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Trauma in the kitchen, about time for some compassion

I remember my days working within hospitality so fondly, but one thing I never enjoyed and will never quite understand, is the aggression within the kitchen. I was always struck by the respect a head chef would just expect to get because of their title. I suppose this happens in a number of fields, because I have ‘X’ title I am respected. I believe this should not be the case though, and as with everyone else, respect should be earned.

I vividly remember one of my very first shifts in a high-end hotel in Glasgow. I was taking some dirty plates and glasses back down to the dishwasher area of the kitchen when I bumped into the head chef. I hadn’t met him yet, so he introduced himself to me. “I’m XXXX” he said. I gave my name and job title back in response and used his name when doing so, grateful to meet him. “No no, just call me chef” he said. Sorry?? But you have a name and I don’t work under you, nor do I know you at all yet to give you any sort of title demonstrating felt respect for you…? I then went on to experience this man shout, slam/throw equipment and verbally abuse a number of chefs who worked under him in the kitchen. Yup- I do not respect you.

Kitchens are renowned for this type of behaviour, and yet nothing is done to change it. The psychological impact of this negativity on an individual can be catastrophic. Research and practice now recognise that there are various types of trauma, and of note at the moment there is a large focus on “interpersonal trauma”. This type of trauma occurs when someone is subject to repeated counts of negative behaviour from another individual. It’s interesting how this is only coming through research recently, when actually if we think about it, I’m sure we can all very easily see how much of an impact we can have on other people, in both positive and negative ways; so it is no surprise how potentially damaging negative behaviour towards others can be.

Working in the kitchen is such a high-pressured, high-stress job. This is one of the big factors that can lead to such unhealthy coping mechanisms that we see in our industry, and the reason for Hospitality Health forming. Being in the kitchen environment for long periods of time, no wonder after the shift people want to drown their sorrows with some drinks, lift their mood or energy with other substances, or find a bit of a high from gambling before they head home for a sleep and doing it all over again the next day.

We could look at this pandemic period as a bit of a break from all this stress in some ways. Although this has been replaced by other stresses around longevity of businesses, loss of pay due to furlough or job losses. But say we put that stuff to the side, just for one moment, just for the length of time to read this blog. Have we maybe been given the opportunity to stop…and take stock? We’ve found more time to spend with our families, managed to get into a better sleep routine due to not working long hours, our bodies have been given a physical rest from being on our feet for long hours, our mind has been given a rest from processing multiple orders at a time. I’m not for a second saying that this pandemic is positive, because it is the complete opposite. The loss and sadness during this past year is unquantifiable. But let’s remember that there can still be positives and happiness within negatives and sadness.

Exercise number 1– take a moment to think of one thing you are grateful for right now. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but also maybe it is. For example, you may be grateful for the time to drink a cup of coffee in peace in the morning, grateful for the invention of the internet and video calling platforms to speak to loved ones regularly, grateful for the forest nearby for your daily walk, grateful for the extra time to be with family at home. Try and think of one thing each day and see if this improves your wellbeing.

Looking to the future, when we start to see restrictions eased and businesses begin to re-open, wouldn’t it be great if we went back to the industry bigger, better and stronger than before? We are a group of people who feel so strongly about our industry, we’re almost patriotic about it! I think this is what makes hospitality such an incredible industry to work in, and why it is such a successful industry in general. People most often comment on the service, the feeling of a place, the time that they had; it’s not just about the physical food and drink that they consumed. The industry would not survive without the incredible people that make it. You.

Exercise number 2- Think of one thing that you value about yourself, one positive thing about you. Maybe you are a really positive person, and you feel you’re good at helping others see positivity, maybe you’re a great listener, maybe you’re funny, maybe your hair always sits exactly how you like it to, maybe you’ve got great musical talent. Think of this and remind yourself of how great you truly are.

In line with this bigger, better and stronger return to the industry, maybe we can rethink about some of these practices. Let’s change kitchens from being places that are traumatic to work in, to places that show compassion, support and encouragement. We already know that people learn better in supportive environments, not oppressive ones. So, we would actually be helping ourselves if we didn’t cause chefs to feel additional work stress due to a head chef shouting at them, as they’d pick up and learn better from one who teaches them in a supportive way, reducing stress all round if everyone is doing their job to a high level. Nothing is perfect, so no one is expecting that kitchens will become environments filled with calm, flowers and rainbows all the time. Kitchens are stressful, and so people will often respond to this in whatever way they know how in order to cope. But I wonder if we can use our break just now to work on some new ways to manage stress, to allow us to respond more compassionately in future?

Exercise number 3– Spend some time thinking about how you tend to respond when stressed at work. Do you shout at others; throw things; storm out; become verbally abusive; throw in the towel and leave; freeze and struggle to solve what’s in front of you?

Now think of other ways in which you could respond instead. Could you take someone aside and speak to them about their work; seek out someone you can speak to for support; take a brief break away from the situation; put on background music that you enjoy; ask someone else to takeover; have a quick pep talk with the team about what’s going on?

Also have a read at our blog on self-care, titled “We are not “fine”. Look after yourself”, for some exercises and some discussion around the importance of looking after ourselves.

Take care and be compassionate.

Katie McIntyre

Trainee Clinical Psychologist/Treasurer, Hospitality Health

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