• R U OK? ambassador Mal Meiers talks to the national finalists in the hospitality industry Appetite for Excellence program. (Nikki To / Instagram)Source: Nikki To / Instagram
The hospitality industry is a fast-paced, demanding work environment that potentially puts workers at risk. It’s definitely time to start asking R U OK?
By
Bron Maxabella

12 Sep 2018 - 7:51 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2018 - 3:41 PM

The loss of Anthony Bourdain in June this year put the spotlight firmly on mental health in the hospitality industry. The acclaimed chef was filming his Emmy Award-winning CNN series Parts Unknown when he took his life in a hotel room in France.

"Now more than ever, the world needs the message that was at the heart of Bourdain’s work,” said his friends at Roads & Kingdoms. “We have nothing to fear from one another, that we are all connected by our love for food, drink, conversation, and our hope to live in peace and happiness."

Remembering the most inspiring words of Anthony Bourdain
"Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food." Eat it all without fear or prejudice.

"One of your work family needs to talk"

It is the strong connections between colleagues that R U OK? is tapping into with the launch of its “Chances are one of your work family needs to talk” campaign. The suicide-prevention charity is collaborating with the hospitality sector to find better ways for workers to handle the pressures that come with an “exciting, yet demanding, workplace”.

Rachel Clements, Centre for Corporate Health psychologist and R U OK? spokesperson says, “When you work in a team environment, where each person plays a vital role, it’s essential that everyone feels supported, heard and valued if they’re having a tough time.”

"It’s essential that everyone feels supported, heard and valued if they’re having a tough time.”

Unforgiving industry

This was a view shared by Jeremy Strode, renowned Merivale chef and R U OK? ambassador, who tragically took his own life in July last year. In a haunting interview with Scoop in 2015, Strode advised that, “The hospitality industry is renowned for its unforgiving nature, adding pressure personally and on our relationships.

“Having the foresight and taking the time to have a conversation with someone you may or may not know, and asking if they’re okay, is a wonderful thing."

Fellow chef Jake Smyth, owner of Mary's and The Unicorn in Sydney, said at the time that the industry felt like it needed to “own this”.

“People were saying sorry they didn't ask the question,” said Smyth. “They were saying sorry they didn't check in on Jez to see if he was okay.

"We need to own up to the fact that we all need help. We need to learn how to support our staff and they need to know they can speak up and get support."

How to ask the question

Strode’s death led R U OK? to further research the state of the hospitality industry mental health.

“Hospitality workers, chefs, venue owners and publications have asked for help on how best to get the conversation started when you’re worried about someone,” Katherine Newton, R U OK? Campaign Director tells SBS. “How to ask the question, and what to do when someone says, ‘No, I’m not OK.’ This interest and demand spurred us on.”

"We need to own up to the fact that we all need help. We need to learn how to support our staff and they need to know they can speak up and get support."

In an Australia-wide survey of hospitality workers conducted by the charity, 50 percent of respondents said that in the past year they had wanted someone at work to ask them if they were OK; yet around 40 percent had thought about asking someone else, but didn't think it was their place to ask.

“There is more work to be done to bridge the gap between those who want to be asked and those who thought about it, but didn’t,” acknowledges Newton.

Fatigue the number one challenge

There is no denying that the problem is widespread and critical. Eighty per cent of survey respondents agreed that mental health issues, such as feeling depressed, anxious or manic, are a challenge currently facing those in the industry.

“This imbalance was alright when everything was okay – it actually gave me drive and direction – but if I had a bad day in the kitchen I didn’t have anything else, so of course I hit rock bottom.”

Fatigue was cited as the number one challenge faced by those in the industry, especially in the older demographic. High employee turnover was an additional challenge for this demographic, with younger respondents more likely to find unsociable work hours and dealing with difficult customers as stressful.

“The industry is starting to identify the need for awareness around mental health and better staff wellbeing,” Mal Meiers, R U OK? Ambassador and Founder of Food For Thought, tells SBS. “The support around the R U OK? hospitality awareness campaign has been inspirational.”

Food for thought

Mal started Food For Thought dinners in 2014 to raise awareness and funds to support Beyond Blue and R U OK?. The initiative was born out of his own struggle with mental health issues.

“In my darkest hour I reached out and asked for help, but spent many years struggling in silence.”

“I lived and breathed cooking,” says Mal. “This imbalance was alright when everything was okay – it actually gave me drive and direction – but if I had a bad day in the kitchen I didn’t have anything else, so of course I hit rock bottom.”

Mal became stuck in a self-destructive cycle after returning to Australia after years working in the UK, Europe and America. He admits he was “still throwing everything” at his career, at the expense of personal relationships. Anxiety led to depression, which ultimately led to Mal attempting suicide.

Mal says that sharing his story has been empowering and rewarding. “I share my struggle in the hope that it might help more people open up and seek help, or show that there is a path out of the darkness.

“In my darkest hour I reached out and asked for help, but spent many years struggling in silence,” Mal says. “It was the realisation that help was there, and that so many others could possibly be silently struggling as well, that led to the beginning of Food For Thought and my work with R U OK?.

"There was a need to start more conversations surrounding the issue in an effort to help destigmatise it.”

To further support the industry, R U OK? has launched an online short course in collaboration with Allara Learning, designed to open a conversation about mental health and responds appropriately and safely.

If this article has raised issues for you or someone you know is in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467.

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