Hanging Up The Cape: Mental Health in the Bar Industry
Mental health is still a taboo topic for many, but Berlin bartender Damien Guichard ran a mental health survey for his bar industry colleagues. Beneath cheerful demeanors, bartenders grapple with depression, anxiety, and more, all in the service of a great night out.
“We are the heroes, we are not allowed to show signs of weakness.”
I created an anonymous survey for my colleagues in order to gain some insight into their experiences with mental health and how it relates to our field of work: bartending. This survey contained simple questions that aimed to cover: what kinds of struggles we may be facing, how they affect us in our field of work, and in turn how our field of work affects us. After reading testimonies from my bartending colleagues, the response above is the one that resonated with me the most.
In bartending, performance is a major theme; it is what is expected from us as mixers, hosts, waiters, bar-backs, cleaners, managers, bouncers, and as employees. Despite the incredible pressure that we experience in our highly stimulating work environment, rarely do we seem happy to open up and admit that, well, we sometimes feel unhappy, depressed, burned out, anxious – you name it.
Mental Health: Pain vs Pain
Chef Chris Cosentino has spoken out on these issues in the gastronomy field, saying:
“Everybody out there would be the first person to say ‘oh man I totally fucking broke my ankle, you should see these x-rays, it’s gross I have pins and plates’ but nobody wants to admit that they have anxiety or they have depression.”
Our brain is just like the rest of our body: it takes beatings, and it scars. Although you learn to live with those scars, and you might even forget how you got them, they still remain – shaping your brain, and by extension, your entire life.
Unlike physical pain, mental struggles affect us all in a unique, personal way. Events that might seem completely meaningless to one person may be insurmountable to the next, without an obvious explanation. And that’s okay. Life beats us up sometimes, and takes its toll differently for each and every one of us.
This can be a major source of frustration for people suffering from mental illness. You ask yourself, “Why am I so different? Why is this so hard for me, when it’s so easy for everyone else?” You beat yourself up over it, and wish you could just be ‘normal.’ All of these thoughts plague your mind, but are invisible on the surface.
For anyone with mental health issues, the bar industry is especially full of challenges, obstacles, and frustrations that are too often kept quiet.
Our routine is exhausting, our hours are long, and there is a high level of temptation to drink more than we should (and hate ourselves for it the next day) compared to other professions.
The struggle with mental health issues can be a lonely one, especially in an industry that demands resilience. It is a struggle that is not openly discussed or supported by our business, and it can take a lot of courage to start opening up.
In order to develop an understanding of how people other than myself experience mental health issues in the bar industry, I invited my colleagues to complete an anonymous survey.
I had never had these conversations with colleagues, and was expecting a lack of interest and participation. I was wrong. After just a few days, over 20 colleagues had responded, and encouraged me to continue. The answers I received showed me that there are as many ways people are affected as there are individuals.
For some, presenting a positive and friendly face is next to impossible when their mental energy is consumed by their own demons. Almost every person reported that their struggles with mental health have a direct impact on their energy levels, creativity, stress management, and an overall difficulty fulfilling the role that is expected of them.
The external forces working against us, on the other hand, tend to be shared. It was interesting to see how the struggles we face are more similar than we may think.
Some people reported that the very act of working in the bar industry tends to make their struggles worse. The stress, the long hours, the expectations, and alcohol and drugs can worsen or even trigger symptoms. Some reported that the pressure of having to play the role of host could be too much to bear at times. On the other hand, some reported that having to fulfil this role actually had a positive impact – forcing them out of their negative spirals, and leading them to adopt a more positive outlook. A classic case of “fake it until you make it.”
Almost every person confirmed that they believe there is a taboo surrounding these issues. This is a topic that is not discussed, as bartenders are expected to be at the top of their game at all time. There is no room for weakness in this industry.
A Day in The Life of a Bartender
For many of us, a typical day may look a little something like this:
Noon – you get up. You want to see the sun before it sets.
Today is Friday, and it’s only the beginning of a long and intense couple of days. The weekend days count double for bartenders. We love them as much as we hate them.
It’s three times as many cocktails, three times as many glasses to polish, three times as many guests, but it’s a hundred times harder to keep the mask on.
Yet you love your job, more than anything else you’ve done before. That’s what you’re in it for, but you just wish you didn’t have this inner monster that pulls you back and screams louder than everyone else around you.
This monster that makes everything louder, harder, more painful. The one that makes it hard to cope every time a guest doesn’t give you the reaction you had expected or hoped for.
Why can’t you just enjoy this? You know you should, you know people would love to be where you’re standing. After all, you’re one of those heroes of the night!
You’ve trained yourself to act appropriately, to give the right pat on the shoulder, the right wink, the right well-timed joke as you walk away from the table.
You are funny, entertaining, creative, and charming. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s the real you. Sometimes you don’t feel like playing that role. Sometimes you can’t.
Sometimes getting out of the house is hard enough, yet you have to be that person they expect you to be.
Could you tell your boss? Your colleagues? You don’t know because you’re afraid to try. The real issue is that you don’t want to admit to them, or even to yourself, that sometimes life hits you harder than it does others.
Guilt and the struggle against your own self are the most painful of all. It’s a constant and lonely battle. Many of us struggle, but what is it about our industry that makes it so hard to be open about those struggles? How does our industry affect those who have mental health issues?
