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Why This Restaurant Group Hired a Full-Time Therapist, and Her Advice on Creating a Culture That Prioritizes Mental Health

Last year, Denver-based restaurant group Bonanno Concepts put out a survey to its staff. Like many in the industry, Bonanno was having trouble finding enough employees to fill its 10 restaurants, following layoffs from an initial pandemic shutdown. The survey was designed to see what would make employees happier. And what was found in the results came somewhat as a surprise. Mental health was the number one concern, then job security, both topping pay, which took the number three ranking.

At the time, Bonanno offered health insurance, but as with many plans, it lacked mental health coverage. So owners Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno came up with a plan – they’d hire a full-time mental health clinician. In October, Qiana Torres Flores came on board as the wellness director for Bonanno Concepts.

Six months in, Flores now provides a variety of services designed to help staff manage stress, communicate more effectively, and talk through problems in one-on-one sessions. As one employee puts it, it’s been “refreshing”.

“Mental health was never really discussed before. There’s long hours, long nights, endless days of opening and closing – it’s exhausting, and it’s something I feel like was just expected, and if you complained about it, you almost got shunned or would be called lazy,” says James Axe, who’s coming on his 15th year of working in the industry and is currently general manager of Bonanno Concepts’ restaurant Luca. “Qiana’s opened a lot of doorways for us to actually have these discussions we need to be having. And it’s nice to know if I need someone to call, I can make that phone call, and have it be confidential and meaningful.”

We sat down to chat with Flores to learn more about her role at Bonanno Concepts and to get her advice on ways operators and management can create an environment that better prioritizes mental health.

What kinds of mental health programs have you set up so far for Bonanno Concepts employees?

Our main thing is basically an open clinic, we call it “open chat”. Folks can sign up for an appointment to see me for mental health care, and they can do that completely online or send me a text, and we can schedule usually within 24 hours. We provide ongoing care for three to five sessions. If within those three to five sessions we're not able to resolve whatever it is they're needing to resolve, we spend the next three to five sessions trying to hook them up with an ongoing therapist. I help them with resources – they might even sit on the couch and call a therapist from their phone, and we'll leave them a message together. That whole process of finding a therapist is an enigma for a lot of folks.

We are partnering with Khesed Wellness, a local therapy group here, and they offer four sessions to folks who work in the restaurant industry. They also have a couple of other pro-bono programs that people can link into. But beyond that, they also offer $60 sessions, which is quite unheard of given that the going rate of therapy is $150. That’s much more doable for a lot of folks.

Are there any group activities or other programming that you’re currently doing with staff?

We do working “mindful minutes”. I take a tour around all of our concepts, and take 10 to 15 minutes to show everyone at pre-shift that day a tip or two on how to manage their stress. I also provide educational presentations. Just this week, my tour was all about tips for getting good sleep. If there’s anything that restaurant workers struggle with, it’s definitely getting good sleep.

One of the biggest tips here is developing a healthy transition back to home, when we're done with service. Maybe our brain is really tired but our body is surging with adrenaline from the high-pressure environment of a big service. We get home, and we feel antsy. So I offer tips around how to slow that whole process down. Instead of taking another hour or two to continue being really active and engaged, like playing video games for three hours or something, make sure you have a good meal, and probably the most important tip is to debrief. So much happens during service, and in those quiet moments right before you're falling asleep, that’s when you remember, “Huh, that client was kind of rude, what the hell”. Being able to debrief all of that and process it, either with someone else or through journaling or recording a voice memo, can be really helpful for your mind before you sleep.

What kind of feedback have you heard so far from staff who’ve engaged in the mental health sessions and/or activities?

We've had 104 sessions so far, and there's been an 82-percent show rate. So what that means is that when [people] schedule an appointment, they keep their appointment, which is kind of a big deal. Working in community mental health settings, they aim for a 65-percent show rate. 

Anecdotally, folks are generally really appreciative to have someone help them navigate the whole therapy process and even just getting them used to the idea of taking care of their mental health on an ongoing basis. On top of that, there’s the larger picture. Our owners really want to show that staff are valuable and appreciated, and that they care. Having this service available is one kind of tangible thing that staff can use to receive care when they're spending all of their days caring and serving others.

Is this your first time working solely in the restaurant world?

I’ve worked in hospitality [in other roles]. I was a ballroom attendant at a hotel. But [as a wellness director], I’m not sure there are many people who have this position. As far as our research goes, there isn't someone [else] who's built into the structure of a restaurant. Before this, I worked in community mental health for about three or four years.

Are there any takeaways you've discovered through specifically working with individuals in the restaurant industry?

A lot of it you might anticipate. Working in restaurants is a high-pressure environment, and especially during the pandemic – take that high-pressure environment and double it. They've been out and about throughout this entire pandemic, having to worry about their own health and the health of others.

At large now, there is a lot of anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, insomnia, and, of course, substance abuse, which is also a trait of hospitality culture. 

With the feedback you’re receiving, are you at all working with the owners of Bonanno Concepts to help them adapt their culture or restaurants?

