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Self Medication in the Hospitality Industry

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Self-Medication in the Hospitality Industry: Restaurant Workers Bartenders Are People Too

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On any given day, a bartender is asked to wear many different hats.

In popular culture, the bartender is known to be somewhat of a sage, or at the very least, a confidant.

The romantic side of the hospitality industry sees our wise bartender lending a caring ear and offering advice about a situation he’s heard one hundred times from one hundred different patrons.

You suspect that your wife has been cheating? Our benevolent barkeep has a solution for you.

You’ve lost a key account at your marketing firm? Here’s a kind ear and a cocktail.

At the very least, you can forget your troubles, if even for a moment.

One has to wonder if this reputation as a de facto therapist is due to actual wisdom on the part of the bartender or the effects of alcohol being conducive to the oversharing of information. We may never know the answer to this particular “chicken-or-egg” scenario.

One thing we do know is that the best bartenders put emphasis on one sound principle: hospitality. 

Hospitality could be defined as the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, and generous way. The best bar owners and restaurateurs in the world understand hospitality in a way that makes people want to return to their establishments and even travel from around the world to experience it. 

SL Hospitality Bartender POV

From my experience of nearly a decade behind the bar, I found that the best professionals in this field often give all of their care and attention to giving their guests the best experience possible. In the end, this leaves little room for self-care, physically and mentally.

There is seldom a comfortable meal during an 8-hour shift and our humble bartender is often seen hunched over a trashcan in the dish pit, unceremoniously scarfing down a filet that was cooked medium-well instead of medium-rare. Thankfully, we have typically had physical exercise covered as one burns a lot of calories walking up and down the bar, reaching on their tippy-toes for bottles, and bending over for the perfect coupe glass for a proper gin gimlet for 60 hours a week.

Then the question remains: how does a hospitality professional deal with the mental health struggles that go along with this “guest-first” mentality?

In this article, I’ll be discussing that very issue in the context of the Portland hospitality scene. We’ll get some insight from a local mental health professional as well as local hospitality professionals. We’ll also discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected these issues in a significant, and possibly permanent, way.

Portland Hospitality by the Numbers

Portland, Oregon boasts one of the most active hotel and restaurant scenes along the West Coast. Hospitality numbers are very closely tied to tourism, as hotels and restaurants can help dictate how popular a city is as a travel destination. As Travel Portland, a website dedicated to tourism information, puts it: “What’s good for tourism is good for Portland—and vice versa.”

According to Dean Runyan Associates, a leading travel and tourism research firm, Portland welcomed 8.8 million overnight travelers in 2019 and generated $5.6 billion in direct spending in the Portland metropolitan area. It certainly takes a lot of employees to accommodate that many yearly tourists. The travel industry supports 36,930 jobs in the Portland area, generating $1.6 billion in employment earnings in 2019.

SL Whats good for tourism is good for Portland
As we’re all made painfully aware on a daily basis, the United States is still dealing with the global coronavirus pandemic. While millions of jobs have been lost due to the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19, the hospitality industry seems to be hit the hardest.

The Leisure and Hospitality industry, as prescribed by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), accounted for 11% of pre-pandemic employment in the United States, yet has suffered 36% of all job losses from February to September of 2020. 

This large hit to employment is due to the tactile, high-volume nature of hospitality work and the advisement against traveling in order to limit the spread of the virus. The insecurity of unemployment or limited employment may be a major contributing factor to stress for people who make their living in this industry but it is far from the only issue. 

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Stress Management as a Job Requirement, Self-Medication as a Side-Effect

Even pre-pandemic, your typical hospitality worker is no stranger to stress. In fact, the ability to handle stress in a calm manner is one of the core principles of the job. Those employees with poor stress management typically won’t last long because, in a payment system based on tips, stressed-out workers will have trouble making a living.

I’d put the stress of handling a high-maintenance 12-top of inebriated businessmen against most types of white-collar stressors any day of the week. 

Ask any bartender or back-of-house line cook about their recurring dreams and be amazed at how many times the sound of a dot-matrix ticket printer comes up.

Here I am, multiple years removed from my service as a spirit-servant and I can still hear the familiar scratching of receipt tape as if the machine were right in front of me.

This is just an example of how repetitive stress can deeply engrain itself in the neural pathways of the brain.

Insurance Woes

In the current healthcare system, health insurance offered by an employer for the typical hourly hospitality worker is almost non-existent. Like whispers on a playground or Captain Ahab’s white whale: much sought after but seldom received.

