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Alcohol Abuse Within the Hospitality Industry

People who work in the hospitality industry – maids, custodians, waitstaff, bartenders, cooks, and counter workers – know that their job entails providing high-quality and professional service to customers at a relentless, precision pace. What may be less known is the toll on mental and physical health this kind of work takes, and the alcohol abuse that often goes on behind the scenes of the hospitality industry.

Alcohol Abuse in the Hospitality Business

The problematic consumption of alcohol in the service industry is an open secret. Scientific literature made this point as long ago as 1994, when the Addiction journal noted that people who worked in restaurants and hotels had notably high rates of alcohol consumption. More recently, the George Washington University Medical Center analyzed government data in March 2008 and found that “15 percent of employees in the hospitality industry suffer from serious alcohol-related problems.”

In restaurants, alcohol makes up at least 30 percent of the establishment’s sales, and many people who work there will help themselves to numb the edge of working on their feet during hectic shifts, with rarely time for breaks. A writer in The New York Times describes the experience of waiting tables as “physical exhaustion and emotional stress.” This, says the writer, is what drives employees in the hospitality industry to drink. Managers would routinely clock in for work reeking of alcohol; bartenders “taste-tested” cocktails so much that they were inebriated for their entire shifts. In any given restaurant, it is common knowledge which servers, cooks, and managers were using drugs or alcohol to make it to the end of their shift without collapsing. In 2000, award-winning celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s memoirs detailed the “insular and chaotic” kitchens where he plied his trade and fame; these kitchens were typically dangerous and distressing in which to work, in part because of the intense nature of the work, but also because they were “drenched in drugs and alcohol.”

Anxiety in the Kitchen

Many employees in the service and hospitality industries spend more time at their respective jobs than they do at home. Being forced to cover extra shifts, or voluntarily working overtime to augment the minimum wage they make, creates what the Boston Globe calls “a fertile ground for anxiety.” With alcohol already on the premises, getting buzzed creates a much-needed (if dangerous) break from the drudgery of long, late shifts, as well as a bonding experience with other likeminded employees.

Given the nature of the work, there is no change on the horizon. Customers need to be waited on at all hours, and workers know that a single bad experience can end their job (and, in the age of social media, future jobs). And yet, without any union representation, employees have no choice but to put up with the poor pay, the haphazard scheduling, and the abuse (verbal, physical, and emotional) from management. With a constant stream of potential employees waiting in the shadows to claim a newly vacated job, a worker will do anything to make sure they are still useful to the establishment. In the hospitality industry, this usually means becoming dependent on alcohol (or other drugs) to shrug off the stress and keep performing.

Managers in the hospitality industry don’t have it much easier. The New York Times writes that “middle management is arguably the most overworked in food service,” with people holding management positions usually making less than their service staff, but nonetheless working longer hours and receiving no overtime pay as a condition of their role. Their abuse of alcohol to make it through the day becomes part of the culture of employment in the industry, which augments the practice among service staff.

In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration reported that employees in restaurants and hotels had the highest rates of substance abuse out of the entire American workforce. Twelve percent of the employees in this branch of the hospitality industry engaged in “heavy alcohol use” (consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in under two hours, for five consecutive days).

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Abuse and Bullying

There is some research that suggests that people who work in the hospitality industry thrive on the adrenaline of high-paced, high-stressed environments. In restaurants, kitchens, hotels, and casinos, employees are expected to think on their feet, work grueling shifts, perform tasks outside of their trained job functions, and stay late to clean up and close up, all while still being meticulously professional. Psych Central suggests that this stress is ingrained into the culture of working in the upper ends of the hospitality industry, wherein even though some employees may have a deep unhappiness with how their job is going, they still feel drawn to that environment. Some might even put up with the abuse and bullying that go on behind the scenes (for which Whistleblower Security says the hospitality industry is the “worst culprit”) because even that antagonism feeds into their compulsion to keep working. And the service industry being what it is, there is always alcohol on hand to mitigate the mental and physical strain of the job.

The worst parts of the culture loop back into itself. In most jobs, drinking at the office (or coming to work drunk) would be an instantly fireable offense; in the restaurant business, it is par for the course, almost a badge of pride.

