Chefs at every level of the industry face injuries and health problems due to the nature of their work. These issues range from problems caused by the job itself – such as back pain and arthritis – to problems caused by the unavoidable lifestyle that comes with being a chef. A professional kitchen is an incredibly stressful environment in which to work and it is not surprising that many chefs suffer illnesses as a result of the long hours they spend in their kitchens.
There are some key physical health issues that are caused by standing up in a kitchen all day, as well as by lifting heavy pots and pans. Naturally, the height of kitchen surfaces is designed to suit all, which means that they are never at the correct height for an individual. Leaning over a work surface while preparing food can strain the ligaments and discs in the lower back, thereby causing severe pain. Ideally, surfaces would be raised to prevent this from happening but in reality it is impossible.
Back Experts suggests that instead, raising one foot onto a small stool can reduce the compression on the nerves and therefore help to relieve the pain. Back problems can also be encountered as a result of lifting heavy pots and pans from one surface to another, particularly if they are held at a distance from the body. Unfortunately, as pans are often hot when they are being moved, they cannot be held too close to the body, but keeping them as close as possible reduces the strain on the back, neck and shoulders.
Another key problem experienced by chefs as a result of being on their feet for long shifts is “chef’s foot” – a term used to encompass all foot injuries endured by chefs.
It can range from basic pain due to stress to more debilitating issues that can leave chefs out of work for long periods of time. One of the most common foot injuries suffered by chefs is Hallux rigidus.
This affects the joint at the base of the big toe and can be extremely painful, and is common among many professionals – such as sporting professionals– who spend long periods of time on their feet. Hallux rigidus often causes other problems that seem unrelated to the feet; as the big toe is extremely important for walking, if it is not being used properly other parts of the body compensate. This can cause pain in the hips, ankles and knees, and it is therefore extremely important to seek help for a sore big toe before it causes more serious problems. Choosing footwear that does not squash the big toe can help to prevent the injury and if it is caught early enough it can be treated with anti-inflammatories.
The stress of working in a kitchen can have adverse effects on health. On the job, chefs are effectively working to a constant stream of tight deadlines while trying to remain safe and organized in a confined and hazardous environment. It is unsurprising; therefore, that many chefs suffer from stress-related health problems, whether they are direct or indirect. Directly, chefs may be prone to high blood pressure as a result of their working environments. Indirectly, chefs can develop health problems based on how they choose to unwind and relax between shifts or at the end of the working day. John M. Grohol discovered a relatively large amount of substance abuse among trainee chefs, as they attempted to deal with the stresses of their jobs. Grohol cited drugs and alcohol among the substances abused by chefs, but smoking cigarettes is also extremely common in the restaurant trade.
Smoking provides an opportunity for chefs, sous-chefs and kitchen porters to step out of the stifling kitchen during and between shifts. However, not only does it make them less receptive to taste, it can also have severe health effects such as lung disease.
Once chefs have decided to stop smoking, there are drugs available to help them to quit successfully, and it can help to have a break from the kitchen for a few minutes at a time without relying on smoking as an excuse. Chef Neill Howell turned to Muay Thai to conquer his stress; it is a vigorous combat sport that allows him to relieve his stress while improving his fitness at the same time.
Late Nights and Split Shifts
Some of the biggest health concerns facing chefs are not directly related to the job but are a result of the lifestyle associated with it. This includes the risk of diabetes and heart disease that is caused by a lack of exercise and negative eating habits. As chefs work during the hours that most people are eating, they often have no organized eating pattern and this can encourage them to eat convenience food at odd times of the day and night.
Convenience food is often unhealthy and can be packed full of preservatives and saturated fats. However, it can be preferable to cooking something healthy at the end of a day during which the chef has done nothing but cook. In addition to an unhealthy diet, chefs often do not have time for exercise – they often have only one day off a week and it can be difficult to squeeze a jog in between shifts. This leaves the morning as the only time for exercise, but given that they work late into the night, getting up to exercise can mean missing out on vital sleep.
This work pattern can also have psychological effects on chefs, as they miss out on social activities due to work and can become isolated from friends and family due to the antisocial hours during which they work. Evenings off are therefore extremely important to wellbeing, which can in turn make it easier to stick to a healthier diet and exercise regime due to increased motivation.