This changes a bit when we’re talking about full-time workers for a large restaurant or hotel group. The viability of these large companies is such that they are able to offer their salaried bar managers, executive and sous chefs, and general managers benefits for being full-time employees. This is seen as somewhat of a toss-up that has the employee asking themselves: Am I willing to sacrifice 60 hours a week in order to afford healthcare?

I spoke with Jolene Feeney, a licensed Portland-area therapist, who had the following to say about the difficulties faced by hospitality workers that seek therapy:

“I’ve polled people on social media before about the roadblocks in seeking therapy, and usually the top two are time and cost. Obviously, insurance plays a part in that, but it’s also not cheap. And sometimes it forces people to go to community mental health services, which aren’t bad by any means but it does take away the ability to choose a mental health provider. If you see a profile of a therapist that you really want to work with, but they’re outside of your insurance network, sometimes that’s really hard.”

In a perfect world, you’d be able to seek therapy from a mental healthcare provider that has experience with the specific types of issues that you are dealing with. If hospitality professionals were able to easily seek therapy, it would create a market for therapists who specialize in stress management techniques for issues specific to the hospitality industry. In this situation, there has to be demand before there can be supply.

The systemic lack of health insurance availability is a complex topic for another article but it can help to explain the higher rates of self-medication in workers from the hospitality industry compared to other industries.

A Culture of Self-Medication, Addiction, and Substance Abuse

The very nature of the hospitality industry is such that its workers are repeatedly exposed to a myriad of factors that have been shown to contribute to heavy alcohol use. These constant exposures have led to the development of an industry culture of heavy alcohol consumption.

One study from the International Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Administration has determined a few key factors that contribute to the perpetuation of this toxic culture of binge-drinking. These factors include late hours of operation, low levels of job autonomy, lack of control over job conditions, and fast-paced work environments.

factors of binge drinking
For reference, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy drinking as having five or more drinks at least five times within a month.

Self-medication can be defined as the process of medicating oneself, especially without the advice of a physician. Alcohol has a long American tradition as being a coping device for stressful life situations.

Think of the almost romantic reverence of moonshine in early country and bluegrass music. 

These types of music were originally developed by 19th-century farm and coal mine workers, who worked in the fields and mines day in and day out with no real medical technology to speak of. Home-distilled liquor was used to give workers some physical and mental relief from the hardships of life, if even for an evening.

Ms. Feeney also had the following to add about self-medication as an issue:

Self-medication is one of those “short-term gain, long-term pain” kind of solutions. We’re putting a bandage on something but eventually, the bandage isn’t going to stick, so we get caught in these repetitive cycles. While it’s relieving in the moment, it usually compounds and adds to the problem.”

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Preoccupied by Pandemic Problems

As discussed above, the coronavirus pandemic has had very significant impacts on the hospitality industry in Portland and nationwide. It’s one thing to see statistics, but it’s much easier to realize the scope of the issue when you hear real stories from real people that have been affected. 

In an anonymous questionnaire, we polled people from a private social media group that focused on COVID-19 relief and news for workers in the hospitality industry.

Here are some of the responses when people were asked how COVID-19 has affected their livelihood:

“Forced me to change careers. With a young family, taking a pay cut wasn’t an option.”

“I was not getting a livable wage from working as a cook anymore (two days per week, equaling about $300/week) so I was forced to change careers.”

“It forced the small business I was the manager of to close its doors for what is likely forever. The restaurant industry is dying with almost no hope from the government. Thousands are out of work. The thought of trying to get another management job is laughable as more businesses close every day and those that are open and looking are usually putting safety priorities last. Unemployment does not nearly cover my bills. I’m looking at options to change careers. The 

future looks bleak and our federal and local governments have failed us.

SL Hospitality Covid Poll

After reading those responses, it’s very difficult to say with any certainty that the Portland hospitality scene will return to exactly how it was pre-pandemic. One can only hope that this whole situation has brought to light some of the antiquated or ineffective practices that were commonplace in the hospitality industry for decades.

The good news is that they don’t necessarily have to do it alone. Especially if they have noticed that the culture of hospitality and self-medication has gone a step further and become addiction.

Addiction doesn’t care if you’re mixing Manhattans for Portland’s business elites or slinging beers and shots at the neighborhood dive, it can affect you all the same.

If the fast-paced lifestyle of a hospitality professional has started to catch up to you, or the stress of the coronavirus pandemic has you coping in unhealthy ways, Serenity Lane is here to listen and offer solutions. Our team of mental healthcare and addiction treatment specialists has experience dealing with any issues with substance use that you may be going through. 

Some things improve with age and Serenity Lane is no different. We’ve been providing top-quality non-profit treatment for substance use disorders since 1973. Call today at 800-543-9905 for a no-cost evaluation from one of our informed and compassionate clinicians. We’re here to listen.

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