Working in a restaurant is not easy. While some days feature a calm stream of agreeable customers trickling in and out, other days are filled with anxiety-induced sprints from the dining room to the kitchen or attempts to placate angry guests. 

Of course, the tough days can take a toll on employees’ mental health. In fact, a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (MHA) ranks the restaurant industry highest among 19 industries for illicit drug use, and third-highest for heavy alcohol consumption. And in a study conducted during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, employees working in the restaurant industry reported higher levels of psychological distress, stronger drug use thoughts, and more severe drinking consequences than furloughed employees. 

As a restaurant operator today, it’s important to prioritize employee mental health to improve your staff’s emotional well-being and ensure productive, smooth shifts. Here are a few wellness strategies to cultivate a positive and inclusive workplace culture.

Examples of restaurant employee wellness initiatives


Some restaurants have already adopted employee wellness initiatives. Kokomo is a restaurant group of plant-based cafes in Vancouver that identified communication as the largest contributor to employee satisfaction. Colin Denton, Partner at Kokomo, says, “People need to feel like they’re part of the business, they need to feel heard, and they need to have the tools to succeed when they’re on the floor. The way you do that is through communication.” 

Therefore, Kokomo has created a communication system that includes all employees. The team makes sure never to roll out anything new until everyone has been briefed, making space for all voices to be heard. 

What’s more, Kokomo believes in the importance of employee autonomy and appreciation when it comes to small business mental health. They provide sufficient training across departments, so that employees feel confident in their roles and know how to handle the curveballs that are inevitable in the service industry. The restaurant also recognizes the link between encouragement and productivity, and makes a point to recognize employees when they’re doing good, high-impact work. 

Jezabel’s Cafe

Jezabel’s Cafe in Philadelphia is another example of a restaurant that values staff mental health — and walks the walk. After struggling with her own mental health, cafe owner Jezabel Careaga made it her mission to offer affordable mental health services to her employees and their significant others. As part of this mission, she makes sure employees have the autonomy to set up these services confidentially, without having to ask her. “The best part has been that they can access those [mental health] resources on their own,” Careaga said in a piece published in Bon Appetit Magazine. “...They can register through the company and they can still call me anytime, but they don’t have to ask permission to use [them].”

Careaga believes that affordable access to mental health services will allow employees to enjoy a more balanced lifestyle, helping them feel more fulfilled and less run down. Not only will this impact her employees’ personal well-being, but it will ultimately help her restaurant run more efficiently.

Tips for improving employee wellness 

Restaurants like Kokomo and Jezabel’s Cafe understand that when managers create a culture in which employees know their needs are valued, they see improvements in customer satisfaction, higher job performance, and lower turnover rates. Here are some tips on how you can improve employee mental health in the workplace — and make a difference at your restaurant. 

Conduct an anonymous survey

With the employee-boss relationship, there will be a natural imbalance of power that can make it difficult for employees to speak their mind when they’re unsatisfied. Anonymous surveys can give you an accurate picture of your restaurant’s culture and where you need to improve. Even in anonymity, when you acknowledge and react to your employees’ needs, they’ll feel heard, valued, and incentivized to perform. 

Make time for individual check-ins

Additionally, individual check-ins with your employees can further reinforce your care and compassion. While employees might not unload all the grievances that they do in an anonymous survey, these check-ins can provide an opportunity for you to discuss workers’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions — and form meaningful relationships.

Provide mental health days

Sometimes your employees need a day off. Not for a pre-planned vacation or a doctor’s appointment, but for a day to relax, spend time with their family, watch Netflix, or do another self-care routine to support their mental health. Offer “mental health days” for your workers, and when they use them, don’t ask why. When you let them enjoy their time outside the restaurant pressure-free, they’ll come back to work refreshed and armed with renewed motivation. 

Offer Employee Assistance Programs

Offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are confidential and free of charge to employees, can provide extra support both in work and beyond. While it’s not exactly therapy, this program is a third-party service in which employees (and their families) can bring up concerns affecting their personal well-being or work performance, including financial, emotional, and substance abuse issues. EAPs have been proven effective as long as they are genuinely confidential — and you can ensure that’s the case.

Encourage team bonding

Cultivating a strong culture in your restaurant is an effective way to improve morale and productivity. A sense of belonging can prevent employees from feeling isolated and drive them to work efficiently as a team. Encourage employees to get together for fun activities like a cooking lesson, group workout classes or staff dinners (all-expenses paid, of course). Because when working with your friends, it hardly feels like work, right?

Encourage exercise

Speaking of workout classes, studies show that exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other mental health issues. Michael Chernow, owner of New York City restaurant Seamore’s, discusses the importance of bringing exercise into your restaurant: “When [your employees are] super pumped and excited and believe in the cause, then everybody who walks into our restaurant as a guest feels that,” he says. Offering discounts to local gyms or forming a staff running group can help make your restaurant happier and healthier: a vibe your patrons will feel when they walk through your doors.

Encourage meditation

As strange as it sounds, sitting in intentional silence can have a as positive an impact on mental health as exercise. Apps like Headspace and Calm are among the best employee wellness resources, as they make it easy for employees to practice meditation and come to work ready to take on the day — with far less stress on their shoulders. Providing a discounted subscription to these apps or giving employees a meditation break during their shifts is a great way to go beyond lip service in encouraging mindfulness.

Hire leadership focused on developing people

Yes, your staff leaders should be focused on developing profits. But the leadership team should also be focused on developing people —  investing time into supporting every employee, offering comprehensive training, and highlighting opportunities for advancement. When employees see genuine opportunities for growth and mobility, they’re far more likely to work hard and stay hungry. 

The bottom line

The key to restaurant success? Good food, of course — but also happy, motivated, hard-working employees. Investing in your employees’ mental health is an important step in maintaining a company culture that radiates positivity so palpable that your guests feel it as soon as they walk through the door. For more tips on building a five-star team, download DoorDash’s free hiring guide today.

Sara DeForest

Sara DeForest is a Bay Area-based freelance copywriter. Previously, she was VP of Marketing at an early stage startup that was named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies. Prior to that, Sara was a content marketer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Though Silicon Valley is a roller coaster, Sara finds her real adrenaline rush doing standup comedy.