‘Suicide prevention work’: New research sheds light on mental health crisis in hospitality industry

In the past year, Alex Moggridge, owner of Ottawa-based mobile bar The Thirst Responder, has seen just how much individuals in his industry can suffer with mental health challenges. 

“This year has been really tough for people in the industry for losing people, people taking their own lives. It’s been brutal,” he said, referencing three of his friends who committed suicide. 

In his line of work, he said the culture around alcohol is one of several contributors to the industry’s overall crisis. 

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Alex Moggridge, owner of Ottawa-based mobile bar The Thirst Responder
Alex Moggridge, owner of Ottawa-based mobile bar The Thirst Responder

“There’s a camaraderie around drinking together in the workplace. It helps build clientele. You sit down with your regulars after work and have a drink with them,” he said. “It can go too far pretty quickly because it’s so accepted.”

Conversations around mental health and addiction are becoming more common and, slowly, more comfortable, at least in his social circles. But Moggridge said it remains difficult for individuals to reach out for help for a number of reasons. 

“It really depends on your employer and on your co-workers,” he said. “But I also think that when people do need to reach out or do need support in an industry where not a lot of people have benefits, there is a financial barrier to getting counselling or therapy. I think it should be more attainable.” 

In the midst of this crisis, some major players have decided to step up. Last month, Smart Serve Ontario, which provides training and certification to responsibly sell and serve alcohol, partnered with Not 9 to 5 and GreenShield to launch a new mental health initiative to provide service workers with free access to mental health support. 

Research conducted by Not 9 to 5, a non-profit mental health advocacy organization, found that 87 per cent of food and beverage staff report burnout, 77 per cent report depression, and 84 per cent have high levels of anxiety. Despite those numbers, the research found 62 per cent don’t seek professional help, with finances often being the biggest barrier. 

Moggridge isn’t surprised by the numbers. 

“I think the hospitality industry, we kind of work hard, play harder,” he said. “It’s definitely an industry where there’s a lot of burnout, there’s a lot of anxiety. And at the same time, there’s this constant proximity to alcohol throughout your entire workday.”

Smart Serve Cares is one of the industry’s first attempts at breaking down some of the barriers. The program will allow anyone with a valid Smart Serve certificate to access three hours of free virtual cognitive behavioural therapy through GreenShield. Other free mental health resources, such as interactive learning modules, tools and an app with reminders and guided coaching, are also available. 

Executive director Richard Anderson told OBJ that the program was in response to feedback his organization received from focus groups after the pandemic.

“The revelation was very quick and concise,” he said. “The feedback we received was that the state of mental health in this industry was not good. Not that it was a secret, but certainly when you see it with your own eyes, it’s eye-opening. We brought it back to our board and said there’s a need here.”

Hassel Aviles, executive director of the program’s research partner Not 9 to 5, said the link between hospitality work and mental health has been well-known but under-studied. 

“I come at this with experience,” she told OBJ. “I’ve had my own mental health and substance use challenges for decades from working in this industry for so long. It started from this intuition, like this can’t just be me. Why is no one addressing these things? Everyone seems to be struggling and yet there was no leadership, no resources, no education and no support. Now, it’s cemented in data.”

Aviles said there are many factors at play, including long, unconventional hours, chronic high stress and low wages. She said many workplace environments can also be classified as “toxic,” where employees are overworked and underpaid, may be pressured to skip legal breaks, and may be given unmanageable expectations and workloads. 

“There’s a lot of abuse,” she said. “As a result of all these aspects of the industry, you end up with the byproduct of high rates of mental health and substance use challenges.”

Since the program launched last month, Aviles and Anderson said they’ve received positive feedback from business owners and staff. But they acknowledged that it cannot be the only step for the industry to properly address its mental health crisis. 

“If certain things were changed in the workplace — addressing mental health, addressing psychological safety, addressing adequate pay, adequate breaks — you wouldn’t have as many high rates,” said Aviles. “People are repressing and suppressing their emotional experiences, pretending they’re okay when they’re not. Leaders play a role in this, because leaders set the tone for the work environment.” 

Moggridge also expressed a desire to see a continued commitment to solving the challenges at the centre of the issue. 

“Three hours of counselling is huge, infinitely better than zero hours,” he said. “But everyone’s different. Some people need more time than three hours to get the tools they require to make great changes and improvements with whatever they’re dealing with mental health-wise. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Aviles concurred and added that, a few years ago, she never could have imagined this type of free support being made available to hospitality workers. 

“People always ask me, ‘What’s the cost of not addressing workplace mental health?’” said Aviles. “I always say, it’s everything. The cost of not doing something is everything, including life itself. A campaign like this is suicide prevention work. The more we talk about mental health challenges, that is suicide prevention work, awareness, education. It normalizes these experiences. There are just so many people that struggle in silence.”

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