Addressing the Downfalls of the Hospitality Industry

The executive pastry chef of a restaurant in Chicago says that the combination of stress and “ready access to [...] alcohol and drug abuse” is one of the downfalls of the hospitality business. The acknowledgement signals a desire from higher-ups to try and do something about the high rate of turnover in the industry, and also the negative coverage that has come from the press, as well as books and reality television shows by celebrity chefs. Business partnerships between some restaurants have sought to address the dangerously high rates of alcohol abuse that take place in their establishments, by training managers to recognize signs of abuse and burnout, and how to take steps to help employees who have addiction problems.

One way this materializes is by a glacial shift in restaurant culture. Fewer restaurants pay for employees to help themselves to drinks in the kitchen at the end of a busy night, and drinking during shifts is no longer encouraged, with possible penalties if a worker is found to be inebriated while on the clock.

More and more businesses within the hospitality trade are making room for sober employees – those who have “gone dry,” but still enjoy the challenge of the work. These people walk a very tight line, especially those whose roles still expose them to alcohol; but some restaurant owners say that this paradox sends a message that alcohol (and abusing alcohol) does not have to be an accepted part of working in the industry. The idea is to change the nature of the service industry itself; it’s not an adrenaline-fueled hurricane of orders and time limits, but about making human connections with professionalism and respect.

Some employees are taking it upon themselves to make the change. The Washington Post profiled Scott Magnuson, a restaurant worker who, after his marriage to a fellow bartender almost ended because of his drinking, created a support group for people in the hospitality industry to talk about substance abuse in their field. The group, Recovery Restaurant, is meant to help uninsured service workers who cannot afford alcoholism counseling. It met in the bar co-owned by Magnuson, and his wife would also talk with loved ones of employees who were bearing the brunt of their partners’ alcoholism.

‘A Daily Beer Allowance’

One of the most striking examples of the powerful reach of alcoholism in the hospitality industry comes from the United Kingdom, with Michael Quinn. Quinn was a household name for his awards and success in turning the Ritz hotel into one of London’s top dining destinations. His innovative cuisine made him the head chef in some of the UK’s most prestigious hotels, and he was honored with an MBE (Member of the British Empire). He was a favorite chef of royals, celebrities, and television and radio programs around the world.

Quinn’s fame and celebrity masked a devastating alcoholism problem, which was cultivated in his line of work (“we had a daily beer allowance,” he wrote of an early kitchen job), and almost claimed his life when he was only 44 years old. He became homeless and lost touch with his family, lamenting in an interview that his sons never knew their father when he was a successful cook.

In 1990, Quinn stopped drinking, and discovered that professionals in the hospitality industry had no support group or network to help them with the dizzying heights that came with success. His response was to create the Ark Foundation, which spread the message of the risk and danger of alcohol and drug abuse in the hospitality business. In the foundation’s first year of operations, Quinn visited 13 colleges across England and spoke about his experiences as an alcoholic in the service industry. In 2016, the foundation hosted 179 seminars, reaching 7,300 students – some as young as 16 and 17 years old – and was instrumental in creating Employee Assistance Programs for hospitality employees, where workers suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems could confidentially seek help. Quinn died in 2017, remembered as “not only a great chef, but also someone who made a real difference to the hospitality industry.”

Despite greater attention being given to the problem of drinking within the hospitality business, it remains an industry where the free flow of alcohol has been integral to the bottom line for generations (and likely will be in the future). For people who suffer from the strain of the manic work, there is still stigma about admitting to substance abuse issues in that kind of environment. Bartenders, waitstaff and wine experts who have made the decision to not drink rarely speak up, for fear that talking about their issues suggests that they are incapable of working with alcohol at all. There are a ways to get around this. Even sober bartenders are very knowledgeable about the alcohol they serve, and some restaurateurs point out that “waiters who are allergic to chocolate [...] can still serve chocolate desserts.”

But it comes down to a culture that celebrates excess. The idea of “recovery” is seen as a liability and an impediment to getting the job done. For those who break the cycle of alcohol abuse in the hospitality industry, being silent about their struggles is often seen as the only way to keep their job. For many others, the customers and orders never stop coming, and the alcohol is always nearby.