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Why Mental Health & Wellness During COVID-19 Should be a ‘Primary Concern’ for the Foodservice Industry

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that this year has been extremely tough for everyone. Our industry is continually forced to pivoti, and operators are still working to implement operational changes due to ever-changing guidelines. It’s an exhausting process. The uncertainty that many of us felt in March and April has continued, especially as numerous major cities across Canada enter into a second lockdown.

It’s natural to feel worn out, or even hopeless, as the news, lockdowns, and operational changes continue to ravage the industry. Going into the holidays and the cold and dark days of winter adds an extra layer of stress to an already challenging situation.

Most importantly, we need to remember that we are not alone – not alone in feeling the pressure, or even sadness, of uncertainty. And that there is support and help in this time of crisis.

Not 9 to 5 is a non-profit organization empowering hospitality, food, and beverage service workers by mobilizing education and support for mental health and substance use. Not 9 to 5 promotes harm reduction practices and helps to connect the hospitality workforce to mental wellness resources. We love real talk but loathe judgment and stigma.

Not 9 to 5 founders, Ariel Coplan (left) and Hassel Aviles (right)

To address the mental health emergency due to COVID-19, Not 9 to 5 sought out funding in April and were successfully awarded funding in August. They”ve recently launched CNECTing, a platform to distribute educational courses and bring the hospitality, food and beverage community together. Mental health education and training can save lives so in honour of suicide prevention we created CNECTting.

​CNECT stands for Change Needs Everyone Coming Together

The first course by CNECTing is focused on the industry’s mental health primary concerns. This course called Primary Concerns will educate and train you in mental health and substance use support skills to identify, understand and respond to crisis situations.

Right now, anyone can sign up for Primary Concerns for FREE until the end of 2020.

We spoke to seven Canadian foodservice professionals – from bar managers to chefs, about the importance of mental health during COVID-19, why a program like Primary Concerns is so important, and the biggest takeaways from a course like this were.

Keep scrolling to read all their stories or click a name below to take you right to their interview.

Hannah Egan-Lee

Mandy McIsaac

Matthew Ravenscroft

Georgia Zimbel

Philman George

Tasha Shea

Suzanne Barr


Hannah Egan-Lee

Bar Manager + Junior Sommelier at Ki Modern Japanese + Bar

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

In the hospitality industry it is good to look at two perspectives when discussing why a course about mental health and substance abuse is important. For the individual staff member, it is important to become familiar with tools useful for maintaining their mental health so they can prevent themselves from burning out in an industry prone to creating mental health stressors. For managers, this course is critical to learn how to create a work environment that fosters psychological safety for their staff. Managers who can recognize the symptoms of mental health stress or substance abuse and can then provide support could lead to less individuals suffering in this industry.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

I don’t think there is one specific moment I can pinpoint. What I can say is that I have become more cognizant of practicing active listening when talking to colleagues of mine. I have found during difficult conversations, removing my narrative and being fully present to the discussion leads to a much better result for both parties. I tend to learn more about the person I am speaking with when I practice active listening, and then I am in a better position to offer tailored support and maybe advice.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

That I am not alone when it comes to my personal struggles with maintaining my mental health. And that I am not alone in my pursuit to change the hospitality industry for the better.

Mandy McIsaac

Business Manager at Gusto 54 Catering & Commissary

Photo by @brookeschaalphotography

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

I believe mental health an area that is not prioritized in the hustle nature of our work in restaurants and events. And yet, the double-edge sword of the passion we invest in our work, is a high empath nerve that is also susceptible to acute pain.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

Absolutely, I have recommended the use of this course to other managers to use to build a personal toolkit for how to manage the mental health of their and their employees as we encounter layoffs and the emotions that come along with it. Compartmentalizing the emotions through active listening keeps us separating the emotions that are reactive in nature vs those that are productive, normal and healthy coping mechanisms.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

That the feelings I have are normal reactions to the work that I take on, and that HR policies and health & safety measures can will not fully eliminate the possibility of feeling those lulls, but can act as a first aid kit in the workplace to treat them when they occur.

Matthew Ravenscroft

Chef de Cuisine at Rosalinda Restaurant

Photo by Josh Tenn-Yuk

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

I think it’s a subject that may be well-understood but rarely broached, appreciated and considered in our day-to-day lives while at work. I think people really struggle with knowing how to address and respond to mental health issues/crises. By having these conversations as an industry, the aim is to normalize these conversation and create connections through vulnerability. I think it exposes us in a positive way and allows us to better understand the importance of these conversations.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

Covid has presented a bit of barrier with this since my daily interactions are not that vast. However, I can say it has allowed me to be more open about my mental health and be more receptive to how to actively listen to others and help as best I can. I think empathy and things like this are a skill that desperately needs to be exercised to enable us to get better at it.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

Be present, be attentive and be empathetic. it is something so simple but also incredibly challenging to actually do and it can be hard not to get discouraged when you fail – but that is all part of it. We need to encourage tenderness, psychological safety and a more emotionally creative understanding of things in order to step away from the structural issues we face in this industry.

