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Stressed-out Michigan restaurant workers find mental health help on menu

Chris Andrus
Chris Andrus, co-owner of The Mitten in Grand Rapids, offers full-time staff at the craft brewery a dozen counseling sessions every year. The nod to mental health is one way he’s trying to retain staff in the stressful pandemic era. (Courtesy photo)

As the COVID-19 pandemic chipped away at the bottom line of his northwest Grand Rapids restaurant business, co-owner Chris Andrus figured there were other costs.

He feared it was exacting a rising toll on the mental health of his workers, who’ve been stressed out by layoffs, abuse from irate customers and the health risks of simply doing their job.

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So Andrus did something that appears to be rare among small restaurateurs in Michigan ─ he found a way to offer free mental health counseling for all employees.

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“The old adage of just go cry in the walk-in cooler has long been the mental health plan in the restaurant business. That’s just not good enough,” said Andrus, who launched the plan with The Mitten co-owner Max Trierweiler about eight months ago. 

Now they offer 12 counseling sessions a year for full-time employees and six for part-time workers at the Grand Rapids craft brewery that employs about 75 workers.

Based on feedback from his staff, Andrus figures it’s one way to slow the exodus of workers from the restaurant sector, after a record 1 million U.S. restaurant and hotel workers quit their jobs in November.

“I think this program has been a big factor in the retention of our workers. We have not had to deal with the staffing issues that a lot of employers have,” Andrus told Bridge Michigan.

Industry leaders say staffing shortages continue to plague restaurants across Michigan, even as they gear up for what could be a big boost in business this spring and summer as coronavirus caseloads continue to fall. Reaching out to workers stressed out by the pandemic could be one way to bridge that gap.

“The challenge (of hiring and retaining workers) is still far and away the greatest challenge for restaurants in the state of Michigan,” Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, told Bridge.

 Justin Winslow
Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said employee retention is the top issue for the industry.

In January 2020, just prior to the pandemic, Michigan’s leisure and hospitality industry employed about 434,000 workers. That dipped as low as 193,500 in April that year as restaurants shut down statewide for in-person dining during Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. As of December, that workforce stood at about 378,000  ─ a drop of 56,000 workers from its pre-pandemic level. Winslow estimated that 3,000 Michigan restaurants have closed during the pandemic.

Employment web site Indeed recently listed more than 13,000 open restaurant jobs across Michigan, from dishwashers and kitchen staff at posted rates of $14- to $18-an-hour to servers at earnings in some cases listed at $150 a day and up.

Given that staffing gap, Winslow said mental health issues facing restaurant and lodging workers are of “paramount” importance to an industry that generated about $40 billion in annual revenue before the pandemic.

“For workers, it’s a combination of exhaustion, of trying to fill extra shifts,” he said. “It is a frustration of dealing with a client base of restaurant patrons that have been less tolerant of the workforce, and taking it out on the restaurant workers.”

Winslow said he’s unsure how many Michigan restaurants provide mental health counseling, while noting that the MRLA offers links to free resources that include support groups and mental health coping techniques.

But at The Mitten, Cameron Thompson is grateful he works at a restaurant where counseling is an option. 

Over the past four years, Thompson, 28, has worked his way up from line cook to kitchen manager, where he juggles multiple tasks and oversees more than a dozen workers.

The pandemic brought new stresses to his job ─  trying to squeeze more out of a reduced staff, worry over exposure to the coronavirus ─ layered on top of personal issues, as he dealt with the death of his mother and father. At times, he felt the demands of his job overshadowed the rest of his life.

So Thompson took the restaurant up on its counseling offer, where he said he’s found “a better life-work balance.”

Like others at the restaurant, Thompson said it’s also made him feel more valued as an employee ─ something he’s heard from others.

“The people who have gone (to counseling) are really dedicated to this place,” he said. “It makes people feel more invested.”

Even before the pandemic, workers in the restaurant and lodging industry were at or near the top among primary employment sectors for behavioral health issues, as a 2015 analysis found that U.S. workers in the accommodations and food services industry had the highest rates of substance use disorder, at 16.9 percent, and illicit drug use, at 19.1 percent.

The pandemic ─ followed by restaurant shutdowns, layoffs, partial openings and social distancing rules, and tense exchanges with customers ─ only added to pressures on restaurant workers.

At a locally owned Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant in Grand Rapids, management workers heard a drumbeat of concerns over the past year from some of its line staff, many of them high-school-age workers who make up 60 percent of employees there.

“They were already feeling the stress of the pandemic, the uncertainty of school,” Jordan Beute, director of talent for the restaurant, told Bridge.

“We had multiple conversations come up over a few months of just mental health issues (and) team members having to take time off because of stress and anxiety.”

Late last year, the restaurant contracted with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, a Kent County-based mental health agency, to provide counseling for its workers under coverage known as an Employee Assistance Plan. It provides workers five free counseling sessions a year for a given mental health issue, in addition to one free session for legal consultation and for elder care issues.

“The reception has been good. They know there is somebody to talk to,” Beute said.

Pine Rest also offers mental health crisis management for participating employers, as one official recounted a recent session at a Grand Rapids restaurant.

 “I sat down and made myself available,” recalled Joel Arnold, a Pine Rest program manager.

“They came in, one after another. There was financial stress ─ one person said I used to make $1,000 a week and now I’m making $300. There was anxiety over conflict with customers, and about alcohol use – people saying, ‘Am I drinking too much?’”

Arnold said the session went on for six hours.

“They couldn’t believe that the restaurant cared enough to do that,” Arnold said.

At The Mitten, nine of its 75 employees took the restaurant up on its offer of free counseling in 2021, said Brendan Kelly, owner of The Well Being, a Grand Rapids mental health center that provided counseling for its workers. 

Kelly said those workers bring many of the same concerns as those from any occupation. But he said some are also coping with conflicts unique to their job today.

“While most of the customers of The Mitten are great, they do encounter people who are quite unpleasant at times. I’ve heard reports of staff being spit on,” he said. “It’s horrible ─ there is a segment of our population that is quite angry.”

To make it affordable for the restaurant, Kelly said he agreed to providing the counseling sessions at cost.

“We don’t make any money from The Mitten. Every dollar that comes in goes right to our therapists. I’m happy to do it,” he said.

But Kelly he’s aware of very few standalone restaurants in Michigan with similar plans as The Mitten.

“I think it’s extremely unusual,” he said.

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Mitten co-owner Andrus said he’s dealt with mental health issues himself for years ─ depression, partly related to the suicide of a cousin 10 years ago ─ so he was perhaps more inclined than others in the business to prioritize this issue.

Andrus said he was uncertain as he looked into a mental health plan if his business could afford it, saying many programs seemed geared toward bigger companies. 

In the end, The Mitten started its counseling plan in collaboration with another craft brewery west of Grand Rapids, Turning Point Brewing Co. They used proceeds from a beer called Things We Don’t Say IPA to fund part of its cost.

Since then, Andrus said, “I’ve had a lot of restaurants reach out to me and say, ‘How did you do that?’”

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