The Big Issue
Our craft is rapidly becoming more recognized and appreciated. Bartenders are no longer seen as a bunch of alcoholics with a pay check. Creativity and technique are reaching levels that had never been reached before. Money is being invested in lab equipment and cocktail stations, while bars are being engineered to make the guests’ experience the center of our concerns.
The bar industry will always be a profitable one, because people have always needed a drink and will always need one. Yet workers are still considered easily replaceable, and our well-being is rarely prioritized. We still need to fight to explain just how hard and draining our profession can be.
Bartenders operate on a reversed schedule – we work all night and sleep most of the day. This can be isolating, and cause issues when trying to reconcile one’s social and professional lives, let alone maintain healthy relationships.
Despite the physically draining job, we’re still expected to perform according to high standards. We are bartenders and mixers but we are also entertainers. There is an expectation that we will always be in top form, to play the role of charming and confident hosts. The satisfaction of both the bar owners and our customers relies on the perfection of our act, and therefore the pressure can be enormous.
Bars are often understaffed, which places a heavy burden on the shoulders of employees. Many bar owners run a tight ship, but it is often forgotten that the staff are the first to absorb their decisions. Taking time off or calling in sick can be a tough decision to make, knowing that your colleagues will have to work a person short. Furthermore, a lot of bartenders only get paid hourly, a lot of them off the books, and foreigners consider themselves lucky just to have health insurance through work. Every sick day means lost income. Bartenders are therefore often faced with a lack of financial and professional stability, and limited opportunities to take time off to take care of themselves.
This lack of stability can have an even greater impact on bartenders with pre-existing mental health conditions. For those bartenders, it is even harder to create a steady and secure environment in which they’re comfortable enough to establish a routine through which their symptoms can be tempered, and managed.
Working with one’s passion can be a double edged sword, especially for someone with mental health issues. It can be incredibly difficult to switch off, and make room for a healthy personal life outside of bartending. It is tempting to become completely consumed by the bar industry, at the expense of mental well-being. Making a conscious decision to recharge one’s batteries is essential, and not doing so can increase the risk of burning out or worsen symptoms of mental illness.
Given all this, what is it that attracts people to an industry which can be so detrimental to mental health and well-being?
The Positive Influence Of The Bar Industry
Of course, it’s not all darkness and despair.
The bar industry can also be a comforting place. There is a strong sense of community provided by the countless events and workshops. Bartending is built on passion and interest, and we share our drive and excitement with our colleagues. There is a lot of mutual support – we tell our stories, frustrations and joys with those who share the same lifestyle. It may be frantic, but it’s a lifestyle we just can’t do without.
When dealing with mental illness, one can spend a lot of time in deep introspection, analyzing one’s own reactions, emotions, and comfort level. Small interactions and situations may be carefully analyzed. This level of emotional and social awareness can in turn lead to high empathy as a bartender.
Empathy is at the center of our job – ensuring that the guest is happy and comfortable, while also determining the kind of experience they are looking for. Guests come to us not just for the products we provide, but first and foremost to enjoy a relaxing moment and shut out the world for a time.
Indeed, our success as bartenders relies on a healthy empathic relationship between ourselves and our clients. When successful, bartenders can feed off the quick satisfaction and affirmation they get from positive feedback. This can be very comforting for people struggling with self-image, and silently suppressing their need for reassurance and encouragement.
Of course it’s not all just an act – we do genuinely enjoy our job. We get to be creative and social. Every customer is different and unique and it can help someone struggling with mental health issues to force themselves out of their bubble and socialize more. On days that it feels impossible to leave the house, a bar is a relatively safe environment to get ourselves back on track.
Piecing It Back Together
So how can we make sure we take care of ourselves?
First of all, treating our bodies well is key. Though it may be challenging at times, a healthy diet and exercise can make an enormous difference. Taking care of one’s health is especially important in an industry that can take such a physical toll.
It is also important to maintain one’s personal life outside of bartending, through hobbies, exercise, and personal relationships. As tempting as it is to spend our free time in colleagues’ bars, this can obviously become a toxic habit. Dissociating one’s personality from the bar world is important. By extension, it is extremely important to know our own boundaries, and to clearly set them. We must know at which point our profession starts to have a negative impact on our personal lives, and be comfortable setting limits.
As in all industries, bartenders must also learn to be comfortable acknowledging our weaknesses. As we do with physical ailments, why not admit that we struggle more with daily life than other people? It is important to learn to accept that some of us struggle more psychologically with the demands of our industry.
Not one person in the professional world feels perfect all day every day. Because our job relies so much on performing in front of the guests and our colleagues, it can feel like we have to give more than in other professions, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
Some of us have found therapy useful while others have found it pointless. I personally believe that it can be a powerful tool in order to have a more objective representation of reality and life’s expectations reflected back to us by someone who understands the mechanics of our minds.
What about the role of our industry? Products and technique are still at the center of seminars, discussions and sponsored workshops. Imagine a bar industry where mental health, balance, and well-being become acceptable topics to discuss openly.
It’s okay not to be okay. We may be the heroes of the night, but nobody expects us to be flawless.
Let’s open up, and hang up those capes.
Foto: Photo via Shutterstock