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July 9th, 2013
Pressure Cooking: Mental Health & the Professional Chef
by Eve Pearce
Carpal tunnel syndrome, 'chef's foot' and a plethora of back problems: this is just a small selection of physical health issues affecting professional chefs, thanks to hours spent on their feet and the requirement to frequently lift heavy objects. In addition to the physical strains of the job come mental strains as well. Some of the most common health problems experienced in the industry affect mental health rather than physical health, (although the two are often related).
The lifestyle of a chef can be the largest contributing factor to their mental health problems. It is a unique lifestyle that leaves them out of sync with the rest of the world. This can make it extremely difficult to have any sort of social life outside of the kitchen, and can put huge strains on their relationships with partners and family members. Starting work mid-morning, having lunch mid-afternoon and not finishing until the early hours of the following morning does not allow much time for seeing friends and family, particularly when most chefs work six days a week. As well ass regularly missing out on social events, chefs are often busiest when everyone else is enjoying the holidays; Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, you name it – if it's an event for others, a chef will probably have to be at work.
An inability to see friends and family as a result of work can lead to chefs feeling isolated and lonely. It is unlikely that a chef would be working in the industry if he or she didn't enjoy it, but everyone needs to enjoy some time off and do something a little different. This can be difficult on a six-day working week, as one day is often not enough to find some time to relax as well as doing something different. Even if chefs are working with people they like, the lifestyle can really test their relationships with those outside of work.
Depression and addiction
From this sense of isolation, depression can follow. The loneliness combined with the stress of the job can have a huge impact on the mental well-being of anyone in an industry, particularly those either trying to make their way to the top or those running their own kitchens. Chefs have to work extremely hard to make a living, and it is not the most financially secure of professions.
Depression is often perceived to be a weakness and a sign that the sufferer is not capable of coping, but it is extremely common and can affect anyone. It is important that industry professionals are made aware that if they are suffering from any of the symptoms of depression, seeking help is the best step to take. Many people try to handle it by themselves, which can make the situation worse. Every chef deals with his or her stress and unhappiness differently. Some do seek help, and as a result can recover with the help of professionals, the support of friends and family and sometimes with prescribed medication. Unfortunately, some try to use alcohol or even drugs to help them to relax and escape from the pressures of work. This can lead to long term health problems, both physical and mental, and can be a harder problem to overcome than if help is sought before it gets to that stage.
What can be done?
As with any illness, attempting to prevent an issue arising is often the best method. This is easier said than done in the catering profession, but trying to maintain a healthy balance between work and a social life is a good starting point. It can be tempting on a day off after a busy six days of work to sleep away the day and relax at home, but forcing yourself to get out of the house, to go and see friends and to do something active can really help. Exercise is also a good way to maintain a healthy mind, although it can be difficult to squeeze it around work. Getting up just half an hour earlier can give you time for a quick ten or twenty minute run or jog in the morning, or you could start walking or cycling to work (as long as it's not too far and if there's somewhere you can shower when you get there). Alternatively, squeezing a run or cycle into the time between shifts can help to invigorate you before the evening shift begins.
Catching it early
It can be very difficult to identify the symptoms of depression as they can often be attributed to other causes. If you are concerned that you may be depressed, seek medical advice as soon as possible to ensure that you can gain the help you need immediately to prevent the depression worsening. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides excellent guidance on the symptoms of depression and what to look out for.
It's never too late
No matter how far down the road an addict or someone battling with depression may be, help is still at hand. All over the United States, there is help available, from rehabilitation facilities in Delaware to outpatient care in California. Doctors can provide advice on what is the best route to take – some patients may only require a weekly counselling session, while others may benefit from residential centers and several months off work to recover. Financing this care can be a problem, but many rehabilitation facilities can be paid in part by insurance plans and state funding. Then there is the time taken off work to receive treatment, which will involve another chef having to be recruited to take over. However, the most important factor is getting treated before a problem becomes worse, which is why it is better to be aware of any potential problems as early as possible. In the United Kingdom, a charity called Hospitality Action even runs alcohol and drug awareness seminars for trainee chefs in order to make them aware that drug and alcohol misuse can be an issue in the hospitality and catering industry, and to provide them with the knowledge they need to try and avoid it. The seminars have been endorsed by top celebrity chefs from the UK, including Jamie Oliver, as they recognize the potential risks in the industry and how damaging it can be.
It is no secret that the life of a chef can be extremely stressful, but mental health problems are often swept under the carpet, and dismissed as just a side effect of the job. Instead of pretending that the problem is not there, it is far more effective to identify it soon so that it can be treated, and so that the relevant help can be provided to ensure a full recovery.
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