever wrong to ask for help if you feel it’s needed. It’s a team effort. Look after your team.