September 11, 2019

Chef Wellness: Does It Matter?


Chef sitting on medical bench

Three top chefs committed suicide in the short space of six months. Salman Khan, Academic Head of HTA School of Culinary Art, looks at reasons for the dramatic increase in such incidents and the way forward.

Part 3 of 3. This article was featured in our last Issue of SA Chef Media, Issue 13

There has been an upsurge in stress-related chef deaths, suicides and violent incidents in kitchens. As such, it is imperative to diagnose and find solutions to the root cause of chef stress, says Salman Khan, Academic Head at HTA. He adds that if steps are not taken to find practical ways to deal with this problem, there will ultimately be a gradual decline in attracting young chefs to the industry in the near future. In the second part of this series, we will explore the prognosis and diagnosis for these issues in more depth.

Quick Catch Up

For those who missed the last article on chef wellness, the Research and Analysis Department of the HTA School of Culinary Art has undertaken to do a study on the rise in deaths and violence amongst chefs, headed up by Salman Khan and commissioned by HTA Founder and MD Chef Stephen Billingham. Shift work, low pay, high pressure, and negative kitchen culture have also resulted in mental illness and addictions.

There are three stages in the building of the stress cycle: alarm, where the body reacts with a fight or flight response; resistance, where the body, as the word suggests, resists and compensates; and exhaustion, which sets in after chronic exposure to the stressor.

In their study, a total of 523 working chefs were surveyed.  The results show a picture where stressors are environmental, organisational and personal.

Environmental stressors, says Khan, include the ergonomics of a kitchen and the physical working conditions of a chef and staff. “. If the kitchen is not professionally built with a smooth workflow, especially with large hotels with huge conference and banqueting facilities, then chefs are the ones who get into the perpetual stress due to the lack of space or structural faults in design and layout.”

Organisational stressors can be anything from the conflict in the workplace to overwork, job stability, and cash problems. The result is any manner of negative emotional responses such as short tempers, absence, introversion, anxiety, or even physical outworkings such as chest pain, fatigue, or cramping. It can also lead to depression, compulsive behaviours and substance abuse. Social media, too, has played a significant role in adding stress to the life of a chef, Khan adds.

Study Findings

The findings of the study show that of the respondents, 60% were executive chefs and 20% sous chefs, with the remainder made up of CDP and commis chefs. The largest age group of respondents were 35-45 years old (39%), followed by 25-35 (24.4%). 63.4% were located in Africa and the Indian Oceanic region, with the majority of respondents (78%) being male.

On average, 42.5% of chefs work 60 hours a week, followed by 50 hours (27.5%) and 70+ hours (22.5%). Of these 73.2% work straight shifts, demonstrating the sheer pressure and workload that individuals take on – ultimately contributing to stress levels. In fact, 48.8% of respondents said they currently suffer from stress-related illnesses.

Because the majority of a chef’s time is spent on their feet, this naturally has an impact on their body, with 63.4% of survey respondents saying they currently suffer from back ache. This is followed by muscular spasm (31.7%), anxiety (26.8%), Hallux Rigidus, or Chefs Foot Disease (24.4%), and hypertension (24.4%), among other ailments.

Most reported long hours, constant pressure, unskilled labour forces, and workplace politics as the main contributing factors to their stress. Other factors were burn-out, conflicts, late night shifts, labour laws, and working environment.

The Silver Lining

This may seem all doom-and-gloom, however, there are several positive things worth mentioning. The majority of respondents are not on chronic medical prescription (75.6%) and the majority are not smokers (58.5%). Most study respondents believe that a workplace wellness programme will assist in reducing stress (68.3%), with 46.3% saying they would prefer to enjoy this kind of activity after work for around 30 minutes. Chefs are also open to educational seminars, particularly in stress management, team building, health and wellness, and effective communication.

Worryingly, 80.5% of respondents believe that chefs resort to substance abuse due to work-related stress. That said, the top recommendation (70.7%) is hiring better skilled staff in order to promote wellness at work. Respondents also recommend more time off and better working conditions as two of the top items that will help reduce stress levels and improve wellness. Also high on the list are better pay, rotational weekends off, and regular appraisals and medicals.

The Way Forward

According to Vishal Agarwal of Talent Development, there are ways to avoid feeling underwhelmed or burned out at work. “The first thing you should do is to evaluate the underlying causes. Try to understand what may have changed about you or your role,” he explains. Once you know what this is, do something about it. One strategy is job crafting – thinking beyond your title and role in the business. That said, you will want to approach it in the right way: find balance, learn something new, stimulate yourself.

Once you have adopted the right mind set, filter non-essential things from your work life. “Over time, this separation will become one of your values, which will make it that much easier to defend—and, believe it or not, that will make you better at your job,” he says.

Treating every space as if it’s your home base is another way in which to feel normal from a psychological standpoint. And, if you’re travelling often for business, ensure that you don’t spend more time than is absolutely necessary in any given place. Be careful and selfish with your time will help you see the value in yourself and what you are able to accomplish during a set schedule.

Sidebar: Some common mistakes to avoid during burnout:

  1. Not sharing or talking about your problems can lock you in
  2. Letting negativity take over is never an effective way to manage stress
  3. Getting angry and lashing out at others will just push them away and make problems harder to resolve
  4. Becoming less engaged can accelerate your exit from a company or job

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