Georgia Zimbel

Creator and ice cream maker at Parlour Tricks Ice Cream & Cook at Marben Restaurant

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

Drug and alcohol abuse are almost synonomous with the hospitality industry. Restaurant culture has been idolized as this badass, tough guy landscape. Leaving little room for self care, growth, and respect. Our idols were addicts, drunks, and short-tempered men. This was what we were told success looked like. Push yourself until there is nothing left to give, then give a little more. Reward yourself with a drink, then another. Feeling tired? Heres a line. Never. Stop. Moving. Don’t give yourself time to feel, reflect, recover. You are only a cog in the machine. This has been drilled into our heads since we started our careers, usually at the young, impressionable age of 15-16. We have never been told anything different. Thinking different was seen as a sign of weakness. Can’t take the heat? Get out of the kitchen. Times are changing though. Courses like Primary Concerns offer a safe and accessible way to learn that the way we’ve been going for so long, isn’t the only way, and it’s definitely not the healthy way. I really feel that a lot of people in our industry are ready for the change, but just don’t know how to do it on their own. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse are all common in our industry. The more restaurants and workplaces start adopting this language and attitude towards mental health, the sooner we can expect to see change. Breaking down stigmas around mental health and substance abuse is a necessary first step to healing our industry.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

I have had my fair share of mental health breakdowns while working in the industry. Sometimes it would feel minor, I would just go into the walk-in and scream for a minute of have a quick cry. Other times it would be me uncontrollably balling my eyes out to my chef, feeling very embarassed, and needing to take a couple of days off. Once or twice it led me to just straight up quitting a job. I realized two things: 1. setting personal boundaries are key, and 2. I cannot do this alone. Learning to say no without fear of loosing my job or being considered weaker than the other chefs I work with has been key. It’s okay for me to say no to working a double, or working 21 days straight, or coming in on my day off. The restaurant will not burn down if I don’t show. I also have learnt I cannot do this job/career alone. I used to be unable to ask for help, I always had to be the resilient, tough one who could and would do anything. Now I’m getting a lot better at asking for help whether its from my kitchen team, or my support team outside of work (friends, family, other chefs). I see a therapist once a week, and I take meds to help with my anxiety. Asking, and receiving help does not make me any less of a leader, it doesn’t make me weak or a failure. In fact it makes me stronger and leads to fewer anxiety attacks or complete burnouts.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

Doing this course was a necessary reminder that I’m not alone. I’m not alone in facing my own mental health battles. I’m not alone in thinking the way our industry is now is toxic degrading, unhealthy, and needs to change. And I’m not alone in trying, advocating, and fighting for a better version of what our industry could look like for future generations either.

Philman George

Corporate Chef at High Liner Foods

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

Our industry is high pressure and high stress. We are only as good as our last creation. Loyalty is hard to earn and easy to loose. The stakes are extremely high and profit margins are often very low. Under this pressure we are bound to have high amounts of personal health issues. Now we are navigating a pandemic that is directly impacting the future of our entire industry. I believe the timing for a course like this couldn’t be better. We are an industry that is focused on caring for others, but have never focused first on caring for ourselves.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

Just recently was able to do a virtual presentation on mental health awareness to a large group of restaurant operators across the country. The availability of hospitality focused tool kits/resources centered on mental health is truly a game changer. In my personal life I’ve used the tools to help evaluate my own mental health as I now have a deeper understanding of the symptoms of common mental health challenges that plague our industry.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

My biggest takeaways are the Primary Concerns: Anxiety, Depression, Substance Abuse, Eating Disorders, Burnout & Trama. By completing the course I was able to dive deeper into all of these concerns. I also gained confidence to continue discussions on mental health. I now have this amazing tool kit full of resources that I can share with anyone who is in need of assistance.

Tasha Shea

Coordinator Culinary Tourism and Markets for City of Brampton

Photo by Becca Lemire

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

A lot of people are struggling with their mental health and substance use and are afraid to ask for help, or don’t know where to get it. A lot of people are watching friends and loved ones struggle and don’t know how to support them. This course is great because it is low commitment with a lot of takeaways.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

I used them today while texting with a friend who is an out of work server, struggling with life’s uncertainties during the pandemic. I used the ALONE techniques and reminded her she wasn’t alone and her response was normal given the circumstances.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

Active listening without judgement and reminding people they are not alone and the is a normal response to the circumstances.

Suzanne Barr

Chef, Author, Storyteller, Social Advocate

Photo by Sam Engelking, 2019

Why do you feel a course about mental health & substance use is important?

It’s the step towards change we’ve all known we’ve needed and I am grateful to be apart of the process and understanding. It will save lives and build a true community around an industry that needs it more than ever before.

Can you speak to a time when you were able to implement the learnings into your work & life?

The moment I was able to hire, mentor, learn, and become a mentee myself. This work has been apart of my early beginning of understanding how to manage and care for oneself and the people you employ.

What was your biggest takeaway from Primary Concerns?

The sense of community and feeling like we’re apart of a much bigger intiative that is going to impact global. It’s feeling like the race to save this industry and what we hold to the highest esteem.



1 Comments

  1. Very well said from all the panel. Chef Georgia Zimbel and Chef Philman George had lots of great points that stood out for me.
    Well done everyone!! Keep Strong and Together !!

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