It’s part of the intention. Part of my job here is also to provide mediation and conflict resolution, and being able to show folks how to communicate effectively. When it comes to what I'm hearing in sessions, [the owners] have absolutely no contact with that information because everything I do is 100-percent confidential.

But our next milestone is to do more wellness surveying, and then being able to glean what we're not covering that’s needed in this moment. I think that’s what’s going to provide the feedback around, how can we make this culture one that’s caring and kind and generous?

For so long in the industry, mental health wasn’t typically made a priority. How are you working and communicating with staff to reverse the idea that you shouldn’t talk about mental health at work? 

In general, not just in the restaurant industry, there’s a stigma for mental health. Plenty of people, from all walks of life, have reasons for why not to show up to a therapist’s office. Either it's because emotions are “weak”. Or it's too much money. I can go on for a long time about the barriers to getting mental health treatment.

In the restaurant industry, a lot of the culture is “let’s get it done, put it on the plate, take it out, fire the next plate”, and we go and go until service is over. Again, that high-pressure environment makes it really difficult to have space for emotions. We mute it. 

But what can we do at the end of service, or what can we do before service to be able to prepare ourselves for that kind of hustle, day in and day out? Part of it is a macro system change of culture, and being able to say, “Hey, I noticed you didn't fire those two things for table eight, are you OK?”, instead of saying, “What are you doing?” and giving a tongue-lashing for not being on your game. 

As you’ve mentioned, your position is very rare. Given not every restaurant owner can afford to hire a wellness director, can you offer any advice on ways operators or management can create an environment that better prioritizes mental health?

First, I would just do a simple Google search on what resources are already available. There are many organizations and nonprofits that offer services for folks in the hospitality and restaurant industry. Here in Colorado, there's CHOW – Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness – and they provide peer support services for free. There's Ben’s Friends, which focuses on substance abuse. And there's groups like that around the country. So number one, I would say make use of the resources that are already out there. People are so happy and eager to help. 

Number two, it can be as simple as asking folks, “How are you?” and really being curious, not making that a segue into, “Okay, and this is what I need you to do right now.” For example, if someone says, “Hey, you know what, I’m alright, there are some things going on at home, but I’m here now.”, then be able to say, “Oh, do you want to tell me more?”, instead of being like, “Oh, I hope everything's okay. Alright, order up, let’s go.”

A lot of where I’m starting the training for our managers and executive chefs is giving them direction on how to communicate effectively with their staff. 

Are there any simple activities that managers can execute that promote better mental health?

CHOW developed this model for being able to talk about feelings using a regular temp. check system for meats. So it goes “rare”, “medium-rare”, “medium”, “medium-well”, and “well” – “rare” being great, feeling good, full of life still, and “well” being completely tapped out, frustrated, maybe feeling disruptive. I went around to all of our concepts and taught them this concept. They were very familiar with a temp. check of course, so it’s using language they already know, and then applying some feeling words to those different temps. It makes it really easy to get an understanding of where people are, and everyone has the same language for how they're doing.

Can you talk about the importance of creating a better environment?

To make our workplaces a safer, kinder environment, where people can be people, not machines, is really beneficial not just for our staff, but also for the owners. What happens when our staff are happy and proud to come into work everyday? They produce better product. The environment shifts. And then people can be more open and ask for what they need. If I had one nickel for every time I’ve heard, “If they just would’ve told me”...teaching people to be able to ask for what they need is a skill for life. 

Do you have any advice for owners or management about how to best direct staff to external mental health resources?

If you have a rotating newsletter, or an all-staff email, send resources that way. In this position, over-communicating is good communicating. Print them out, put them on the walk-in, or in the walk-in even. Use a QR code and people can just take out their phones and save it. 

With these kinds of wellness initiatives, a lot of them go sideways because leadership is not on board. If your leadership is not bought into the idea that mental health is important, it’s not going to go anywhere. You need your managers to model that it’s OK to be a human here. To have leaders in their own practice of self care and wellness will really pay out.

What are the main signs managers should be looking out for that might indicate a colleague is struggling?

There are lots. The first one I look for is isolation. Is someone really keeping to themselves? Also, if you’ve got someone who’s flaking out on shifts. If that starts happening pretty regularly, it might be a good time to say, “Hey, I’m worried about you. And I’m not worried staff-wise. We’ll take care of it, but I’m worried about you as a person.” Start with the concern. That goes a long way. 

Another thing that’s pretty prevalent is anger. If you have someone who’s constantly irritable, or they just lose it when someone makes a tiny mistake, set them aside and ask, “Hey, that was explosive. Are you OK? What do you need?”

Any other suggestions for creating a better mental health environment?

It’s important to always be acknowledging that, sure, we’re all under one roof working towards the same goal, but we all come from different walks of life, different cultures and social identities. Being able to address that those exist within your environment can make it a lot easier to really tailor your services to folks. A thing we do here for our Spanish speakers is a mini English class. Communication is really important. And offering that helps bring them into the fold and makes it easier for folks to feel like they belong. We offer Spanish classes for our English speakers, too.

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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