Long hours, high pressure, stress and opportunity contribute to incidents of drug and alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. This can result in loss of productivity, customer service, and profits, from the kitchen to the corporate level. Only when an organization recognizes that drug and alcohol abuse is an issue amongst its ranks can solutions be found.

When one of its graduates committed suicide that was substance abuse related, the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont developed an intervention and support program. Ellen McShane, Vice President of Admissions and Sales for the institute told me ãAfter this tragedy we held an open forum of students, faculty and families. The intervention program was the result. If someone comes to us about another student having a possible drug or alcohol problem, we first investigate. If it is determined that their education or dorm life is affected, we get involved by putting together a team and meeting with the student. The team may include someone from administration, our executive chef and other students. We work with them to get help and go into detox if necessary. Eighty percent seek help and stay sober. If they refuse, we remove them from the program, until they seek help.ä

The institute also includes 48 hours of physical fitness into its requirements. ãThey can include aerobic exercise, smoking cessation and other forms of fitness.”

ãWe want our students to feel good and are healthy in mind, body, and spirit as well as excellent chefs. To be able to withstand the stresses of the job that can make them vulnerable to substance abuse like long hours, being on their feet all day and disruption of their body clocks and then wanting to get up to a quick euphoria,ä explained Ellen.

Joe Gise, executive chef of Harryâs Restaurants in Missouri, admits to having had a problem with alcohol over ten years ago before getting help. ãAlcohol and drugs are readily available. The hours we have to work, plus the quick money, and the fact that a lot of people in this industry are thrill seekers who enjoy the fast pace and excitement are contributing factors. They can use speed to stay up and alcohol to relax.

Gise talked about his own use of alcohol and how it began to interfere with his work, ã I was trained by a French chef when I was in my teens. It was easy to drink beer and wine while I was cooking. Then I drank before work and then all the time, until I was drunk at work. I told myself it was ok and that I would drink less the next day, that I was young and it wouldnât interfere with my life. At 19, I took over as acting chef, had my own office and became high on myself. I drank in the privacy of my office and told myself I could function. Other people saw that I couldnât, and finally one day I was called into the board room. My employers did an intervention and told me I had to get some help. That changed my life. I got help and havenât had a drink since. In the last eleven years ago, I have learned how to deal with disappointment, am a lot more productive and have more skills to deal with the pressures of this job and the rest of my life. I have a good, healthy relationship with my wife and kids.

Donna Sheperd, Director of HR for the SF Marriott agrees with Joe Gise about the presence of drugs and alcohol in the industry and the factor that conribute to their use ãWe have a lot of young people, access, long hours and the need to relax and not enough life/ work balance. Except some of our people like to drink hard in order to unwind. I was one of those people. Young, impressionable, rising quickly, and wrapped up in the glamour of it. I reached the point where I was losing my mental clarity, no longer had energy to be creative and do my job. I reached the point where I knew I needed help and couldnât do it on my own. We had an employee associate program and got into a 12 Step recovery program, over ten years ago. No longer drinking, I have back and more my mental sharpness, still work long hours but have better coping skills.ä Sheperd expressed her view that it is a deep problem in the industry ã It impacts management recruitment and retention. If you get good people but they use drugs or abuse alcohol they usually donât stay long, canât perform well, and customer service goes down with profits. Managers need to be educated to understand these challenges and how to help their employees by not over working them and allowing them to have some life/work balance. We need our safety nets like employee support programs in place.

A former senior manager of a large chain who had a drug and alcohol problem over 17 yeas ago said that abuse can be harder to detect in the restaurant business because it is so transient and employees move around to different jobs. ã Some of the signs of abuse are, continually not showing up for work on time, or not at all, making poor decisions and quick loss of temper. It is important that managers enforce policies around misconduct and not enable people to abuse by excusing poor performance. He described his own problem, ã In my case, I worked nights, used drugs to stay up, drank to relax. The nights extended into mornings. I got off on the adrenaline rush. There were times I was using and had to confront my employees about their own use. One day at work I was talking to someone who wanted to start and employee assistance program in our organization and I realized I had a problem. It took me awhile to get some help, but I went into 12 step recovery program, and today I am able to help others.ä

Leaders, managers, and owners need to get educated about drug and alcohol abuse. You need to know the behavioral signs of abuse, how to not enable the user and how to get help for yourself and your employee. One individualâs problem, if left untreated, can be a costly problem for the whole organization.

Simma Lieberman

Author Simma Lieberman

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