The past few years have been an extremely difficult period for many frontline workers,  leading to employee burnout in a number of different industries and roles. And it’s no surprise – the pandemic and associated impacts have influenced and, at times, altogether changed the ways we do things. 

But some of the most significantly affected are restaurant workers. Not only are they navigating an ever-evolving landscape and environment, they also need to do so burdened with longer work hours and staffing issues resulting in greater responsibility within their jobs. It’s a combination that Sylvain Charlebois, food industry expert and Senior Director at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, says is resulting in employee burnout and stress.

“Employee burnout within the foodservice industry has become a big problem that employers need to figure out,” says Charlebois. 

“The sector has been under tremendous pressure, battling rising food prices, supply chain issues, and heightened guest expectations. And all of this is happening during a labor crisis. The past couple of years, which have consisted of daily changing market conditions, have resulted in a great deal of uncertainty for everyone involved. Many restaurants have closed for good. Some of them were institutions. This kind of unpredictability causes overwhelming anxiety for many.”

Causes of employee burnout in restaurant workers

Charlebois explains that there are a number of factors that are contributing to the employee burnout currently threatening the foodservice industry. First and foremost, as a result of an ongoing labor shortage, many restaurants and other foodservice establishments have been operating understaffed, some of them severely so. This places undue pressures on staff who are expected to pick up the slack left behind by departed colleagues. And, of course, the fallout from the COVID-19 global pandemic has also taken its toll on foodservice employees, resulting in what Charlebois describes as a “larger mental health issue.”

“Impacts of the pandemic have resulted in a great deal of uncertainty for many restaurant employees within the foodservice sector,” he says. 

“They’ve been showing up to work every day generally unsure as to the safety and security of their jobs as well as the health of the businesses they’re working for. In addition, many of their jobs and the way they used to do things changed overnight. The ways they interact with and serve the customer changed. Some establishments also introduced new services like curbside pickup which requires new skills, new equipment and new ways of doing things. As a result, many had to essentially retrain themselves, on the fly, in order to continue doing their job effectively. It’s all caused an incredible amount of stress and adds up to a big mental health issue that operators within the foodservice sector have got to address.”

How employee burnout impacts foodservice organizations

The negative effects of poor mental health for individuals are obvious and debilitating. And, for organizations, the impacts can also be detrimental, stunting productivity and hindering progress and growth. However, Charlebois points out perhaps the most draining impact that a burnt-out workforce can have on an organization is the increased turnover that it invariably causes. 

Wellness program developer Limeade’s 2021 survey talked specifically to employees who started a new job in 2021. It found that a whopping 52% of workers within the foodservice and hospitality industries who left their jobs did so due to burnout. The study also found that those who left their job without another job lined up were 1.7x more likely to cite workplace mental health impact as their top reason for leaving.

Further, Nudge’s recently released Foodservice Deskless Report finds that 38 per cent of foodservice frontline workers currently wish to quit their jobs, with burnout among the top three reasons for doing so. It’s a worrisome trend, says Charlebois, who believes that it couldn’t be happening at a worse time, given the current criticality around attracting and retaining talent.

“The greatest impact that employee burnout has on an organization is the way in which it erodes the workplace culture,” he says. 

“It shows up in absenteeism and employees not fulfilling their entire duties. It leads to discontent and, at times, an embittered and antagonistic workforce that does not feel valued or cared for. Suddenly, establishments and businesses are left with a decayed culture that’s driving employees out and turning away the interest of prospective workers. And, right now, given the near-impossible task of recruiting talent, restaurant managers are finding it extremely difficult to run successful locations.”

Developing programs and initiatives to improve employee burnout

In order to deal with this incredibly important workforce issue, some organizations are beginning to develop and implement mental health and wellness programs to help care for employees and enable them to succeed. 

Burger restaurant chain Wendy’s, for instance, says that it is taking a more holistic approach to employee wellness than it has in the past, instituting training programs meant to assist managers in becoming more sensitive to mental health issues. Chick-fil-A recently adopted a program called Abound which provides employees with access to a wellness coach who can help address mental health and wellness concerns, among other things. Others within the industry that are following suit.

The development and implementation of these programs and initiatives are a positive sign, says Charlebois, that organizations are beginning to pay more attention to their employees’ concerns, focusing more on providing them with solutions and support. He adds that it’s all rooted in listening and proper communication from management. In fact, according to Nudge’s Foodservice Deskless Report, it’s exactly what many organizations are realizing, with 76% of leaders within the sector committing to investing more into the employee experience. More than a third (36%) plan to invest more into communication and a quarter (25%) plan to invest more in feedback.

“Taking a good look at the organization’s communication and engagement with employees is a very good place for leaders within the foodservice sector to start in terms of addressing employee burnout and concerns over mental health,” says Charlebois.  

“And they should do so through a lens of compassion, asking themselves whether or not their employees feel cared for. They’ve got to convey the message to their employees that their work environment is a safe place for them to share any difficulties, personal or otherwise, that they might be facing. The pandemic has brought a new dimension of consideration to the workforce, and it’s becoming vitally important that employers understand that the challenges faced today are not just about a disrupted supply chain or inflation. It’s also very much about the people that they rely on to achieve success.”