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Substance Abuse Among Restaurant Workers (by Francisco Diaz)

Every Friday evening, masses of people kick off their weekends by dining out; some go to their favorite restaurant, while others try out one of the newest places that are trending. They settle in, admire the quick and friendly service, and show delight in the food that has been meticulously plated and presented before them. They make sure to snap a photo of their dish “for the ‘gram” before digging in; they enjoy their meal and then head home while rubbing their bellies, ready for their next couple of days of rest and relaxation. 

What many of these diners do not see is the Chef in the kitchen who is approaching hour thirteen of their workday, can’t remember their last day off, and is surviving on a combination of Oxycontin and Xanax to not only help relieve the aches and pains caused by the physical toll that years of work in the kitchen does to a body but to also help cope with the emotional pain caused by the damage that the demand that being a successful chef has on their personal relationships and quality of life. Many diners also usually do not see their server make a trip to the side station to quickly crush and snort some Adderall in order to provide enough energy and focus so that in between this shift, Saturday’s double, and Sunday’s brunch service, they can study, and work on the accumulating assignments, papers, and projects with fast-approaching due dates. Many diners likely do not see the cooks and bussers volunteering to help the dishwasher take the trash out back so that they could sneak in those hits of meth ‘necessary’ to help them work multiple minimum wage jobs in order to make enough income to not just get by, but to also send to their families back home in other countries.

The examples above may appear to be extreme, but after working in several different capacities in the restaurant industry for over twenty years, I can personally attest that each of these examples has been observed or generally known to occur many times over, enough of which to be considered ‘normal’ or even part of the restaurant culture. A study analyzing substance abuse among different industries found that 19.1% of Accommodations and Food Services industry workers have used illicit drugs in the past month, leading all other industries in this staggering frequency. Additionally, alcohol is readily available to restaurant workers and widely used as a method to unwind from the high-stress environments that they work in. Although this is not the case for every restaurant worker, it is an unfortunate reality that is far too common in the industry. Whether the substance abuse purpose is for self-medicating, coping, unwinding, or maintaining or increasing performance, it is long due for attention and action.

Many organizations within the restaurant industry do not provide health insurance or benefits and also lack employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help with their employees’ health or mental and emotional well-being. Creating EAPs may very well help support issues of employees’ substance abuse by providing counseling, addiction treatment, and other services. It is likely that in addition to benefiting individual employees, EAPs may also benefit the organizations that provide them. Substance abuse left unsupported in the workplace can lead to lower productivity and morale and increase the number of employee illnesses, absenteeism, workplace injuries, and turnover. However, with the many challenges that restaurants are currently facing, the decision to incur additional expenses is difficult for its owners and operators to make. Implementing an EAP in the workplace would undoubtedly come with costs, which would have to be weighed against their contributions to the long-term success of the businesses. Some argue that a restaurant owner’s responsibility does not extend beyond creating zero-tolerance policies and upholding consequences against substance abuse in the workplace, as it is illegal and presents liabilities to the business. Others would argue that the factors associated with working in restaurants are what lead to substance use among its employees to begin with, which morally obligates owners and operators to provide aid. 

This leads to the question of what the ultimate solution to the issue may be while attempting to operate a successful restaurant. Would it be to implement an EAP in the workplace? To staunchly hold employees accountable? A combination of the two? Or is there another solution that has not been explored here that may exist or need to be created? Whichever it may be, it is clear that some form of action is necessary to help resolve this critical issue, which would not only contribute to the success of a given restaurant but also save employees’ careers and potentially their lives.



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About the Author 

Francisco Diaz began in the food service industry immediately after high school, serving in the United States Marine Corps as a Food Service Specialist. After his enlistment, Francisco worked through the ranks of notable concepts in the restaurant industry in roles including sous chef, executive chef, general manager, and corporate chef. Motivated to improve his quality of life while maintaining his passion for feeding others, Francisco shifted his career towards school nutrition, where he is currently applying his experience to his role as the Nutrition Services Operations Manager for a K-12 school district. Francisco is currently working towards completing his bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and hopes to obtain a Director of Nutrition Services position shortly afterward.


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