InsideHook — How People in the Drinks Industry Maintain Their Mental Health

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“How do you handle working through a pandemic on $2.17 an hour, plus the generosity of others?” 

That’s a question Elijah Finn had throughout 2020. Last year the 24-year-old bar manager at Courthaus Social in Arlington, VA, went from the daily stresses of working in the hospitality industry to the added pressures and financial hardships of not working, as well as navigating the new restrictions, rules and workplace dangers that abounded as Covid-19 continued to spread.

“Thankfully, most of us were able to adapt, evolve and survive,” says Finn. “But mentally there was always this dark cloud over our heads.”

Given the unique nature of what drinks professionals do for a living — and the unique challenges they face both daily and in the face of the continuing pandemic — we wanted to see how people in the industry were coping. So we asked bartenders, distillery owners, brand ambassadors, restaurateurs, publicists and drinks-related business owners how they’ve stayed mentally healthy. 

Even before the pandemic, there were challenges with wellness

Working in the drinks industry means “the constant need to be on the go and never being able to catch a breath,” explains Téa Ivanovic, the Director of Communications and Outreach at Immigrant Food, a “gastro-advocacy” restaurant in Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, many of us forego our own needs so that we can cater to the customers’ desires. That comes at a certain cost for us.”

Talk to anyone in the industry, particularly on the service side, and you’ll hear similar thoughts. Mistreatment and verbal abuse by guests, toxic work environments, unsocialable hours, lack of health insurance, financial uncertainty, lack of holidays or weekends (or even daylight) and, for better or worse, ready access to self-medication. “It’s not unusual for someone in our industry to drink alone or every day, and warning signs are much harder to spot until we’re really in trouble,” says Mathew Woodburn-Simmonds, the Head Sommelier at a Michelin-star restaurant in Scotland.

And getting help isn’t always encouraged. “Unfortunately, I believe that for a very long time taking care of ourselves was frowned upon,” explains Lauren Paylor, the owner and Co-Founder of Focus On Health, a health-and-wellness resource center for the hospitality industry (Paylor is also a Seedlip Brand Ambassador, Safe Bars Trainer and Speed Rack Social Media Coordinator). “In the hospitality industry we are constantly taking care of guests and others, and we often put ourselves last. Time off, balanced meals, and our mental health are an after-thought. But hospitality starts with taking care of yourself.” 

And this is all before Covid.

The unique challenges of 2020 

It was an “unrelenting” year, as Ivanovoic noted, with emergency shutdowns, dining restrictions and a lack of social interaction. 

“The hospitality industry has support networks centered on face-to-face interaction, often late in the evening and often at bars. This year all of that disappeared, and I know many friends and colleagues that were left without the resources they needed and without the support networks they relied on,” says James Simpson, the Beverage Manager for Espita & Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana in Washington, D.C.

And when things did open up, the stress was magnified by the workplace. “Working for tips is a broken, racist system. And when we returned to work during a global pandemic and risked our health in order to serve others, being under tipped or not tipped through that experience was one of the most difficult things I personally experienced for my mental health,” admits Alex Jump, the Head Bartender at Death & Company Denver (and a Co-Founder of Focus on Health).

And for those in the industry who weren’t serving food or drinks, they faced economic hardships of their own. “We were a relatively unknown product before COVID-19, and people tend to taste a product like ours in a bar or a restaurant and then buy it at a liquor store, not the other way around,” explains Paul Pirner, COO of the Minneapolis-based Hairless Dog Brewing. “We had to shift all our resources from bar-restaurant to e-commerce, immediately.”

The good news is that the industry did adapt: Bars and restaurants went virtual with classes, Zoom-led wine nights and more. There were to-go drinks, pop-up events and a shift to delivery and outdoor dining; meanwhile, businesses doubled down on their online presence and direct-to-consumer business.

How people in the drinks industry faced their stress

Given the challenges of the industry before and during Covid, some bar professionals have looked outside their profession for mental clarity.

“I’ve encouraged my staff to get outside, set personal and professional goals, continue to connect with friends and family, gain a new hobby, stay active both mentally and physically, says Meghan Lee, the owner of Heirloom Restaurant in Lewes, DE.. “My team isn’t strong and at their best in the restaurant unless they are [strong and at their best] at home and in their personal lives. I think the pandemic has put that in perspective.”

Exercise and getting outdoors were other healthy pursuits suggested to me by the over two dozen drinks professionals I spoke with. “I exercise as much as possible. I spent every spare moment I could surfing, swimming, bodysurfing or just being near the ocean,” says Adam Warren, Vice President of Marketing, Saint Archer Brewing Co. “And for the days that I wasn’t happening, I was running up my hill or killing myself with burpees in the garage. Keeping my head clear with lots of exercise helped me to stay as sane as possible. 

“My cofounder Nora and I moved to Vermont from Brooklyn shortly before the pandemic started, and that choice has done wonders for our overall well being,” says Adam Polonski, co-founders of Lost Lantern, an independent American Whiskey bottler. “Between limiting our whiskey tasting and the easy access to the outdoors, I’ve lost around 20 pounds since the pandemic started and I’m in far better shape.”

“I always like to have a side project/mission that I can get sucked into that isn’t work, even if it’s related, studying for my WSET Diploma, or learning a language,” says  Sarah Belizaire-Butler, Director of BB COMMS, a drinks-specialist PR agency. “I’m no good to anyone if I’m not looking after myself.”

And many, many others found peace of mind in helping others. “We did a lot to give back to our communities,” says Finn. “We launched Cocktails for a Cause, and we got to donate to amazing organizations like ASPAN, NOVA Pride, Ayuda, Best Buddies and the NAACP. And we just launched our Drafts for a Cause, which will fundraise for a multitude of amazing organizations throughout the year, one of those being the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia.” 

How the industry itself faced the mental health challenges of 2020

Businesses and organizations within the hospitality industry have increasingly stepped up and provided resources to improve mental health. For example, The United States Bartenders Guild offers up a health and wellness program — you can read our story about that here. And Beam Suntory has The Blend, an industry platform “designed to engage and inspire the bartender community” that does include some mental health features and discussion.

Knob Creek actually decided to make wellness part of an on-going campaign. The whiskey brand paired up with Jesse Israel, a former record label executive (he helped sign MGMT) who currently runs The Big Quiet, a mass meditation movement that “brings people together to share quiet” and slow down.

“[Before] I was experiencing pretty debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. In navigating the challenges to my personal mental health and wellbeing, I found meditation,” says Israel, who pivoted The Big Quiet toward virtual meditation courses and a collaborative series with Knob Creek called The Bourbon Reflection. (One of Israel’s suggestions, which works across any industry, is to shut off your phone at night and not turn it on before you do anything the next day before meditating or some moments of self-reflection).